Flight terror: 'The pilot was swearing and asking for God'

Crew member suffers a nervous breakdown at the controls of transatlantic jet
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A transatlantic flight had to make an unscheduled landing in Ireland after one of its pilots began behaving strangely and had to be restrained by fellow crew members.

Passengers said the co-pilot of Air Canada Flight 848 from Toronto to Heathrow was forcibly removed from the cockpit as the plane was diverted to Shannon airport. He was carried from the aircraft shouting, swearing and "asking for God".

The mid-air commotion erupted just over an hour before its scheduled arrival at Heathrow on Monday and the captain made the decision to divert the plane. A doctor and paramedics were waiting to meet the flight when it landed.

It is understood that the agitated co-pilot began "acting in a peculiar manner and was talking loudly to himself". He wasrestrained by the flight crew and a passenger believed to be an off-duty member of the Canadian military.

Witnesses said the man became very distressed, "threatened people and was yelling, swearing and asking for God". He was placed in restraints and kept in a seat in the cabin.

One of the passengers, Sean Finucane, said: "He was very, very distraught. He was yelling loudly at times."

It appears that the unnamed first officer suffered a nervous breakdown and he was admitted to an acute psychiatric unit at Ennis General Hospital in County Clare. His wife was said to have flown to Ireland to be by her husband's side and a fellow pilot had been sent "to assist in whatever way is required".

A spokesman at Shannon airport said there had been no need to make an emergency landing and the plane was simply diverted from its London destination. The 146 passengers disembarked safely shortly after 7am and were put up in a local hotel for eight hours until a new crew was found to fly them to Heathrow.

Air Canada confirmed yesterday that a member of its staff was in hospital care. A spokesman added: "The captain and crew of AC848 followed standard operating procedures in light of the co-pilot falling ill. The captain elected to divert to Shannon and landed without incident. At no time was safety compromised."

The Air Canada Pilots Association, the country's largest professional pilot group, which represents the 3,300 pilots who operate Air Canada's mainline fleet, commended the crew for its effective handling of the incident. "Although the illness of flight crew is rare, pilots are fully trained for such an event," said Captain Andy Wilson, president of ACPA.

"The safe diversion was the result of the pilot following standard operating procedures in the professional manner that is expected of Air Canada pilots."

While pilots undergo annual health check-ups, twice a year if they are over 40 years old, they do not automatically undergo psychiatric assessments. According to Transport Canada, whose officials will be interviewing all crew members on the flight, the doctors who conduct check-ups are general practitioners approved by Transport Canada. "A psychiatric evaluation is not done unless the GP decides a pilot needs to see a specialist," a spokeswoman said.