Pilot's death in-flight was first on BA jet: Union fights 'more stressful' shift plans

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


THE DEATH of a pilot late on Wednesday night on a British Airways jet to Japan was the first in- flight fatality in the history of the airline, but pilots yesterday warned that proposed changes to their working hours could increase stress.

The pilot, David Robertson, 52, suffered a suspected heart attack while on his rest period during the 12-hour Boeing 747 flight from Heathrow to Tokyo's Narita airport. Captain Robertson's body was found by the purser when the flight was four-and-a-half hours from its destination and most of the 312 passengers were unaware of the incident. He was pronounced dead by a doctor on board.

In line with requirements on such long-haul flights, the aircraft had three pilots aboard. The other two, Bob Clarkson and Evelyn Faulkner, landed the aircraft normally at Tokyo early yesterday morning.

All BA pilots have to retire at 55, although United Kingdom rules allow them to carry on until 60 with other airlines. All pilots are subjected to a medical test every six months under Civil Aviation Authority rules and those over 50 are given an electrocardiogram heart test. The inquiry that followed the Staines air disaster in June 1972, in which 118 people died on a BEA Trident after the pilot suffered a heart attack, recommended that the heart test should be made more stringent. As a result, pilots were tested while exercising rather than at rest. BA, while 'deeply regretting' Captain Robertson's death, emphasised that there was no safety issue arising from the incident. The hours worked by pilots are strictly regulated to ensure they fly no more than 100 hours a month or 900 a year. BA pilots average about 650 hours a year.

Balpa, the pilots' union, is fighting proposals from the Joint Aviation Authorities, the Europe-wide regulatory body for aviation, that would make some of these requirements less stringent. The JAA has said it wants pilots to be allowed to have longer shifts in some circumstances and looser regulations governing pilots who are suffering from jet lag.

BA now limits shifts for pilots on flights with three pilots to 14.5 hours, although under current rules they would be allowed to fly for 18 hours.

A BA spokesman said yesterday: 'Being a pilot is no longer such a stressful job, as much of the work is done by computers.' However, pilots tend to die relatively young after retirement, suggesting that the job still causes stress. According to a recent study of former pilots in eight countries, including the UK, published in Flight Safety Digest, their chance of dying in their sixties is twice as high as that of other men.

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