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The Scary Reason a Pilot Made Virgin Atlantic Cancel a Flight in Mid-Air

“You could have cut the tension in the cockpit with a knife."

Plenty of passengers associate flying with anxiety. There's the fear of turbulence, fear of virus transmission on board, and just plain aerophobia (fear of flying). And for some passengers aboard a major commercial airliner this week, there's a brand new worry to add to the list. Read on to find out what happened that required a flight to turn back shortly after takeoff.

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Recently, pilots from major airline carriers have been sounding the alarm about potentially dangerous conditions.

tired pilot pinching the bridge of his nose while seated at an airport
Olena Yakobchuk / Shutterstock

Pilots representing major carriers recently issued a warning that fatigue is soaring among their ranks, and they're urging the airlines to consider this issue—along with the human mistakes it could trigger—as a safety hazard.

"Fatigue, both acute and cumulative, has become Southwest Airlines' number-one safety threat," the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA) explained to the airline's top executives in a widely reported letter, as reported by CNN Business.

The pilots cite mass cancellations caused by weather conditions as well as strong demand for air travel—all while the airlines still struggle to recover from the pandemic's impact on business—as the major sources contributing to widespread pilot fatigue that could signal danger from within the cockpit.

In a letter to executives, the union explained that the number of pilots who reported being unable to work because of fatigue spiked massively last fall, including a 600 percent increase in October alone, with the dangerous trend on pace to continue.

Delta Air Lines pilots have even been holding demonstrations at airports as a way to raise awareness of the worrisome issue. The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) wrote in a message to its members in March that COVID-related circumstances had raised "several opportunities for Delta to re-set its broken pilot staffing issue," as reported by Fox affiliate WSVN. The union message explained that issues are becoming harder and harder to ignore as passenger demand roars.

A Virgin Atlantic pilot was mid-flight when he revealed he wasn't qualified to fly.

virgin airways plane

Similar short-staffing issues may have been at play (or another sort of mixup altogether) in the terrifying case of a Virgin Atlantic flight bound for New York on Monday. The flight from London's Heathrow airport had been underway for about 40 minutes when the first officer informed the captain that he hadn't yet completed his final flying exam, according to a report in The Sun. That meant he was still technically a trainee and not qualified to be operating in the crucial role.

First officers are meant to be qualified pilots. The job description includes supporting the captain in flight, communicating with air traffic control, and maintaining safety on board.

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The revelation forced the aircraft to turn around mid-flight.

LED Display - Airport flight status board (Photo + 3D Rendering)

As a result of the serious staffing problem, the plane was forced to turn around less than an hour into its journey across the Atlantic. Passengers bound for the U.S. were then delayed for nearly three hours as the Airbus A330 aircraft returned to Heathrow airport. There, it was held on the runway while airline staff worked to find a qualified replacement for the unqualified flight crew member.

The airline apologized for the problem, which it blamed on a mistake in the crew roster.

pilots studying

After the ordeal, Virgin Atlantic apologized for the problem, citing a mistake on the crew roster for the potentially dangerous mid-air mixup. "You could have cut the tension in the cockpit with a knife," a source told The Sun of the dramatic moments over the Atlantic. "The plane got as far as Ireland and then they found out the first officer was still in training."

The source added, "The skipper had no choice but to go back to Heathrow and find a more experienced member of the crew. It was embarrassing for everyone and the passengers were furious."

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Alesandra Dubin
Alesandra Dubin is a lifestyle editor and writer based in Los Angeles. Read more
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