Egyptair A330 Captain Falls Ill Flying Over Saudi Arabia

An Egyptair flight was forced to make an unscheduled landing yesterday in Cairo after the captain of the Airbus A330-200 was taken ill mid-flight. The plane had left Cario and was cruising over Saudi Arabia en-route to Hong Kong when it signaled it would return to Cairo. The cause of the pilot’s illness has not been revealed.

Airbus A330 EgyptAir
An Egyptair A330 returned to Cairo after the captain was taken ill. Photo: Getty Images

The plane landed safely back in Cairo around 95 minutes after takeoff. The aircraft, registration SU-GCJ, had been 670NM east-southeast of Cairo before the crew decided to return.

The incident, reported by The Aviation Herald, does not currently give a reason for the captain’s illness. The plane remained grounded for several hours but has since left Cairo, operating a flight to Mumbai.

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What happens when pilots fall ill?

It’s a fairly popular rumor that the Captain and First Officer are not supposed to eat the same inflight meal in case they both become ill. Of course, both pilots becoming ill would cause concern, but one pilot being taken ill is not as serious as you may think. Both pilots are fully capable of landing the plane single-handed.

All procedures performed in the cockpit can, if necessary, be accomplished alone. While the second pair of eyes checking and reading a checklist is helpful, a single can pilot can handle the descent, approach, and landing.

It is the healthy pilot’s first responsibility to ensure the plane remains on the correct course to avoid a collision. After this is set, the cockpit can communicate directly with medical professionals on the ground to assess the seriousness of the situation.

EgyptAir flight Cairo RadarBox
The flight had only just left Cairo when the pilot became ill, so the plane returned to Egypt. Photo:

A medical emergency such as a heart attack may require an emergency landing at the nearest airport. A less severe situation, such as the incident yesterday, may see the plane return to its point of origin or, if the flight is almost over, continuing to its destination.

Is this common?

Whilst it isn’t totally unheard of for a plane to divert due to a sick pilot, it is fairly rare. This is, firstly, because pilots undergo rigorous health checks every year to ensure they are fit to fly. This means any at-risk pilots with health conditions are unlikely to be flying. Secondly, unless it is a true emergency, the plane can usually carry on to its destinations, so passengers are none the wiser.

Icelandair 737 MAX cockpit
Both pilots are trained to operate all landing procedure alone in the case of illness. Photo: Getty Images

However, you may become aware something is wrong if the crew decides to ask if a medical professional is onboard. Aircraft are equipped with some very impressive first aid gear, including a defibrillator, and cabin crew is trained to handle minor medical emergencies. However, something more serious may require the presence of a doctor. In these cases, the plane would most likely be diverted or perform an emergency landing.

The flight from Cairo to Hong Kong takes approximately ten hours. In this case, it made more sense to return to Cairo, just an hour away, than to continue on or land elsewhere. Whatever caused the incident, we here at Simple Flying wish the pilot a speedy recovery.

Have you ever been diverted due to a medical emergency? How did you find the experience? We’d love to hear from you in the comments.