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Flying blind – two pilots temporarily lose eyesight in cockpit

April 26, 2019 Headline News No Comments Email Email

On two recent separate flights operated by the same airline – including an international sector out of Perth carrying 283 people – the pilots suddenly and inexplicably lost their eyesight, forcing co-pilots to take command of the aircraft and issue urgent calls to air traffic control.

Both flights were on Cathay Pacific, both happened this year and each landed safely. Although the airline handled both with full competence, Hong Kong’s aviation incident authority has launched full investigations into both incidents, and each investigation is expected to take a year.

Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post made the disclosure, quoting Hong Kong’s aviation incident authority. One report mentions a “sudden loss of visual acuity” – meaning clarity of vision.

One captain was flying from Perth to Hong Kong on flight CX170 on 21 February 2019.  The plane was an Airbus A350 carrying 270 passengers and 13 crew. It was well outside Australian airspace, over the Philippines when the incident happened.

A preliminary report on that from Hong Kong’s Air Accident Investigation Authority gives the following safety investigation summary:

 On 21 February 2019, a Cathay Pacific Airways Airbus A350-941 (A350) aircraft, registration, B-LRR was operating from Perth International Airport (YPPH), Australia, to Hong Kong International Airport (VHHH), as a scheduled passenger flight.

 As the aircraft was enroute to Hong Kong, near Manila at about 06:00 hrs local time, approximately 974 km south of Hong Kong, the Captain informed the First Officer (FO) that he felt out of breath and his vision was impaired. The Captain then declared he was incapacitated.

 The FO continued with his Pilot Flying duties and assumed command of the aircraft. A Senior Purser (SP) was assigned to assist in the flight deck in accordance with the operator’s A350-941 Quick Reference Handbook (QRH) for Crew Incapacitation.

Flight deck of an Airbus A350

 The crew sought medical assistance from both a recognised medical professional on board who was a passenger in conjunction with medical advice from the company doctor in Hong Kong through the cockpit Satcom system. 

 The condition of the Captain stabilised with the supply of medical oxygen. The Captain remained conscious and in communication with the FO and the SP throughout the occurrence, although the Captain was officially designated as incapacitated.

 As the flight entered the Hong Kong Flight Information Region (FIR), the FO declared a PAN-PAN call to the Hong Kong Air Traffic Control (HKATC) requesting a priority approach due to the medical emergency and a lower flight level to decrease the cabin pressure altitude in order to assist with the Captain’s recovery. 

 The ATC provided a shortened track for the flight to land on the 07R runway of VHHH. The aircraft landed uneventfully at 07:16 hrs local time. On arrival the Captain was assisted by paramedics.

About a month earlier, on 26 January 2019, the captain of Cathay Pacific flight CX583, carrying 348 passengers and 16 crew between Sapporo and Hong Kong, suffered a sudden loss of vision for about 30 minutes.

A preliminary report on that from Hong Kong’s Air Accident Investigation Authority gives the following safety investigation summary:

On 26 January 2019, a Cathay Pacific Airways Boeing 777-367 aircraft, registration B-HNP, was operating a scheduled passenger flight from New Chitose Airport, Japan, to Hong Kong International Airport (VHHH), Hong Kong.

 At approximately 22:00 hrs local time, while enroute heading west in the Taibei Flight Information Region the Captain experienced a sudden loss of visual acuity, the situation lasted for about 30 minutes.

 The Captain advised the First Officer (FO) of the loss of visual acuity, the FO and Inflight Service Manager (ISM) were briefed that the Captain was relinquishing control. The crew conducted the Non-Normal Checklist (NNC) for Pilot Incapacitation with the FO assuming control of the aircraft.

 The Captain remained in his seat, which was moved to fully aft. He voluntarily secured the seat harness restraints, with the shoulder harnesses locked, to prevent any possible interruption with the operation of the aircraft. 

 The Captain instructed the ISM to alert the medical advisory services for immediate medical attention advice, and the FO to inform the operator’s Integrated Operations Centre (IOC) of the incapacitation and reversion to single pilot operation.

 A Senior Purser (SP) was assigned to assist the FO in the cockpit in accordance with the NNC.  The FO continued with his Pilot Flying duties for the remaining duration of the flight. 

 As the flight entered the Hong Kong FIR, a PAN-PAN call was declared to the Hong Kong Air Traffic Control (HKATC) requesting a priority approach. The aircraft landed at Hong Kong International Airport uneventfully.

 The Captain remained conscious and in communication with the FO and the SP throughout the occurrence. Following medical advice his condition improved.  On arrival he was assisted by paramedics.

While the incidents are serious and difficult to explain, they also demonstrate how control is passed to the first officer in such situations, safely and professionally.

A Cathay Pacific spokeswoman told the South China Morning Post the airline was aware of the investigations and was cooperating fully.

“Safety is in the consideration of everything we do, and in each case, the operating crew acted in accordance with Cathay Pacific’s standard operating procedures regarding pilot incapacitation,” she said.

Written by Peter Needham

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