BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 12:59 GMT, Wednesday, 8 July 2009 13:59 UK

Passengers that saved the day

By Jo-Anne Rowney
BBC News Magazine

When an emergency strikes, who are you going to call? You could do worse - much worse - than an off-duty doctor/engineer/pilot (delete according to the nature of your plight).

Aeroplane cockpit controls
Doug White had to take control relying only on his rusty skills

It is like something from a boys' own adventure. A plane breaks down. The engineer is delayed. So a passenger offers to fix it. Good thing he turns out to be an engineer.

This is what happened on a Thomas Cook flight from Menorca, grounded by a mechanical fault until an engineer could be flown out from the UK. From the ranks of the stranded holidaymakers stepped a qualified aircraft engineer, who repaired the fault and spared everyone an excruciatingly long delay.

This holiday hero is the latest in a line of off-duty experts who find their skills - however rusty these might be - come in handy in a time of need.


Boeing 757-200
The airliner was fixed by one of the passengers

A pilot is the best person to land a plane. But if the pilot is incapacitated, an amateur enthusiast is better than no pilot at all.

In April, passenger Doug White took the controls when the pilot collapsed during a charter flight home to Louisiana.

While Mr White held a pilot's licence, he hadn't used it for 18 years and had never flown this type of plane. So he told his family to "pray hard", and asked air traffic control for help.

With step-by-step instructions, he managed to land the plane safely. While understandably afraid, he says what he felt was "focused fear; I was in some kind of a zone that I can't explain".


Heart attacks. Fainting spells. Unexpected labour pains. Not what one would want to experience while cruising at 40,000 feet with little more than the on-board first aid kit and plastic cutlery to hand.

Would anybody die because of my perhaps inadequate medical skills?
Psychiatrist Steven Moffic

So when a flight attendant suddenly asks "Is there a doctor on board?" the hope is that the answer is "yes".

While travelling home from a holiday in India, a stewardess asked Dr H Steven Moffic to help when a fellow passenger fell ill with abdominal pains.

Dr Moffic, a psychiatrist, says he broke out in a cold sweat - especially as the plane was flying over frozen tundra, far from any medical facilities, at the time.

"Very briefly I hesitated. It's the biggest fear I have as a psychiatrist. Would anybody die because of my perhaps inadequate medical skills?

"Then the old reflex from internship years seemed to take over, and off I went."

Suspecting appendicitis, there was little Dr Moffic could do other than sit with the man to provide comfort until the plane made an emergency landing in Chicago.

Heart attack

In-flight medical events are becoming more common, according to a study published in The Lancet in February, as bigger planes stretch out journey distances, and more passengers with pre-existing conditions take to the air and perhaps suffer in the cabin's artificial atmosphere.

Dorothy Fletcher
Dorothy Fletcher wasn't short of medics to help her

In 2004, when 67-year-old Dorothy Fletcher suffered a mid-flight heart attack, the call went out for expert assistance. Not one, but 15 cardiologists rose to their feet. The party had been travelling together for a conference.

Then there are the babies born mid-flight. Two years ago a Brazilian woman who didn't know she was pregnant went into labour.

Also on board was an Australian obstetrician, who delivered the little girl on the floor between the toilets and the food preparation area, equipped with only a basic first aid kit and an emergency oxygen mask.


Paul Dadge helps a survivor
Paul Dadge helps out

Four years ago when rush-hour London was rocked by four bomb attacks, passengers and passers-by pitched in to help emergency workers.

One of the most recognisably images from that day was of a man helping a woman in a burn mask across the street - Paul Dadge, a former retained fire fighter, who happened to be walking past Edgware Rd Tube station as the first casualties emerged.

He helped set up an emergency centre at a nearby Marks and Spencer, and spent much of the day with the walking wounded, filling out triage cards and helping evacuate the casualties during a subsequent security alert.

Trained in first-aid, Mr Dadge says instinct played a big part. "I just happened to be on the spot and I did what I could to help."


Jimmy Savile at the accident scene
Sir Jimmy Savile wearing the police jacket. Picture: Howard Silverman

Sometimes no specialist training is needed, just a dash of have-a-go spirit.

Last August veteran broadcaster Sir Jimmy Savile fixed it for motorists when he stepped in to direct traffic after a road accident near his penthouse home.

Sir Jimmy had been on his way to dinner in Leeds when his car narrowly avoided a collision with a Mercedes. The Merc then collided with another car head-on, and Sir Jimmy jumped out of his own vehicle.

The 81-year-old began directing traffic around the wreckage. When the emergency services arrived, a police officer gave him a hi-vis jacket and told him to keep up the good work. Those years fronting road safety campaigns perhaps came in handy.

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Passenger fixes faulty airliner
06 Jul 09 |  Glasgow, Lanarkshire and West
Gran's heart attack on jet with medics
02 Jan 04 |  Merseyside
18 doctors answer captain's plea
14 May 08 |  South West Wales

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