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This is your co-pilot speaking… I’m only a trainee! Virgin jet to New York is forced to turn back to Heathrow after captain is told first officer had not completed his training

4 Mins read
  • Virgin Atlantic A330 from Heathrow to New York was forced to return to London while en route to the US
  • The plane was over Ireland when the captain was told that the first officer had not completed his training
  • Jet which can carry nearly 300 passengers had to wait on runway while qualified replacement was found
  • Airline said issue was due to rota mistake and apologised, but insisted safety had not been compromised 
  • ** Were you on Virgin Atlantic flight VS3 from LHR to JFK on Monday? Please email: ** 

A Virgin Atlantic flight to New York was forced to turn back to London Heathrow after the co-pilot admitted he hadn’t passed his last flying test.

The plane was over Ireland when the captain was told that the first officer had not completed his training. The Airbus A330, just 40 minutes into its flight, was ordered to return to Heathrow. 

Passengers landed in the US almost three hours later than planned after the jet – which can carry nearly 300 passengers – was forced to wait on the runway while a qualified replacement was found.

The airline told travellers the issue had been caused by a rota mistake and apologised. It also assured passengers that safety had not been compromised, with both pilots fully licensed and qualified to operate the aircraft.

But a source told The Sun: ‘You could have cut the tension in the cockpit with a knife. The plane got as far as Ireland and then they found out the first officer was still in training.

‘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.’ 

The Virgin Atlantic flight to New York was on an Airbus A330 but was forced to turn back to London Heathrow (file picture)

The co-pilot needed a ‘final assessment flight’ with a training captain to be able to fly in line with Virgin Atlantic policy. His role as first officer meant he was responsible for maintaining the safety of the flight. 

As a qualified pilot, first officers are also meant to support the captain with communicating with air traffic control and flying the plane. 

While the pairing of pilots was not in breach of any aviation or safety regulations, it did not comply with Virgin Atlantic’s internal training protocols, which is why the flight was turned back. 

A Virgin Atlantic spokesman told MailOnline: ‘Due to a rostering error, flight VS3 from London Heathrow to New York-JFK returned to Heathrow on Monday, May 2 shortly after take-off.

‘The qualified first officer, who was flying alongside an experienced captain, was replaced with a new pilot to ensure full compliance with Virgin Atlantic’s training protocols, which exceed industry standards.

‘We apologise for any inconvenience caused to our customers who arrived two hours, 40 minutes later than scheduled as a result of the crew change.’ 

The Airbus A330, just 40 minutes into its flight to New York, was ordered to return to Heathrow while flying over Ireland

Sources told MailOnline that the captain on the aircraft had been with Virgin Atlantic for 17 years and had completed thousands of hours of flight time.

Low-cost European airline Wizz Air saw a more than 500 per cent increase in the number of passengers carried in April as the recovery in the travel sector picked up pace.

The Hungarian airline, which is listed in London, said it carried 3.6million passengers last month, up 542 per cent on the 564,634 who flew with the group a year ago when the coronavirus pandemic and restrictions hammered demand.

Wizz Air recently bought extra slots at Luton Airport from Vueling, boosting services on existing routes to Romania and Poland and adding another 167,000 seats.

It said it now has more than 5.6 million seats available on flights for the summer season, with new routes across its network from Italy, the UK, Romania, Poland, Lithuania and Bosnia and Hercegovina to destinations across Europe. New routes offer destinations in Greece, Germany, Denmark and Croatia.

The first officer joined in 2017 and had been trained, fully licensed and fully type-rated in accordance with UK regulations, but was still pending a ‘final assessment’ flight with Virgin Atlantic.

The flight took off from Heathrow at 9.41am on Monday, before the turnback was initiated at 10.19am, and it then landed back at Heathrow at 11.12am. 

Sources added that Virgin Atlantic has since reviewed its internal processes and updated them in an effort to avoid the same thing happening again.

A Civil Aviation Authority spokesman said: ‘Virgin Atlantic have made us aware of the incident. Both pilots were suitably licensed and qualified to undertake the flight.’ 

To be qualified to fly the aircraft, an individual must hold an aircraft type rating and a valid licence proficiency check, which the first officer held. 

With the type rating and licence proficiency check, a pilot can legally and safely operate the aircraft in any geographical area worldwide. 

Virgin Atlantic devises a line training programme, and it trains these procedures in the first eight flights.

The ‘final assessment flight’ is a company requirement from Virgin Atlantic to ensure that the employee operates using its specific methodology. 

The staff member in question was recommended as ready for his final assessment flight on their previous flight, having completed 12 recent flights on the A330 after his complete simulator and class room training programme.

He was therefore deemed as safe and competent to operate the flight, but the decision for the aircraft to return to Heathrow was made based on Virgin’s internal compliance requirements. | Imogen Horton

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