About 40 minutes into the flight, the captain of the Airbus A330 was informed by superiors on the ground that the co-pilot had not yet passed his flight exams. The flight was immediately diverted back to Heathrow, much to the annoyance of passengers and flight attendants.
According to experts, the plane was close to Ireland when the aircraft commander received a message that the co-pilot was not qualified. He had no choice but to return to London to pick up a more experienced crew member.
In commercial aviation, the co-pilot has important responsibilities: communication with the air traffic control service, assistance during takeoff and landing, and also, if something happens to the captain — command of the entire flight.
Flight VS3 initially departed Heathrow at 9:41 am on Monday, then forced a U-turn and landed again at Heathrow at 11:12 am. More than 300 passengers and crew aboard the Airbus A330-343 then waited on the runway for a qualified replacement to be found. Only after that, the liner was able to go across the ocean to New York John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK).
“Due to a registry error, flight VS3 London — New York returned to Heathrow on Monday, May 2, shortly after takeoff, — an airline spokesman said. “The first officer, who flew alongside an experienced captain, has been replaced by a new pilot to ensure full compliance with Virgin Atlantic's training protocols, which exceed industry standards.”
The airline apologized to passengers affected by the unusual delay, stressing that no aviation regulations were violated. The co-pilot in question was deemed safe and competent to fly the flight in a technical sense. The problems appear to have been caused by Virgin's own internal compliance measures, which require all pilots to complete a final evaluation flight, which our hero did not.
The UK Civil Aviation Authority also supported the airline and confirmed that the passengers were not in danger. “Virgin Atlantic has made us aware of this incident. Both pilots were licensed and qualified to fly, — said the aviation authority.
However, Virgin Atlantic has since reviewed its protocols and will update them to ensure similar mistakes do not happen again.
Luckily for the passengers, they eventually made it to New York two hours and 40 minutes later than planned.