Virgin Atlantic plane returns to Heathrow after pilot hadn't passed flight test

5 May 2022, 19:17

Virgin Atlantic plane returns to Heathrow after pilot hadn't passed flight test. Picture: Alamy

By Liam Gould

A Virgin Atlantic aircraft turned back to Heathrow after it emerged the first officer had not completed his final flying test.

The Airbus A330 jet was nearly 40 minutes into its journey to New York on Monday when the two pilots on board became aware of the "rostering error", the major airline company said.

Flight VS3 was above Ireland when it was forced to return to Heathrow, touching down more than one-and-a-half hours after it took off.

It took off from Heathrow at 9:41am on Monday, before the manoeuvre to return to Heathrow was made at 10:19am, and it then landed back at Heathrow at 11:12am.

A replacement for the first officer was found, and the plane departed again for New York. The flight landed in the US over two hours after its scheduled landing time.

A Virgin Atlantic spokeswoman said: "Due to a rostering error, flight VS3 from London Heathrow to New York-JFK returned to Heathrow on Monday 2nd May 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 and 40 minutes later than scheduled as a result of the crew change."

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Flight VS3 was above Ireland before returning to Heathrow, touching down more than one-and-a-half hours after it took off. Picture: FlightRadar24

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But, Virgin Atlantic insists safety was not compromised.

The initial first officer - who joined the carrier in 2017 - was fully qualified under UK aviation regulations but had not completed a final assessment flight which is part of the airline's internal requirements.

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

The flight also turned back as the captain had not been designated as an internal trainer. But, the pilot had reportedly on the been employed with Virgin Atlantic for 17 years and completed thousands of hours of flight time.

While the pairing of both fully-trained 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.

Control of an aircraft is usually shared between a first officer and the captain, but the latter holds ultimate responsibility for what happens on a flight.

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

But, the passengers weren't compensated for the mix-up. Refunds are only issued for routes over 3,500km if you arrive four hours late at your destination and the airline is responsible.

While Heathrow to JFK airport is 5,540km, the delay to passengers was around three hours.

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Virgin Atlantic insists safety was not compromised despite the plane being forced to turn back. Picture: Alamy

One couple who were on the flight told MailOnline: "Panic did set in onboard particularly when upon landing people jumped out of their seats and started to pace up and down wanting more information.

"At least three people in high vis vests entered the cockpit for an amount of time before curtains were drawn to hide our view.

"The decision was taken and announced to us that the airline was going to feed us our in-flight meal on the ground. They started to serve first class passengers with just one trolley, which took a long time, but before we could be served, the plane took off again."

She added: "If they had continued to feed us all as promised, we would have been outside of the four-hour delay compensation window and Virgin would have had to pay greater compensation to each passenger.

"Only this morning did I realise that the hold-up was due to the first officer not having completed his training. Incredible."