Virgin Atlantic plane forced to return to Heathrow midflight as pilot had not completed training

May 5, 2022

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In what’s been described as a major embarrassment for Virgin Atlantic, a New York-bound Airbus A330 was rerouted back to London’s Heathrow Airport (LHR) on Monday when it was discovered the copilot hadn’t fully completed his training.

Roughly 40 minutes into the journey, the pilot of the Airbus A330 was informed by bosses on the ground that the first officer had yet to fully complete their flying exams. The service was rerouted back to Heathrow, much to the annoyance of passengers and cabin crew.

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“You could have cut the tension in the cockpit with a knife,” one source told The Sun newspaper. The source explained the plane was near Ireland when staff received word that the first officer was not qualified, and they had no choice but to return to London to pick up a more experienced crew member. “It was embarrassing for everyone and the passengers were furious.”

Virgin Atlantic plane
(Photo by Tom Dalt)

A first officer is tasked with some of the most important jobs in commercial aviation: talking to air traffic control, assisting with take-off and flight procedures and — should anything happen to the captain – commandeering the flight as well.

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Flight VS3 initially took off from Heathrow at 9:41 a.m on Monday before its U-turn, touching back down again at Heathrow at 11:12 a.m. More than 300 passengers and crew aboard the Airbus A330-343 then waited on the tarmac as a qualified stand-in was found, at which point the highly experienced captain set off for John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) once more.

map of flight path
The Virgin Atlantic flight VS3 was forced to turn around as it reached Ireland. (Screenshot from

“Due to a rostering error, flight VS3 from London Heathrow to New York-JFK returned to Heathrow on Monday, May 2nd, shortly after take-off,” a spokesperson for the airline said of the incident. “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.”

As well as issuing an apology to all passengers affected by the peculiar delay, the airline has stressed that no aviation rules were broken. That’s because the copilot in question was deemed safe and competent to operate the flight in a technical sense. The issues, it appears, were caused by Virgin’s own internal compliance measures that require all pilots take a final assessment flight – something the first officer had not done.

The U.K.’s Civil Aviation Authority has also backed the airline up and confirmed that passengers were not in danger stating. “Virgin Atlantic have made us aware of the incident. Both pilots were suitably licensed and qualified to undertake the flight,” the aviation authority stated.

Related: To land or divert? How pilots decide the safest option

Even so, Virgin Atlantic has since reviewed its protocols and will update them to ensure similar mistakes aren’t repeated in the future.

Fortunately for the passengers, they did eventually reach New York on Monday — albeit two hours and 40 minutes later than scheduled. You’d imagine a well-deserved Manhattan was the order of the day.

Featured photo by Tom Dalton/@tom.dalt.

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