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Virgin Atlantic pilot: why did plane return to Heathrow on flight to New York - trainee error explained

The pilot was deemed safe to fly, but due to Virgin's internal compliance regulations, the decision to return was made

A Virgin Atlantic flight was forced to return to Heathrow after it was discovered that the first officer had not completed his final flight test.

The two pilots on board the Airbus A330 jet were approximately 40 minutes into their flight to New York on Monday (2 May) when they discovered the "rostering error," according to the airline.

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Here is everything you need to know about the incident.

What happened?

Flight VS3 had reached the skies above Ireland before returning to Heathrow, where it landed more than an hour and a half after taking off.

The flight took off from Heathrow at 9.41am, was turned around at 10.19am, and landed back at Heathrow at 11.12am.

Nearly 300 passengers were forced to wait on the tarmac until a qualified substitute could be found; the plane was rerouted to New York once a replacement was located, arriving in the States nearly three hours late.

A first officer and a captain normally share control of an aircraft, but the captain is ultimately responsible for what happens during a flight.

The initial first officer, who joined Virgin Atlantic in 2017, was fully trained under UK aviation laws, but had not undertaken a final assessment flight required by the company.

(Photo: CARL DE SOUZA/AFP via Getty Images)

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.”

What has Virgin Atlantic said?

Virgin Atlantic says that no one’s safety was jeopardised.

A Virgin Atlantic spokeswoman said: “Due to a rostering error, flight VS3 from London Heathrow to New York-JFK returned to Heathrow on Monday 2 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.”

A Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) spokesperson said: “Virgin Atlantic have made us aware of the incident. Both pilots were suitably licensed and qualified to undertake the flight.”

How does pilot training work?

An individual must have an aircraft type rating and a valid licence proficiency check to fly an Airbus A330 aircraft, which the first officer did, and a pilot can legally and safely operate such aircraft in any geographical location throughout the world with these.

But Virgin Atlantic has its own line training programme, which includes a “final evaluation flight”, a company-specific requirement to confirm that the employee follows the airline's specified process.

After completing a simulator and classroom training programme and 12 recent flights on an A330, the staff member in issue was recommended as ready for his final evaluation trip.

As a result, he was considered safe and competent to fly the plane.

But the decision to return the plane to Heathrow was taken due to Virgin's internal compliance rules as the captain was not designated as a trainer.