MORE than a hundred passengers aboard an Air Canada flight from Toronto to London were forced to divert to Shannon yesterday after the co-pilot suffered what appeared to be a nervous breakdown in mid-air.
Officials at Shannon Airport last night confirmed that the male co-pilot was admitted to the psychiatric unit of the Ennis General Hospital in Co Clare yesterday after he was forcibly taken off the flight by fellow crew members and an off-duty member of the Canadian Armed Forces who assisted in restraining him.
Air Canada flight AC848, en route from Toronto's Pearson International Airport to London Heathrow, was diverted to Shannon with less than an hour to go before reaching its intended destination after the co-pilot began "acting in a peculiar manner and was talking loudly to himself," during the transatlantic crossing, according to aviation sources.
The Boeing 767-333 series jet, carrying 149 passengers, including three infants, landed safely at Shannon shortly before 8am yesterday where a medical doctor and ambulance crew were waiting to attend to the co-pilot.
Stunned passengers, some of whom are believed to have witnessed the bizarre scene, were taken to local hotels to await a replacement cabin crew in order to continue their journey on to London.
Air traffic controllers at Shannon were notified by the captain that his colleague was "unwell" and he required permission to divert the flight to seek medical attention.
Officials from the Health Service Executive (HSE) said the co-pilot was assessed at the scene before being taken to the Acute Psychiatric Unit at the Mid-Western Regional Hospital in Ennis for further assessment.
He remained at the unit last night but the HSE refused to comment on his condition.
An airport spokesman confirmed that the "medical diversion" took place but there was no official emergency declared by the pilot.
"The plane diverted to Shannon after a cockpit crew member became unwell. The first officer was taken to hospital and the passengers were taken to local hotels," he said.
Air Canada ordered a replacement crew from London which arrived around noon yesterday and passengers continued on their journey to London, arriving close to eight hours behind schedule at 4:15pm yesterday.
Shirley Mah, spokeswoman for the state-owned airline, did not return phone calls on the incident yesterday.
However, the company said in a written statement last night: "The captain and crew of AC 848 followed standard operating procedures in light of the co-pilot falling ill. The captain elected to divert to Shannon and landed without incident. At no time was safety compromised."
The airline refused comment on the nature of his illness except to say: "The flight was met by medical personnel and the individual is now in hospital care. We do not provide additional details of a personal nature."
It is understood the incident will be investigated by Air Canada and the Transportation Safety Board in Canada which is responsible for regulating airlines and investigating aviation accidents in that country.