If one of your pilots gets ill, you never know who else on the plane might be able to help land the aircraft safely.
On Monday, it was a flight attendant with an an inactive pilot's license who helped land an American Airlines jumbo jet after the co-pilot became incapacitated because of stomach flu.
Patti DeLuna, a 61-year-old flight attendant with American Airlines, helped the captain safely land the Boeing 767 with 225 passengers on board.
About two hours into the trip from San Francisco to Chicago, the first officer started to make repeated trips to the bathroom. The captain checked to see if any off-duty pilots were on board, a standard procedure at American and other carriers. After that failed, he sought somebody with a license.
DeLuna got her commercial pilot's license in the 1970s, but it had been two decades since she had flown a plane and even then it was just a small Cessna. Her license wasn't even active.
"I was the best they had -- I was the best candidate for the job at the time," DeLuna told the Chicago Tribune. "I was thinking about survival. I was thinking about getting it down the best I could. I don't feel like a hero. When you work on an airplane, you work as a team. You do whatever you can do to help."
The Federal Aviation Administration issues three general categories of pilot's licenses: private pilot, commercial pilot and airline transport pilot certification, known at ATP. The first lets you fly yourself and friends but not actually get paid for your service. The next level -- the one DeLuna had -- allows people to act as co-pilots on flights but is most commonly used by people flying small planes for pay, such as a propeller aircraft flying over the beach with a banner advertising a local bar.
The third and most-stringent is the ATP. That allows somebody to be the pilot of a passenger plane, though just about every major airline requires first officers to have this certification.
"There are thousands of commercial certified pilots who do not fly for the airlines. So having a commercial pilot on board would not be that uncommon," said John Cox, a former captain with US Airways who is now an aviation safety consultant with Safety Operating Systems in Washington, D.C. "They can handle the radios, they understand the terminology, they can help prepare the airplane for landing, offloading [responsibilities from] the other pilot. It is a very appropriate thing to do and it was actually very smart on the part of the captain to get some additional help into the seat."
There were 125,738 people with active commercial pilot's licenses on Dec. 31, 2009, according to the FAA. Compare that to 211,619 with private licenses and 144,600 with ATP certification.
Most pilots with a commercial license don't actually fly passengers.
"They can be crop dusters, they can be flight instructors, they can be flying small business aircraft," he said. "It is the license that allows you to charge for your professional services as a pilot."
Getting any of these licenses requires many hours in the cockpit and passing a bevy of tests evaluating a pilot's understanding of basic aerodynamics, the ability to comprehend detailed weather reports and knowledge of airport and air traffic control procedures.
"Getting a private license is not an easy thing and getting a commercial license is even harder and getting an airline transport certificate is a very difficult undertaking," Cox said. "As you would expect, the higher up the certification ladder you go, the harder the testing is."
Given how hard it is to get a pilot spot today, Cox said many other employees in the industry -- including flight attendants -- have various levels of pilot's licenses. Some of them are trying to work their way up into the cockpit and others have been there, didn't enjoy the schedule and have now moved back to the flight crew for a more-stable lifestyle.
Cox said that when somebody like DeLuna is asked to assist the pilot "she's not going to be landing the airplane." She'll read checklists, work the radio, set the flaps and the landing gear and do other supplemental tasks.
"That language and lexicon would make sense to her because she's a pilot," he said.
"This is obviously not the first time that this has happened although it is very rare for a crew member to become incapacitated to the point where they actually solicit help," Cox added.
Commercial pilots must be at least 18 years old, be able to read, speak, write and understand English and have at least 250 hours of flight time. To get an ATP certification, pilots must be at least 23 years old and have 1,500 hours of flight time.
In case you were wondering how much experience your pilot has, well, most airlines go beyond the FAA's pilot requirements.
Take Republic Airways Holdings, which owns Frontier Airlines, Midwest Airlines and several regional airlines including Chautauqua Airlines, Lynx Airlines Republic Airlines and Shuttle America (which run flights under the names American Connection, Continental Express, Delta Connection, United Express and US Airways Express). Republic requires all of its pilots, whether they are the captain or the first officer, to have the more-stringent ATP certification.
Southwest Airlines requires all its pilots and first officers to have the ATP license and a captain rating on Boeing 737s (the only planes the airline flies) before being hired.
JetBlue also requires the ATP certification but also tries to go further in its hiring. While its minimum requirement is 1,500 hours in airplanes for a pilot, because of the high number of applications it receives, people who are selected for interviews usually need 3,000 hours or more.