Serving Midwest Aviation Since 1960

Aeromedical Forum: January 2015

Drugs in the cockpit

I’m beginning to think that not every pilot in the Midwest reads my column! Or if they do, they’re not taking Ol’ Doc’s admonitions to heart.

In September the National Transportation Safety Board released a report, Drug Use Trends in Aviation: Assessing the Risk of Pilot Impairment NTSB SS 14/01. Disturbingly, they reported a sharp upward trend in the use of potentially impairing drugs by pilots who died in crashes.

When a pilot does a digger the FAA’s Civil Aerospace Medical Institute runs a boatload of drug screens on the deceased’s bodily fluids. They can determine just about any drug legal or illegal that the pilot had on board at the time of the crash. The NTSB went back and looked at all of the toxicology testing of fatally injured pilots between 1990 and 2012. They found that the overwhelming majority of pilots with bad stuff in their blood were engaged in general aviation operations. Good news if you’re flying Delta. Bad news if you’re going up with your buddy in the Super Cub.

The study showed increasing use of all drugs, including potentially impairing drugs, drugs used to treat potentially imparing conditions, drugs classified as controlled substances and illegal drugs. The most commonly found drug was diphenhydramine. This is generic Benadryl. It’s found in hundreds of over-the-counter cold and allergy medicines as well as sleep aids. It’s cheap and it’s very sedating. Oh and it can also impair depth perception. Lots of luck greasing that landing!

They reported that illicit drug use was found in only a small percentage of cases (2.4% to 4.0%), but the proportion of pilots with marijuana on board increased mostly during the last 10 years. I wonder how many of those guys were from Colorado? One finding that perked my ears up was, "Pilots who did not have a medical certificate or whose certificate had expired were more likely than those with a medical certificate to have used potentially impairing drugs, drugs used to treat potentially impairing conditions, and drugs designated as controlled substances…Federal Aviation Administration medical certification requirements…for safety-sensitive aviation personnel have been associated with fewer toxicologic findings of impaired drugs and conditions among accident pilots subject to those requirements.

I realize that AOPA has currently got a bee in its bonnet about the requirement for Third Class Medical Certification for private pilots flying VFR. I’ve also read that they claim that NTSB data over the last 10 years shows that “the third-class medical certificate has become antiquated and does nothing to improve safety."

I did write them asking for the data supporting this claim and got back a link to the entire NTSB data base. I guess they figure I could dig it out for myself. Never the less, the NTSB does observe “An increasing number of pilots are flying without a medical certificate and will likely make decisions about their medical fitness to fly, including use of drugs while flying, without periodic interaction with an Aviation Medical Examiner”.

Draw your own conclusions. If you’re fussing about the “time and expense” of a Third Class, it’s about 45 minutes and $125 every two to five years. That’s equivalent to about four to ten gallons of avgas per annum.

Yet I would suspect that the very fact that you are reading this column (sorry for the rant!) indicates that you are on board as far as trying to stay healthy and unimpaired when in the Wild Blue. Indeed the NTSB data gives you the feeling that a lot of the pilots that come to grief are folks that may not be real concerned about being at the top of their game.

You probably know some of them. GA airports are small villages with few secrets. Talk with these guys. If they are flying without a Medical legally as a Sport Pilot suggest that they visit with their own physician or pharmacist about the medications they are taking and their side-effects. If they are flying not so legally without a Medical Certificate, suggest that they see an AME as the FAA says.

At the very least it will prevent the insurance company from welching on payment to next of kin if they hang it up!

Fly wisely. See you next month!

As always, comments, questions and suggestions are welcome:


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