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Airline Transport Pilot FAA Senior Aviation Medical Examiner 

Aeromedical Forum

COVID 19 in the Cockpit: The Latest Info!


August 1, 2020

I was planning a spine-tingling discussion on the use of seatbelts in aviation for this month, but it seems like the questions at the FBO are overwhelmingly about something else, COVID-19. Rightly so.

As we try to inch back to a semblance of normalcy in the aviation community, we increasingly risk infection, hospitalization or even death. The rate of infection is skyrocketing nationally. Fortunately, here in Minnesota we have not seen exponential increases but, at this writing infection rates are beginning to creep up again.

As pilots, we are accustomed to risk management. Thus, to help in making risk management decisions, I want to pass on a few thoughts that have evolved from research published since we last talked about COVID two months ago.

First of all, how do you get (or avoid getting) COVID-19? We can state with a high level of confidence that it is not transmitted by food or drink. It appears that the risk of infection from touching surfaces like doorknobs or touch screens is significant but fairly low. So, keep sanitizing surfaces, using hand sanitizer and 20 second hand washes, but don’t get too paranoid about it. The thing to get super-paranoid about is THE AIR THAT WE SHARE. Evidence is very strong that the virus that causes COVID-19 is primarily transmitted by inhaling virus laden droplets expelled by an infected person. Every time we talk, we expel a cloud of micro-droplets. When we shout, laugh, cough or sing this cloud increases in density, size and infectivity. These droplet clouds are transient, lasting only a minute or two. A gentle breeze quickly disperses them. This would explain why there is a lower tendency to infection in outdoor gatherings.

We were expecting a big surge in infection after the protests following Mr. Floyd’s death but didn’t see it, the demonstrations being almost exclusively out of doors.

So, the science points to three key strategies for keeping you and your passengers and crew safe during the pandemic:

#1) Pre-screen everyone before hopping into the cockpit. If anyone feels ill, has a fever, cough, sore throat, loss of smell or taste, it’s a no-go. Go to Urgent Care and get a COVID test. We stressed this in our last talk.

#2) Wear a mask when out in public and even when in the cockpit unless you’re flying solo. Yes, in the cockpit. I know it’s hot and cumbersome and may make communication with ATC a chore. Just speak up and speak slowly. The controller will understand! It is a pity that the subject of face masks has been politicized. It is a matter of science, not belief.

A couple of things to keep in mind when choosing a mask:

• Any mask is good but fabric, fit and breathability are key. It should fit snugly over nose and mouth. You want a tight weave fabric so particles can’t get through. Your best bet is probably a 100% cotton weave.

• Try layering the fabric. That blocks more particles. Consider slipping a polypropylene filter between the cloth layers. Obviously if you can’t breathe through the mask, scale it down.

• If you are using a paper mask, they generally are good for one use.

• Practice social distancing when you can. That’s six feet apart. Closer than that, and you risk entering the droplet zone of another, possibly infected person. Remember that a person can be infectious but asymptomatic for several days before coming down with COVID-19. Obviously, you often can’t effectively practice social distancing in-flight. That makes it all the more important to observe strategies one and two.

We want you and your passengers to arrive safely so you’ll be able to read next month’s exciting seatbelt symposium!

Fly wisely. See you next month.

As always, comments, questions and suggestions are welcome: jdlakinmd@gmail.com.

Also, we’ve moved our office to Airlake Airport’s FBO (KLVN)! Call 952-469-4414 for a flight physical appointment.


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