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Ethanol and Drugs Found in Civil Aviation Accident Pilot Fatalities, 1989–2013

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BACKGROUND: Biological specimens from pilots fatally injured in civil aviation accidents are analyzed for ethanol and drugs at the Civil Aerospace Medical Institute (CAMI). Prevalence of these substances in the pilots has been evaluated at 5-yr intervals since 1989. In continuation, a fifth 5-yr study (2009–2013) was conducted.

METHODS: The CAMI toxicology/medical certification and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) aviation accident databases were searched.

RESULTS: During 2009–2013, samples from 1169 pilots were analyzed. Aircraft involved in the accidents were primarily operating under general aviation. Most airmen were private pilots and held third-class medical certificates. In relation to the first 5-yr (1989–1993) period, the pilot fatality cases decreased by 37% and the presence of ethanol and/or drugs in the pilots increased by 239% in the fifth 5-yr period. The ethanol usage was unchanged, but increases were 267% and 583% with illicit and prescription drugs, respectively. The use of ethanol and/or drugs by aviators, along with underlying medical conditions, was determined by the NTSB to be cause/factors in 5% of the accidents.

CONCLUSION: The observed decrease in the fatality cases does not necessarily suggest the decrease in aviation accidents, as active airmen numbers also declined. The increase in the drug positive cases is primarily attributed to the continuous rise in the use of prescription drugs. Although prevalence of ethanol and drugs has been evaluated in fatally injured aviators, such evaluation has not been performed in active pilots not involved in accidents. This type of comparative study would be crucial in assessing aviation safety.

Chaturvedi AK, Craft KJ, Hickerson JS, Rogers PB, Canfield DV. Ethanol and drugs found in civil aviation accident pilot fatalities, 1989–2013. Aerosp Med Hum Perform. 2016; 87(5):470–476.
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Keywords: aviation accident investigation; ethanol and drugs; forensic sciences; pilot fatalities; toxicology

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 01 May 2016

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  • This journal (formerly Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine), representing the members of the Aerospace Medical Association, is published monthly for those interested in aerospace medicine and human performance. It is devoted to serving and supporting all who explore, travel, work, or live in hazardous environments ranging from beneath the sea to the outermost reaches of space. The original scientific articles in this journal provide the latest available information on investigations into such areas as changes in ambient pressure, motion sickness, increased or decreased gravitational forces, thermal stresses, vision, fatigue, circadian rhythms, psychological stress, artificial environments, predictors of success, health maintenance, human factors engineering, clinical care, and others. This journal also publishes notes on scientific news and technical items of interest to the general reader, and provides teaching material and reviews for health care professionals.

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