A recent report from the National Transportation Safety Board shows that more and more pilots involved in fatal crashes are using prescription, over-the-counter, and illicit drugs.
An update to a study conducted in 2014, the new study examined the toxicology results from pilots who died in plane crashes between 2013 and 2017. Almost all of these crashes – 97% — were in general aviation.
Between 2013 and 2017, 1,042 accidents occurred in the United States in which the flying pilot was fatally injured. Of these, 952 pilots (91%) had available toxicology test results. The average age of the pilots was 56.
During the five years ending in 2017, 266 (28%) fatally injured pilots tested positive for at least one potentially impairing drug; 144 (15%) tested positive for at least one drug indicating a potentially impairing condition; 94 (10%) pilots’ test results indicated evidence of using at least one controlled substance; and 47 (5%) tested positive for an illicit drug.
Sedating antihistamines continued to be the most common category of potentially impairing drugs found in pilots who died, with 11.9% testing positive for at least one drug in this category, an increase from 9.9% during the preceding five years.
Sedating pain relievers, a category that includes opioids, was the second most common category of potentially impairing drugs at 5.3%. Of the 50 pilots who tested positive for sedating pain relievers, 46 were positive for at least one opioid.
The three most common drugs indicating a potentially impairing condition were hydrocodone, a sedating opioid used to treat severe pain; citalopram, an antidepressant; and diazepam, a sedating benzodiazepine used to treat severe anxiety and muscle spasms.
NTSB investigators noted a positive toxicology finding didn’t necessarily indicate that the pilot was impaired at the time of the crash, only that the pilot had used a specific drug (or drugs) at some point prior to the fatal accident.
Marijuana Use Up By Pilots
The report also revealed an increase in the percentage of fatally injured pilots who tested positive for tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive compound in marijuana. While many states have legalized marijuana for medical and recreational use, the FAA prohibits its use by pilots.
But NTSB officials note that it is unclear whether that prohibition is “generally known or understood among GA pilots.”
“The NTSB concludes that increasing evidence of marijuana use by pilots in this research update indicates a safety hazard that has not been effectively addressed,” officials say in the report.
NTSB officials recommend that the FAA amend the Aeronautical Information Manual and the Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge “to explicitly state marijuana’s classification as an illicit drug per federal law and, thus, its prohibited use by airmen.”
End Alcohol and Other Drug Impairment is on the NTSB’s 2019-2020 Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements. The issue area addresses impairment in aviation as well as other modes of transportation.
“Simply put, impairment can kill,” said NTSB Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt. “There’s still a lot of work to do to eliminate impairment-related accidents on the roads, on the rails, on the water and in the skies.”
Key Findings of the Updated Report:
- Over the entire period from 1990 to 2017, increasing trends were identified in the proportions of pilots testing positive for at least one drug categorized as potentially impairing, used to treat a potentially impairing condition, or as a controlled substance.
- Pilot education regarding appropriate and inappropriate medication choices is increasingly important because of the rising trend of positive test results for potentially impairing drugs.
- The FAA’s November 2019 fact sheet on pilots and medication and over-the-counter medication guidance document provide easy-to-understand information to educate pilots about potentially impairing drugs and make them aware of less impairing alternative drugs.
- Increasing evidence of marijuana use by pilots indicates a safety hazard that has not been effectively addressed.
- The continuing increase in the prevalence of potentially impairing drug use by fatally injured pilots further supports the need for research to better understand the relationship between drug use and accident risk.
The entire report is available online.