A Pilot's Perspective.

By Barry Meek.

May 2008

Pilot Unconscious, Passenger Lands Plane

A friend and fellow pilot is about to lose his livelihood.  He has a problem with his eyes that will be picked up on his next medical.  As we get older, we become more and more concerned about it happening to us.  A few years back, I had a personal experience which fortunately was resolved as a misunderstanding and mix-up in paperwork between physicians.  But for about a week, it wasn’t a good feeling to think I could be grounded indefinitely. 

Perhaps the requirements for a category one medical are a bit too strict.  After the age of 40, a commercial pilot is obliged to pass the exam every six months, and face an ECG every 12 months.  On the other hand, who would want to be aboard the aircraft with a pilot who is unable physically and mentally to fly?  As far as his emotional condition during a flight is concerned, unfortunately there’s no way to police that under current regulations.   

Although it does happen, it is rare that a pilot is disabled to the point where he cannot control his airplane.  Heart attacks do occur.  Gastrointestinal disorders are in fact, quite common, but rarely totally debilitating.  Insulin shock can render the diabetic helpless, sometimes unconscious.  But insulin-dependent diabetics are restricted from holding a cat one medical.  Proven cases of diabetes mellitus may be considered fit provided certain specific control criteria are met. Movies and television play up the possibilities and produce dramatic accounts of an aircraft in distress where the unconscious pilot is tossed aside by a pilot-wanna-be passenger who successfully lands the airplane, which is chased down the runway by a cluster of fire engines. 

Only in the movies you say?  Documented cases prove that in reality, this type of thing does happen!

In February of 2002, a ten-passenger Cessna 402 was on a flight between the island of Martha’s Vineyard and Hyannis, Massachusetts.  The short 15 minute commute carried three businessmen, a female security official from the airline, and the pilot.  The security employee became concerned when she noticed the plane was off-course, and the pilot began acting inappropriately.  It was obvious that he was unable to control the aircraft.  At the time, this security employee was also a student pilot, and had about 48 hours logged in small aircraft.  The other passengers were non-pilots.  With their assistance, she was able to climb into the right seat, and as the captain was restrained by the passengers, she assumed control.  Totally unfamiliar with the radios, twin-engine operation, retractable gear and instrument procedures, this was about to turn into an experience that could have been a movie script.

Cessna 402. Photo borrowed from home.global.co.za

Fortunately, the new pilot had done some cross-country work in the area, and recognized a familiar airport below.  In the darkness she was able to execute a successful, wheels-up landing at the uncontrolled field, from which everyone aboard walked away uninjured. 

The investigation revealed that the captain was in a state of insulin shock.  He was a diabetic but had somehow managed to keep that fact from the FAA for his entire career.  In his early 50’s he controlled his blood sugar levels well enough to stay out of trouble, but as is the case with so many who suffer from the condition, circumstances sometimes catch up and overwhelm the patient before he’s able to correct the problems. 

In my work as a paramedic, it would be impossible to count the number of diabetics we responded to.  Insulin shock occurs when blood-sugar levels drop below the point where the brain can function properly.  The first signs include a decreased level of consciousness.  The patient becomes confused, incoherent, and can progress to   aggressive and violent behavior, seizures, unconsciousness and even death.  It happens quickly.  Fortunately, the condition is pretty much always reversible just as quickly with administration of IV glucose.  In just a few minutes, the paramedics have the situation under control with a fully coherent patient sitting up and wondering what just happened.  These calls were usually very gratifying.  

The captain of the flight was charged with making false statements to a federal agency (the FAA) and early in 2008 pled guilty.  He received a sentence of 16 months in jail and 2 years probation following the jail term.  He had managed to control and conceal his insulin dependency for many years.  It’s fortunate no one was injured or killed in this incident. 

The next time you’re tempted to stretch the truth, omit a few details or actually lie to your aviation medical examiner, remember the consequences can be severe.

The whole adventure makes for good discussion around the coffee table.  What would you do if you needed to take control of an airplane and had little or no pilot training? 

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