Fit for flight

May 19, 2013 by Tim McAdams

Every so often I come across an accident that really makes me stop and think. Many of these can be a learning experience and some are just hard to understand. 

According to the NTSB, on July 22, 2010 a Eurocopter AS 350 B2 helicopter impacted trees near Kingfisher, Oklahoma. The commercial pilot and one flight nurse were fatally injured and one paramedic flight nurse was seriously injured. 

A Global Positioning System (GPS) device recovered from the accident scene revealed the helicopter was cruising at approximately 130 knots and about 200 to 300 feet above ground level. Seconds before impact, the helicopter descended at 385 feet per minute, followed by a descent rate of 1,890 feet per minute two seconds later. The location and altitude of the helicopter, as recorded by the GPS corresponded to the location rotor impact marks with the trees. 

In an interview with the surviving paramedic flight nurse, he recalled that during the flight, the left side door had come unlatched and was slightly ajar. The paramedic informed the pilot that he was getting out of his seat to close the door and secure the handle. The pilot acknowledged the paramedic. After securing the handle, the paramedic stated that he had sat back down and begun to gather his seatbelt when a conversation began about another pilot flying on a coyote hunt. The paramedic reported that the pilot made a statement similar to “like this… (with some laughter)” and made a nose down control input. He reported that the pilot pulled up on the collective and the helicopter struck a tree. During the ground impact, the paramedic, who was not secured in his seat, was thrown through the windscreen; the paramedic crawled away from the wreckage and dialed 911 on his cell phone. 

The pilot, age 56, held a commercial pilot certificate for airplane single-engine land, instrument airplane, rotorcraft-helicopter, and instrument helicopter. He held a second class medical certificate issued February 8, 2010. On the pilot’s last application for a medical certificate he reported having accumulated 12,241 hours, with 119 hours logged with the preceding six months. Of note, the pilot reported that he was not currently using any medications. 

An autopsy was performed on the pilot and toxicology noted the following: 

  • 39.31 (ug/ml, ug/g) Acetaminophen detected in Urine
  • Chlorpheniramine detected in Blood
  • Chlorpheniramine detected in Urine
  • 0.198 (ug/ml, ug/g) Diazepam detected in Blood
  • 0.026 (ug/mL, ug/g) Dihydrocodeine detected in Blood
  • 1.026 (ug/mL, ug/g) Dihydrocodeine detected in Urine
  • 0.15 (ug/ml, ug/g) Hydrocodone detected in Blood
  • 4.112 (ug/ml, ug/g) Hydrocodone detected in Urine
  • 0.302 (ug/mL, ug/g) Hydromorphone detected in Urine
  • 0.322 (ug/ml, ug/g) Nordiazepam detected in Blood
  • 0.629 (ug/ml, ug/g) Nordiazepam detected in Urine
  • 0.011 (ug/ml, ug/g) Oxazepam detected in Blood
  • 2.169 (ug/ml, ug/g) Oxazepam detected in Urine
  • 1.569 (ug/ml, ug/g) Temazepam detected in Urine 

A review of the pilot’s medical history found that the pilot was being treated for several medical conditions and had been prescribed multiple medications since at least 2007. In April 23, 2007, the pilot reported to his personal physician that he had bronchitis, hypertension, and sleep apnea, and after his visit, he was prescribed the following medications: Nexium (for gastroesophageal reflux), Caduet (for hypertension), Flexeril (sedating muscle relaxant), Lortab (hydrocodone and acetaminophen; narcotic pain medication), Lunesta (for sleep disturbance), and Requip (for restless leg syndrome). The pilot continued to report to his personal physician that he experienced increased pain and was prescribed stronger pain medications, to include prescription narcotics and benzodiazepines. In addition, steroid joint injections were applied to his right knee and shoulder to treat persistent pain. The last documented visit, February 25, 2010, the pilot was prescribed the following: Caduet (for hypertension), omeprazole (for gastroesophageal reflux); Meloxicam (a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory); Lunesta (sleep aid); Norco (10/325 hydrocodone/acetaminophen combination two tablets three times a day); baclofen (a muscle relaxant, 10 mg three times a day) and Valium (diazepam, a benzodiazepine, 10 mg three times a day). In addition to his prescribed medications, chlorpheniramine, an over-the-counter sedating antihistamine medication was also detected in the toxicology. There was no evidence that the pilot’s sleep apnea had been treated prior to the accident. In addition, the pilot did not report any of his conditions and prescription medications to the FAA, to the certificate holder, or to the operator.


  • Maverick

    Clearly he was out of bounds taking medication and flying, but did the medication effects cause or contribute to the accident ? It doesnt say. Maybe if the FAA would do more to work with pilots on medication needs instead of ending their careers the pilots wouldn’t be so pressured to hide it.

  • http://Aopa Fester

    This pilot had to know that narcotic pain relievers and muscle relaxers are a no go item. I don’t think it’s a stretch to sayhe was impaired. Sad thing is, he didn’t just bend metal and kill himself.

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    I am reading this report from the perspective of being a physician whose age is similar to the dead pilot’s, about to begin a career change from medicine to rotary wing pilot. I am astounded that the comments are not more horrified and concerned. Clearly, yes clearly, the medications contributed to the accident. Narcotics and sedative hypnotics were in the blood at autopsy. Further, the willingness to lie about taking medication for his certification is consistent with the behavior of an addict. No doubt this person should not have been flying that helicopter.
    Further, I don’t understand why there is not concern about the standard of care in obtaining certification. (mind you , I still have to get certified and write this understanding that my own words could somehow mean I am not certified .. . due to a medical condition). Maybe I am too idealistic for 2013 but I do hope that someone is looking at the systemic failure that allowed this certification to happen. What are solutions? I don’t really know. I do know that extremes like drug testing all candidates seems extreme, but this accident may not have occured if the pilot had been screened. New career, same problems. How should the issue of the impaired physician be dealt with?? Bottom line, I have to believe that whatever is needed to achieve a safer doctor or pilot is what needs to be done.

  • http://Aopa DAVE hendrickson

    WTF! Guys like that give all aviators a bad rap! I really hope that pilot was not ex military because it makes it even more sad. Why, because in the military you are trained and monitored more closely than in the FAA world. Either way it was just a matter of time before he was going to caught, too bad it was this way.

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