December 23, 2008 by Bruce Landsberg

It’s not something that happens often in General Aviation. On average, we ‘ll have about half a dozen pilot incapacitation accidents every year. The following comes from the soon-to-be-released 2008 Joseph T. Nall Report that will examine GA’s 2007 accident picture:

“Of the six incapacitation accidents that occurred in 2007, one was the result of a heart attack, and one a probable stroke. Both were fatal. Two, one fatal, were attributed to spatial disorientation. The remaining two were an apparent murder-suicide that killed two, and a loss of consciousness on short final that the pilot speculated might have been caused by dehydration. He suffered only minor injuries after a hard landing.”

Interesting categorizations! The stroke/heart attack/loss of consciousness – no problem. On spatial disorientation, it might well have been a medical problem, or not, and without getting too graphic, NTSB says that sometimes there’s not enough left to determine exactly what happened. The murder-suicide could be described as a mental incapacitation but it somehow seems different. There are about two dozen other accidents where the aircraft appears perfectly normal but fell out of the sky. There were no physiological markers so they might be incapacitation. Numerically this isn’t a huge deal but on a percentage basis, because we’re dealing with small numbers, it’s worth trying to be as accurate as we can, especially with a hyper- sensitive media and public watching.

FAA and NTSB are watching the Sport Pilot medical experiment carefully – no FAA medical required – to see if the rule is about right or if it might be loosened. AOPA has requested that recreational pilot certificate fall under the same procedure but that is on hold while the agency evaluates the experience with Sport Pilot. An informal review of Sport Pilot accidents shows nothing that would indicate that pilots are abusing the privilege.

If your flying companion is uneasy about you becoming incapacitated, they might wish to review ASF’s free online Pinch Hitter program.

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

ASI Online Safety Courses  |  ASI Safety Quiz  |  Support the AOPA Foundation

  • http://MaryCreasonsAviationWebsite Mary Creason

    I’ll be celebrating my 65th year of solo flight in May ’09. Being a super-cautious 84-year old and a still-current flight instructor, I’m curious about other “older” pilots and their flying minimums.
    Mary Creason

  • Maynard Perkins

    I am just a youngster, 64, with 45 years of flying time. I am a current CFI/G for the CAP. CAP requires that I take two flight checks each year, one for SEL and one for gliders. These are usually taken in the spring about a month apart. I fly on average 50-60 hours per year. I do not believe that this is sufficient for me to maintain the level of proficiency that I would like. To help ameliorate my concern, at least for being able to demonstrate appropriate pilot skills and to point out areas of deficiency, I also attempt additional flights with other CAP instructors. I ask that they run me through the ringer, providing a basis to polish my skills and maybe most importantly provide a honest critique of me as a pilot. We are friends and maybe there is a bit of the “good old boy” attitude (“I have seen you do better, give it another try”). But all flight instructors that I know within CAP take their flight instructor position very seriously and my check pilot is not going to let me fly knowing that I do not have the necessary skills, even age related.

    In terms of “flying minimums” I believe that if one follows -Pilot, be truthful to thy self, we will reduce the probability of pilot error. Are you missing check-list items, do you forget equipment/materials necessary for a flight, are you behind the curve, do you gueston your abilities? If you answer yes (to these or other appropriate questions) then you are either below or at your minimums and you need to do something to correct the problems. If training will take care of the problem, then do it. If the time has come that the mind and/or body can not respond as needed to enable you to be a safe pilot then it is the time to park the plane and graduate to being the best hanger instructor you can be.