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Gastro leading cause of pilot incapacitation

Gastrointestinal illness, followed by laser strikes are the leading causes of pilot incapacitation, according to a new ATSB research report.

Pilot incapacitation occurrences 2010–2014

This report provides insight into pilot incapacitation occurrences in both high and low capacity air transport, and general aviation.

In the past five years there were 23 pilot incapacitation occurrences reported per year on average. Around 75 per cent of the incapacitation occurrences happened in high capacity air transport operations (about 1 in every 34,000 flights), with the main cause being gastrointestinal illness, followed by laser strikes. (A high capacity aircraft provides more than 38 passenger seats and a maximum payload greater than 4,200 kg.)

Low capacity air transport and general aviation had fewer occurrences with a wider variation of causes of incapacitation. These ranged from environmental causes, such as hypoxia, to medical conditions, such as heart attack.

Pilot incapacitation can result in a restriction of flight duties in high capacity operations but with multi - pilot crews these occurrences usually had minimal effect on the flight.

In single pilot operations there could be more serious consequences such as collision with terrain.

The report also recommends effective ways to manage pilot incapacitation, across all levels of aircraft operations.

Safety message

Pilot incapacitation can occur in any operation type, albeit rarely.

In high capacity air transport operations, the practice of ensuring all pilots on the same flight eat different meals prior to and during the flight has been an effective defence preventing all pilots on the same flight becoming incapacitated at the same time.

Providing pilots with training in dealing with incapacitation events has been effective for when these events do occur. Pilots are also encouraged to report laser strikes to police and the Office of Transport Security.

In low capacityair transport operations, providing emergency training to non-flight crew, such as aeromedical nurses, is an important defence in case of pilot incapacitation.

Finally, in general aviation, pilots are reminded to assess their fitness prior to flight. Assessment of fitness includes being aware of any illness or external pressures they may be experiencing.

Read the research report AR-2015-096 Pilot incapacitation occurrences 2010–2014

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Last update 19 February 2016