During his forum talk at Oshkosh NTSB Board Member Dr. Earl Weener said that he had formed no specific position on possible changes in third class medical certification policy. The reason, he said, is because the NTSB has never conducted a study on the effectiveness of the medical certification procedures.
Dr. Weener did note that sudden incapacitation of a pilot in flight is quite rare. But something the Board is seeing more and more frequently during investigations of fatal accidents is the presence of over-the-counter medications in a pilot’s remains.
As we all know, many frequently used medications carry warnings that they can cause drowsiness, or interfere with the ability to concentrate. The warning usually advises against driving or operating machinery while taking the medication.
This type of warning is so prevalent that most of us don’t pay any attention. Just about every treatment for colds, or sneezes, or allergies, or even aches and pains carries a similar warning. I know I sure don’t lock away the car keys and stay home after swallowing a pill in the hopes of stopping a runny nose or other symptoms of a cold. I have often flown trips after taking medicine carrying such warnings.
What is frustrating investigators is that they can’t know for sure how the presence of totally legal and common medications in a pilot’s body contribute to the cause of an accident. The FAA restricts or permits specific prescription medications but as far as I know doesn’t take the same stance on over-the-counter medicines. How a particular non-prescription medicine will affect our flying is left up to us.
What age is teaching me is that behavior that was not an issue for my flying 30 years ago might be a very important factor now. For example, years ago I would fly for hours at the legal limits of altitude where supplemental oxygen is required and think nothing of it. I stretched the 30 minutes allowed above 12,500 feet without oxygen more than once and wondered what’s the big deal. I didn’t feel or perform any differently.
But now that I have crossed the threshold into official senior status I begin to notice the lack of air at 10,000 feet. And when occasional traffic or terrain forces me up to 12,000 feet I know it’s an altitude that I can’t tolerate for long.
I know that it must be the same for everyday over-the-counter medications. I ignored the warnings and kept on flying for years. But can I still do that? Will the same medicines have a different affect than decades ago? I don’t know.
The point that Dr. Weener and I are trying to make is that we are demanding the right to assess our physical fitness to fly without a third class medical system. In reality we already do that before every flight. And not all of us are making the safe decisions. Too many pilots are ignoring warnings on medications and are ending up dead in a crash. Did the side effects of the non-prescription medicine contribute to the cause of the accident?
Nobody has the answer yet. But if we continue to ignore the most basic fitness to fly alerts and takeoff after downing a drug that warns against driving and operating machinery we are undermining our claim that we safely manage and enforce our own medical standards. Of course, a third class medical certificate in no way changes the way we use over-the-counter medicines. But ignoring warnings on drugs erodes our claim that we already manage our personal medical fitness to fly. Pilots keep ending up dead with drugs that warn against driving–much less flying–in their systems, and that doesn’t sound responsible to me, and certainly not to the non-flying public.