This is Your Brain on Drugs – In an Airplane

Please say someone else remembers the 1980’s commercial with the egg frying in the skillet? “This is your brain. (crack egg) This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?”

The NTSB has just published a study that examines the prevalence of drug use by pilots who died in crashes between 1990 and 2012. Almost all crashes – 96% – in which the pilot was found to have medications or drugs in their system were general aviation accidents.

We all know using drugs is stupid. Using drugs and flying an aircraft is stupider. We all know this, right? Then why do accidents involving pilots with drugs in their system still happen?

Less than 5% of the accidents examined involved illicit drugs. That means 95% of the pilots were using “impairing medications” – some over-the-counter, others prescription, but all legal. The most common impairing drug was a common antihistamine (diphenhydramine). Pilots aren’t smoking crack before they fly. They’re taking cold and allergy medications.

Have you ever popped a DayQuil and got in the cockpit? Did you think about how it might impact your performance? Here’s the catch – each human body responds to medications differently. Sudafed might make you jumpy but have no impact on someone else. Benadryl knocks me out for hours but other people take it without trouble.

The bottom line is to know the side effects of medications you’re taking, whether they are prescribed by a doctor or purchased over-the-counter.

With cold and flu season approaching, now is a great time to remind your employees – and not just pilots –  mechanics, line personnel, and flight followers should be reminded too – of the potential side effects of common over-the-counter medications. Advise employees of this danger by:

  • Adding a blurb about the NTSB study in your next safety newsletter
  • Including a discussion on this topic in your safety training
  • Discussing this issue in your next safety or all-employee meeting

Don’t fry your egg. Educate yourself about medications BEFORE you get in the cockpit.


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