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Pilot incapacitation is not caused by what you think

Helicopters are often requried to transport personnel into remote areas of the country"

Pilot incapacitation is a rare occurrence in Australia, but it can occur in virtually every flying scenario, reports the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB).

An investigation by the ATSB was released in February this year. The report, covering the years from 2010 to 2014, revealed that an average of 23 incidents of incapacitation happen annually.

While 75 per cent of incapacitation reports were from high capacity flights, they only occurred in about one out of every 34,000 plane trips. Furthermore, with a secondary pilot present, it usually had no effect on the outcome of the flight, even though the affected pilot was usually removed from his or her duty for the completion of the journey. 

Why do pilots get incapacitated?

Almost 45 per cent of these incidents were caused by gastrointestinal illness. The next most common was from people pointing lasers at planes, causing 13 per cent of incapacitation events. In 2008, Australia banned high-powered lasers to prevent such attacks. But over the period of the investigation a total of 1,316 laser strikes were reported, even though only 11 caused incapacitation.

The remaining quarter of incapacitation incidents occurred in low capacity flights with only one pilot on board. In these circumstances, 70 per cent of events affected the flight, with 20 per cent resulting in crashes.

Out of the 113 cases reported, only one involved illicit drugs and alcohol, occurring in a medical recovery flight and a private flight respectively.

High capacity flights incurred the most incidents of pilot incapacitation, but the outcomes were minimal.High capacity flights incurred the most incidents of pilot incapacitation, but the outcomes were minimal.

How can pilots prevent incapacitation?

In 2009, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) developed the IMSAFE checklist as a self-assessment to reduce the likelihood of flying while incapacitated. It is a simple mnemonic that covers the major risk factors, adapted here from the FAA's Pilot's Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge.

  • - Illness: Do you have any symptoms?
  • M - Medication: Will any prescription or over-the-counter drugs affect your capability?
  • S - Stress: Are there any psychological pressures, either from work or from your personal life?
  • A - Alcohol: Have you been drinking in the last 8 to 24 hours?
  • F - Fatigue: Have you had enough sleep?
  • - Emotion: Are you upset or angry?

Although the chance of incapacitation is minimal, it is important that this assessment is taken seriously, especially in low capacity flights. If a single pilot is flying, the risk is dramatically augmented and the outcomes can be severe.

Interconnect Systems has a comprehensive background in aerospace and defence engineering, being an industry leader for more than 20 years. It provides electrical interconnect products and solutions, including cable and wire harness manufacture. For more information on the best backshells and cable harness solutions, contact Interconnect Systems today on 1800 812 214 FREE.

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