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Plane food sees pilot grounded by explosive undercarriage

Study into pilot incapacity incidents finds jet-powered rear ends, lasers, top the charts

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Australia's Transport Safety Bureau has published a study analysing incidents that incapacitated pilots in flight and found that gastrointestinal issues were the runaway leader.

The study only covers Australian incidents between 2010 and 2014, producing a sample size of 113 incidents at a rate of one each 34,000 commercial flights. Of the 113 incidents, 45 were characterised as “gastrointestinal illness” and 11 as “laser strike.” Other causes of pilot incapacitation included motion sickness, feeling ill due to unspecified “aircraft fumes (that new Airbus smell?), appendicitis and even “partial paralysis.”

Plane food caused at least one of the food poisoning incidents. A case study in the report records that “During pre-flight preparation in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, the second officer of an Airbus A380 ate a crew snack chicken roll and commented that it did not sit well. Approximately 8 hours after departure, the second officer was affected by severe diarrhoea and could no longer continue with their duties on the flight deck.” Another officer ate the same snack and also felt unwell, but was able to continue their duties.

Another gastro incident was caused by a pilot's son, who had the malady and thoughtfully passed it on to his parent just in time for it to manifest somewhere between Australia and Fiji. On that occasion another of the airline's pilots was known to be a passenger and was able to assume the stricken officer's duties.

Australia's banned the sale of some lasers after miscreants felt it would be fun to shine them at planes. The study explains why: 1,316 laser strikes were reported in “high capacity transport operations” and eleven incapacitated pilots. One one occasion a first officer reported impaired vision after a laser strike, so much so that the captain took over. The first officer later visited a hospital for an eye test.

Another incident saw a pilot die of a brain injury that manifested during landing. Here's the case study:

“During landing in Perth, the first officer … became unconscious at the flight controls and the aircraft began to veer to the right of the centreline. The captain took control of the aircraft to return to the centreline and completed the landing. The two other flight crew members immediately supported the first officer and administered oxygen. The first officer remained unconscious and was stretchered from the aircraft by paramedics. The first officer died in hospital 2 days later from a suspected brain aneurysm.”

Influenza's also been a problem, on one occasion resulting in such ear pain for one pilot that they returned to the airport of origin rather as the crew felt it unsafe to continue the flight.

The report's case studies are also heartening: crews responded quickly and effectively to incidents, some cabin crew have had medical training and were able to offer very effective assistance. The study (PDF) also found that procedures to keep flight crew safe are sensible and widely-observed. Pilots and first officers don't eat the same pre-flight meals, for example, a precaution the report says is widely-observed. ®

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