March 1, 2013
By Jonathan Sackier
In discussing aviation hazards, I always rant to anyone willing to listen about how safe flying truly is. However, fuel exhaustion, controlled flight into terrain, catastrophic airframe or engine failures, and other NTSB demons aside, there are flying- related health risks that, how do I say this, do not include flying.
First is driving to your airport. Parents of teen drivers are told to prevent their child from taking the wheel when down in the dumps or on top of the world—emotional highs impair judgment just as well as lows. Statistics are hard to come by, but how many pilots, thrilled to be en route to their particular paradise, have a car versus tree encounter? Oak or pine usually trump Ford or Chrysler.
Upon arrival at your airfield or $100 hamburger joint (given avgas prices, this should be called the $200 burger) your long-term health might be threatened by dodgy or fatty food, so beware.
Although the reason is uncertain, pilots are more prone to skin cancer. Airports, and other outdoor activities, expose us to the elements, so adopt the old Australian adage: slip on a long-sleeve shirt, slap on a hat, slop on sunscreen, and slide on sunglasses to protect skin and eyes from sun damage.
While engaging in strenuous physical activities such as installing a new hangar calendar or shooting the breeze with your neighboring pilot, make sure you keep well hydrated.
We all love reciprocating, turboprop, or turbine engine sounds, but repetitive and loud noise damages your ears—wear plugs so you can hear ATC well into your dotage.
Anticipation of flight to come invoked by avgas or jet fuel aromas can be heady. It also can be headachy as noxious chemicals lurk in fuel. To avoid short- or long-term health problems, stay well clear of the nozzle.
Many airplanes have been named for bugs: Tiger Moths, Mosquitoes, and so on. Other, less attractive insects also inhabit airfields. In my hangar I have encountered hornet nests and more black widow spiders than one can shake a stick at. Actually, I did shake a stick at them—and they didn’t bat an eyelid (not that they have eyelids). Inspect your domain carefully, dispatching these interlopers as appropriate.
Just prior to flight it is important to drain the sump and if the FBO is too far, many pilots pop into the long grass to water the dandelions. Be careful; this is where ticks lurk. Keep a can of bug spray handy and use it before taking the preflight walk. Some ticks carry nasty Lyme disease, and lately Lone Star tick disease has been in the news. When ticks bite they leave behind saliva containing a chemical that invokes an immune response. Unfortunately, this chemical resembles meat protein so when next chowing down on a juicy steak, one gets itchy, breaks out in hives, or has a serious allergic reaction.
If your field is close to water also be wary of rats, which of course might fancy holing up next to your pride and joy or even do some damage. They also carry some nasty diseases. So if you see rodents, report this to the airport authorities and request they take action.
Birds are, of course, a health hazard if they build a nest inside engine cowlings—so be aware, and do a thorough preflight. Similarly, certain spiders like to weave their webs in small orifices, so make sure you properly inspect the static port.
As you commence aircraft preflight inspection, employ practices similar to those you use when flying—stay ahead of the airplane. For instance, as you clamber onto a low wing, remind yourself that your teenage son might have done a stellar job of waxing her and, while he might LOL if you do a Keystone Kops routine and fall on your undercarriage, you may not be so happy. As you slide under the wing to check bolts, linkages, sumps, and panels, consciously review how you are getting under there; you are not as young as you once were and back injuries are common—and really unpleasant. Similarly, when it is time to pull your baby into the sunlight, do not be proud. Ask for help; a bruised ego is a darn site less painful than a bruised coccyx.
Discussion of shutdown procedures usually includes advice to test for a hot magneto—do this so that when you turn the prop accidental firing does not occur, make sure you stand sideways to the screw to prevent a major health hazard.
So keep safe and healthy at the airport and get aloft—you probably are safer up there!
Dr. Jonathan Sackier is an expert in aviation medical concerns and helps members with their needs through the AOPA Pilot Protection Services plan. Email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pilot Health and Medical,
Pilot Protection Services,
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Aircraft Power and Fuel
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