AOPA challenges NTSB recommendation to restrict aerobatics for pilots with cardiac conditions
The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association is challenging an NTSB recommendation that the FAA create new regulations restricting aerobatic flight for pilots with cardiac conditions or taking certain medications. AOPA said NTSB’s “evidence” did not support the board’s recommendation.
“Common sense says that pilots who have a reduced G tolerance, for whatever reason, shouldn’t fly aerobatics,” said Dennis Roberts, AOPA vice president of government and technical affairs. “And common sense seems to be working just fine.
“There is nothing in the accident record to show that we need new regulations arbitrarily restricting those 35,000 pilots with special-issuance medical certificates or taking blood pressure medication from engaging in aerobatic flight.”
National Transportation Safety Board safety recommendations A-99-1 and A-99-2 cited three fatal aerobatic accidents since 1980 in which the pilots supposedly showed evidence of heart conditions. According to the NTSB, the combination of low blood pressure and slow heart rate, which are side effects of many heart medications, tend to reduce a pilot’s resistance to G-induced loss of consciousness (G-LOC).
The board said that “all pilots with special-issuance [medical] certificates due to cardiac conditions that could affect their G-tolerance and all pilots taking medication that reduces G-tolerance should be restricted from engaging in aerobatic flight.”
AOPA examined the three accidents and discovered that NTSB’s own accident investigations did not support the board’s recommendations.
In the first accident cited, a Pitts Special S2S engaged in aerobatics flew into the ground near Olathe, Kansas, on May 7, 1980. The NTSB accident report said the pilot had no preexisting heart condition, wasn’t taking any medications, and held a regular second class medical certificate. The report said the medical, pathological, and toxicological findings at autopsy were “of no significance to the accident.”
“This accident has no relationship whatsoever to the safety recommendations,” said AOPA.
In the other two cases, the pilots did have medical conditions that might have contributed to the accidents, but the NTSB recommendations would not necessarily have prevented either one.
The second accident involved a Stearman PT-17 that hit the ground during an airshow. NTSB’s summary of the autopsy report said the pilot had coronary artery disease and evidence of previous heart attacks.
But the evidence also suggests the pilot didn’t know he had a heart condition and therefore had been issued a regular second class medical.
In the final case cited, a T-6 was in a low-altitude, steep-banked turn when the engine quit. The aircraft spun in after it apparently stalled.
“It’s difficult to draw a link between G-LOC and engine failure,” AOPA said. The NTSB accident report noted the presence of prescription drugs in the pilot’s body that would have been disqualifying for a medical certificate.
“We believe the real issue in this accident was the pilot’s failure to report to the FAA the cocktail of medications he was taking,” AOPA said.
AOPA told the safety board that pilot medical incapacitation is very rare. Only 1.9 percent of general aviation accidents have any medical factor as even a partial contributing cause. Medical incapacitation is even more rare among aerobatic pilots.
AOPA noted that there are many factors that can reduce a pilot’s tolerance to G loads. Fatigue, a heavy meal, the flu, or a cold can make a pilot more susceptible to a G-induced loss of consciousness.
“Pilots know that on some days we just aren’t fit to fly because we’re sick or taking medication. And so we don’t fly,” said AOPA’s Roberts. “This common-sense self-certification works very well. Decades of safe flying experience by tens of thousands of pilots conclusively demonstrates that there is no need for new regulations or restrictions.”
AOPA asked NTSB to withdraw its safety recommendations because they “are unsubstantiated by operational experience and would not prevent the very accidents they were designed to address.”
AOPA’s letter to NTSB is available on AOPA Online.
The 340,000-member Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association is the world’s largest civil aviation organization. More than half of all U.S. pilots are AOPA members.
February 5, 1999