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Chilkatvalleynews.com, Serving Haines and Klukwan since 1966, Volume XXXII Number 28
Jan 25, 2003
By Steve Williams
The pilot of last summer’s fatal L.A.B. Flying Service crash was taking a medication that would have disqualified him to hold a pilot’s license had company or government authorities known of its use, federal officials reported this week
The National Transportation Safety Board reported Monday that traces of the antidepressant Paxil were found in blood and tissue samples taken from the body of 26-year-old Chad Beer after the July 30, 2001 crash near Davidson Glacier that killed Beer and five passengers.
The NTSB factual report, a summary of the agency’s year-long investigation into the crash, does not list use of the drug as the cause of the accident. The safety board will determine and publish the probable cause of the crash within a month. In the months prior to the crash, Beer was prescribed Paxil to treat anxiety specifically related to his job. The safety board reported that Beer told his doctor he had suffered job-related anxiety, including chest and throat tightness, for years. “He says it often comes on when there is bad weather and he has to fly, or when he has to give his briefing talk to several people.”
The doctor, who was not identified, reported that a 30 milligram daily dose of the drug controlled Beer’s anxiety. “He notices that he has less anxiety while flying his plane and less subjective shortness of breath while speaking to people in his airplane. It was getting to be enough of a bother that he was real unhappy with his job,” the safety board wrote. The popular antidepressant is on a list of psychotropic drugs the Federal Aviation Administration lists as “disqualifying,” meaning that use is currently not allowed for private or commercial pilots.
Dr. Robert Rigg, FAA regional flight surgeon, said Paxil is banned because it could affect how a pilot performs. “It’s mood altering and it could have a big impact as far as what’s going on upstairs. There are really two issues here. One is the effect the drug itself has on a person, but the other is the underlying conditions for which the drug is prescribed. Everybody gets depressed, and it may be bad enough to be disqualifying. But use of Paxil definitely is disqualifying.”
Rigg said Beer’s doctor, who was not an FAA-certified medical examiner qualified to perform pilot physicals, may not have known Paxil was a banned drug. The doctor reported to the NTSB that Beer told him he couldn’t take other medications because of his job as a commercial pilot. “As far as the doctor’s liability is concerned, I can’t get into that because he might have assumed (Beer) could use Paxil. You just don’t know.”
Doctors are advised to inform their patients that Paxil could impact thinking and motor skills. The Physician’s Desk Reference, the standard prescription drug reference, states: “Physicians are advised to discuss with their patients that Paxil can interfere with cognitive thinking and motor skills. Patients should be cautioned about operating hazardous machinery, including automobiles.”
Patients are warned that “Paxil may impair your judgement, thinking or motor skills. Do not drive, operate dangerous equipment, or participate in any hazardous activity that requires full mental alertness until you are sure the medication is not affecting you in this way.”
NTSB investigator Clint Johnson said that the management of L.A.B. Flying Service was unaware that Beer had been prescribed the drug. Beer passed his last first-class pilot’s medical exam in September 2000, six months after being hired by L.A.B.
“Throughout my investigation of the crash it was very clear that they were not aware that he was prescribed Paxil. There’s really no way to know, if the pilot doesn’t tell them himself,” Johnson said.
That’s because the F.A.A. doesn’t require that pilots be tested for Paxil and other banned antidepressants. Random pilot drug tests focus on marijuana, cocaine, and amphetamines. Commercial pilots are required to undergo an annual medical exam, and are expected to voluntarily tell their F.A.A. medical examiner if they’re on antidepressant drugs, Rigg said.
“We’re on the honor system. We can’t ride herd on every pilot. It’s up to the airman to tell their examiner if they have any medical conditions.”
Rigg said pilots who admit to antidepressant use aren’t allowed to fly again until they’ve been off medication for up to six weeks, to make sure the conditions for which the drugs were prescribed don’t return. “We want to make sure your brain works. The creed is look sharp, feel sharp, be sharp. A pilot’s biggest fear is that they’ll lose their license because of a bad medical exam. Our philosophy is to keep people flying, and you’re allowed to fly with a world of medical problems.”
He said pilots use of Paxil is a controversial issue, with many in the F.A.A. advocating allowing the popular drug. “There’s a lot of people who think we should allow people to use it. No doubt it’s possible, but it will take a test run to find out.”
Before he crashed, Beer declined to turn away from overcast skies at the top of Davidson Glacier, choosing instead to try to break through to what he believed were clear skies approaching Glacier Bay. A second plane on the sightseeing flight, which originated in Skagway, took an alternate route to Glacier Bay and completed the flight successfully.
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NTSB: ’01 crash pilot was using restricted drug
Official says prescription drug may have contributed to Davidson Glacier crash
THE JUNEAU EMPIRE © 2002
Pilot overconfidence caused by a prescription drug may have doomed six people aboard a tour plane that slammed into a rock wall in the Davidson Glacier pass near Haines last year, according to a report released today by the National Transportation Safety Board.
The report is a summary of facts found during the NTSB’s year-long investigation into the July 30, 2001, crash of the Piper Cherokee Six plane, operated by L.A.B. Flying Service of Haines, that killed one Canadian and four German tourists as well as the pilot.
The final determination of the probable cause will be decided by a five-member panel of NTSB officials. Its report should be released in about three weeks.
A possible cause of the crash was the pilot’s use the prescription drug Paxil, used to treat anxiety disorders, said Clint Johnson, an NTSB airplane accident investigator based in Anchorage. Autopsy results showed traces of the drug in 26-year-old pilot Chad Beer’s body.
Commercial and private pilots are prohibited from taking Paxil and other “mood-ameliorating” drugs by the Federal Aviation Administration, Johnson said. There’s no indication that L.A.B. knew Beer was using Paxil, he said.
Johnson said the drug may have given the pilot a false sense of confidence as he flew the plane through two steep sides of a mountain pass, slamming it into a rock wall near the 5,000-feet mark of Davidson Glacier.
According to the report, Beer’s plane was the first of two planes leaving Skagway that day to conduct tours over Glacier Bay National Park by way of the Davidson Glacier pass.
Beer and the second plane’s pilot, whose name has not been released, discussed the safety of flying into the pass because of fog, low clouds and rain in the area. According to the report, Beer and the second pilot talked about optional flight routes, with the second pilot opting to take the longer way around the pass. Beer decided he was going to fly straight through the pass.
“It definitely was a tremendously bad decision,” Johnson told the Empire today. “Anytime you are flying through two mountain passes you are in cloud cover. Because of the clouds you could be at the exact same altitude as the top of a peak and you wouldn’t know it, which is what happened here, and how he smacked into a rock wall.”
The second pilot said Beer’s final radio transmission was, in part ” ‘… I’m sure that it’s clear on the other side. I’ll see you on the other side.’ No further radio communications were received from the accident airplane,” the report said.
Beer’s medical records showed that the Paxil he was taking for an ongoing anxiety disorder was making him feel more confident in his flying and in his ability to give presentations to tourists, the report said.
“When I read in his medical reports that the Paxil was making him feel more confident about his flying, that was a red flag to me,” said Johnson. “Was he overconfident? Is this why he tried to fly through a mountain pass? We’ll probably never know for sure.
“The fact is he was using a restricted drug … If he wouldn’t have elected to fly through that pass there would not have been an accident. That’s the long story, short. What we have to determine is if this drug played a part in his decision-making process.”
L.A.B. spokeswoman Peggy Ormasen was out of the company’s Haines office and could not be reached for comment by the Empire’s mid-day deadline.
Melanie Plenda can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.