Pilot Took Amphetamines before Fatal Helicopter Crash, Report Says — (Milwaukee Journal Sentinal)

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Milwaukee Journal Sentinal

By Jacqueline Seibel, jseibel@journalsentinal.com

May 12, 2004

3 died, and officials say man wasn’t supposed to be carrying passengers

Mukwonago – A local businessman had an antidepressant and an amphetamine in his body while flying a helicopter that crashed last summer, killing three people, but a new federal report stops short of concluding the drugs caused the crash.

The pilot, Thomas Berg, 43, had elevated amounts of fluoxetine, a generic version of Prozac, and an amphetamine, often used to treat hyperactivity, in his blood and urine according to autopsy results in the National Transportation Safety Board report.

Along with Thomas Berg his daughter Chelsey, 10, and an employee, Michael Siegler of Lake Geneva, died in the crash in Coleta, Illinois, at 8:30 a.m. June 25.

The group left Mukwonago that morning and was bound for Kansas City, where Berg had business.

Federal Aviation Administration regulations prohibit the use of any medications that may impair the operation of equipment, said Safety Board investigator Edward Malinowski.   Fluoxetine comes with a warning that it may impair mental of physical ability, the report says.

According to information on the Internet Mental Health Web Page, fluoxetine can cause headache, nervousness, insomnia, drowsiness,  fatigue or asthenia (weakness), anxiety tremor and dizziness, or light-headedness among other side effects.

But in the report, Malinowski stops short of saying that the drugs contributed to the accident.   Just three months before the accident, Berg was issued an FAA second-class medical certificate with no limitations, the report says.

In his application for the certificate, Berg stated he was not taking any prescription or non-prescription medication.  Berg also had a student pilot certificate, which allowed him to fly his company’s Robinson R44 II solo or with an instructor, but carrying passengers was prohibited, the report says.

There were no problems detected with the helicopter or its engine, the report says.    The report has been forwarded to the National Transportation Safety Board headquarters in Washington, D.C, where investigators are to determine the probable cause of the crash, Malinowski said.

In an interview Tuesday, Laura Liddicoat, toxicology supervisor for the State’s laboratory of Hygiene, said that without knowing the specifics of the case, that an elevated amount of fluoxetine may be the result of a phenomenon called “post-mortem redistribution”.   Sometimes after death, the drug can move quickly into the bloodstream and have the appearance that it’s at a higher level, Liddicoat said.

The actual level of the drug at the time of death may have been two to five times lower, she said.    The amphetamine levels in Berg’s body are consistent with someone taking it for therapy reasons such as hyperactivity, Liddicoat said.

Amphetamines have also been used in test cases of pilots in the armed forces to counteract fatigue, she said.   Berg, owner of Berg Construction Inc, put a federal conviction of extortion and pipe-bomb-making behind him, became a civil leader who was devoted to making Mukwonago a better place to live.