Sumwalt Stresses Fitness for Duty at NBAA Safety Week

National Transportation Safety Board chairman Robert Sumwalt helped cap off NBAA’s week of virtual safety events with a message of the importance of taking precautions in the air and on the ground to ensure fitness for duty.

Sumwalt spoke on the last day of NBAA’s Virtual Safety Week that brought online many of the events typically held in person during NBAA-BACE, including the Single-Pilot Safety Standdown and National Safety Forum as well as the association’s safety awards. In addition, Virtual Safety Week hosted a Safety Town Hall for the first time.

The NTSB chair participated on October 9 during the National Safety Forum, which carried a theme of “Optimizing Your Personal Performance” and focused on fitness for duty for individuals and organizations through effective sleep management, as well as maintaining a healthy mind and healthy body.

Sumwalt praised NBAA for continuing to host the event virtually and said even though there was a venue change, that did not diminish the quality of the events. He added that this year’s theme was “one of critical importance.”

Four of the issues on the NTSB’s “Most Wanted List” of transportation safety improvements center on “ensuring the transportation workers are of sound, mind, body, and soul—basically being fit for duties,” he noted. These include reducing distractions, fatigue-related accidents, and alcohol and drug impairment in transportation, as well as ensuring medical fitness.

Sumwalt in particular focused on drug impairment, pointing to a study released this year on the incidences of drugs found in the systems of pilots killed in aircraft crashes.

That study updated a similar review conducted in 2014 and found the prevalence of drugs has trended upward. The original study looked at the toxicology results of fatally injured pilots from the years 1990 to 2012, while the most recently released study looked at 952 pilots fatally injured in aircraft crashes from 2013 to 2017.

In 2012, 40 percent were found with at least one drug of any kind in their system. By 2017 that number had risen to almost 50 percent.

Of the pilots examined in the most recent study, 28 percent tested positive for at least one potentially impairing drug, up from 23 percent in the 2014 study, and 15 percent tested positive with at least one drug that pointed to a potentially impairing condition, a 3 percent increase from 2014.

Meanwhile, 10 percent were found to have a controlled substance in their system, up from 8 percent in 2014, and 5 percent tested positive for an illegal drug, up slightly from 4 percent in the 2014 study.

Nearly half the pilots involved had an ATP or commercial pilot certificate, he said, but cautioned that does not necessarily mean they were operating in business aviation. He also cautioned that not all were potentially impairing or illegal drugs, noting many involved slower sedating antihistamines and other over-the-counter cold and allergy medication.

He worried about those with potentially impairing drugs and/or conditions and said “it gets really concerning” with the controlled substances, which are not permitted. The same holds true, obviously for illicit drugs, the most common of which would be marijuana.

The other issue he highlighted on the list was distractions. “These days in the cockpit, you’ve got a lot of distractions and potential distractions,” he said. But as attention focuses on that, he is concerned as well about distractions once the pilot leaves the aircraft—“once we close the aircraft door, close up the hangar, and we get into our car.”

He asked how many pilots pick up the phone in the car to check emails, send a quick text message, or call home to say they are on the ground.

The National Safety Council designated October as distracted driving awareness month, he pointed out, adding, “I’ll tell you, I’ve met with a lot of families whose loved ones have been killed by a distracted driver.” His concern is that “we’re all careful when it comes to flying airplanes,” but then pilots will get in the car and pick up the phone.

Also, along the personal fitness line is the need to get help for mental and other health issues, he said, “I’ll be willing to bet that most of us are just a teeny bit Type A, right? That’s a trait that can help us, but it’s a trait that can also work against us. And if you’re like me, you really don’t want to pick up the phone and ask for help—whether we’re calling for mental health counseling, whether we’re calling for family counseling, whether we’re calling about physical ailments. The fact is it’s difficult for us to pick up the phone.”

But he stressed that resources are available to help pilots. While with the airlines, Sumwalt said pilots had access to an air medical office where they could call to discuss health-related concerns confidentially.

Similar services are available to business aviation and should be used, he said. Peer-support programs can be equally important and should be something corporate operators consider, he said.

He concluded by questioning whether business aviation organizations have provided enough resources to support the full care of an employee and whether the business aviation community, including NBAA, would consider the development of peer-support programs.

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