The NTSB reported this week that the prevalence of prescription, over-the-counter, and illicit drugs found in bodies of fatally injured pilots has continued to trend upwards since its last similar study in 2014.
That 2014 study examined toxicology results from pilots killed in plane crashes between 1990 and 2012. For the updated study, investigators examined toxicology results from pilots who died in plane crashes between 2013 and 2017. Almost all of these crashes—97 percent—were in general aviation aircraft, according to the study.
However, investigators noted a positive toxicology finding didn’t necessarily indicate that the pilot was impaired at the time of the crash, only that the pilot had used a specific drug or drugs at some point before the fatal accident.
Of the 952 pilots fatally injured between 2013 and 2017 with available toxicology results, 28 percent tested positive for at least one potentially impairing drug, up from 23 percent in the 2014 study. Fifteen percent were positive for at least one drug, indicating a potentially impairing condition, an increase of 3 percentage points from the 2014 study.
Ten percent showed evidence of use of at least one controlled substance, compared to about 8 percent in the 2014 study. About 5 percent tested positive for an illicit drug, an increase from the less than 4 percent in the 2014 study.
One of the key findings in the 2014 study was that pilots lacked access to information about potentially impairing drugs and non-impairing alternatives. The FAA, in response to an NTSB recommendation, recently published guidance to pilots for reading and understanding medication labels, as well as information on how long a pilot should wait before flying after using a potentially impairing drug.
The report also revealed an uptick in the percentage of fatally injured pilots who tested positive for marijuana. The NTSB concluded that evidence of this drug use presents a “safety hazard that hasn’t been effectively addressed” and called for the FAA to “explicitly inform pilots that marijuana use by airmen is prohibited.”