U.S. Pilots Are Using More Drugs—Just Like Everyone Else

Even in a culture that puts safety above all else, pilots aren’t properly educated about the potential dangers of common drugs such as antihistamines and sleeping pills. That’s the conclusion from a new National Transportation Safety Board report on rising drug use among aviators, which largely mirrors trends of greater use of prescription, over-the-counter, and illicit drugs by Americans in general.

About 40 percent of the 6,667 pilots killed in accidents since 1990 had prescription, over-the-counter, or illicit drugs in their bodies, according to a study of nearly 6,600 accidents from 1990 to 2012. Over-the-counter antihistamines such as Benadryl and Claritin were the most common. Antihistamine use rose to almost 10 percent between 2008 and 2012, up from 5.6 percent in the 1990s.

The vast majority of those killed in the period of the study—96 percent—were general aviation pilots typically flying small, one-engine planes; less than 1 percent of incidents involved major airlines. The study focused on evidence of drug use, not on whether the effects of the drug led to impairment while flying. Alcohol was not included in the study because toxicology screenings often detect ethanol the body creates naturally after death.

Use of illicit drugs such as marijuana and cocaine increased to almost 4 percent in the 2008-12 span, up from 2.3 percent in the 1990s. Most of the illicit drugs in the study resulted from greater use of marijuana among the pilots who died, the agency said.

The NTSB, which recommends safety improvements, called on the Federal Aviation Administration to better educate pilots about the potential dangers of some common drugs and develop a policy on marijuana use by pilots. Colorado and Washington have legalized marijuana for adult use, and almost two dozen other states allow marijuana for medical uses. More states are also likely to vote on legalizing recreational and medical marijuana use.

Dr. Mary Pat McKay, the NTSB’s chief medical officer, said more research is needed to determine how drugs can interact with each other and lead to pilot impairment. Sleep aids and pain medications, for example, can hurt pilot performance and yet there aren’t guidelines on how pilots might safely use those drugs.

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