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Managing Illness Aloft

By Paul Engstrom, Aviation Writer and IFA Member

Bob Meyers, a retired United Airlines captain, tells a harrowing story about the time he became ill while piloting a small airplane alone in California's Central Valley many years ago.

At first, he dismissed the cramps, nausea, and weakness as a minor inconvenience. But as the symptoms got worse, Meyers began to doubt he could continue flying.

He did manage to land safely at his destination'fortunately, it wasn't far away. When the plane came to a stop, though, he literally tumbled out of the cockpit in agony. Medical help was summoned.

The culprit, Meyers later discovered: a black widow spider bite.

Illness comes in all shapes and sizes'from relatively minor ailments (motion sickness, headache, gastrointestinal discomfort) to life-threatening conditions (stroke, heart attack, hypoxia). What to do when you, the pilot, or one of your passengers gets sick in-flight?

It's something that receives little if any attention during flight training for private pilots.

You can't anticipate every possible kind of medical emergency, of course. And even if you're a doctor who's piloting an aircraft, there's still that primary responsibility when an emergency'medical or otherwise'arises: flying the airplane.

But Joel Stoller, a DC-9 captain and part-time flight instructor, and other experts cite these important considerations when humanware, rather than hardware, fails aloft:

  • Quickly acknowledge there's a medical problem, as that will give you more time to take appropriate action.
  • Remain calm.
  • Locate the nearest airport and land immediately.
  • Declare an emergency. Air traffic controllers can direct you to the closest airport and arrange for medical assistance to meet you on the ground.
  • Enlist the help of passengers'to administer supplemental oxygen or other first aid, or to comfort or restrain the one who's ill'so you can focus on landing the aircraft safely.

Remember, prevention is still your best friend. You can preclude some en-route medical emergencies by adhering to the I'M SAFE rule'no illness, medication, stress, alcohol, fatigue, or emotion.

In other words, before the flight even begins, doubly ensure that everyone on board is fit to fly.

When he isn't flying, Paul Engstrom writes and edits from Sebastopol, Calif.

The information contained herein is meant for informational purposes only. Neither IFA, nor Paul Engstrom assume any responsibility or liability for events that occur due to actions you or others on your behalf take based on the information given in this article. You are proceeding at your own risk. It is strongly advised that you seek the opinion and advice of a qualified aviation medical examiner and appropriate medical physician for any medical needs you may have.