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Things to Consider When You're Under the Weather

By Paul Engstrom, Aviation Writer and IFA Member

Like most pilots, H. Stacy Vereen, MD, a full-time aviation medical examiner and corporate jet pilot in Atlanta, has a story or two to tell. One of his is about a patient who became too sick aloft to fly the airplane.

Fortunately, the story not only ends happily, but offers insight on things you can do when illness interferes with flight planning.

The patient/pilot, battling an onset of the flu, came to Vereen seeking quick relief from nausea so he could ferry three passengers from Atlanta to Florida as promised. Vereen urged him not to fly, explaining that an anti-nausea injection would ground him anyway.

Coincidentally, a fellow aviator and friend of the pilot also was at Vereen's office that day for a flight physical. He agreed to accompany the pilot to Florida as a back-up. A wise strategy, it turned out, because he ended up as pilot-in-command on the return leg while his buddy lay aft, overwhelmed by flu symptoms.

Most general aviation pilots wouldn't even think to ask a flight instructor or another pilot to tag along, as a kind of insurance policy, when they don't feel well, according to Vereen. Yet, he says, this and other tactics could spell the difference between a safe flight and a dangerous one when you choose to fly despite being ill.

Of course, serious ailments aside, it's not always easy to decide if lesser aches, pains or other discomforts warrant canceling a trip. 'In the practical world,' says Vereen, 'if you insisted that every pilot who has the sniffles ground himself, we wouldn't have a transportation system.'

The Federal Aviation Regulations aren't much help in this regard. They put the onus on pilots'most of whom aren't doctors'to determine for themselves if they're fit enough to fly on any given day.

Add the real or perceived pressure from passengers to leave and arrive on schedule, or the tendency of some macho pilots to wave off illness as a minor nuisance, and the illness factor may get lost in the shuffle.

Vereen offers these guidelines for under-the-weather pilots who aren't sure if they're well enough to fly:

  • If in doubt, consult a doctor first. If your personal physician or one of his or her peers can't provide an answer, call an aviation medical examiner.
  • Take into account the demands of the flight you intend to make. A long flight in an unfamiliar airplane to an unfamiliar airport in poor weather will require all the good health and expertise you can muster, unlike a short hop in your own plane to a familiar strip on a sunny day.
  • Remember, illness itself is only part of the equation. Another part is the prescription or over-the-counter medication you're taking to relieve symptoms. Might it cause drowsiness or other hazardous side effects?
  • Consider the possibility that your symptoms before a flight could get worse en route. A fever that accompanies strep throat, for example, may begin as fairly minor, then rise to a temperature that causes delirium.
  • Rely on your medical history as a guide. Women who routinely get premenstrual migraine headaches can predict when it will be unsafe to fly. And pilots who know they occasionally suffer from, say, low blood pressure or hay fever, symptoms of which may arise on short notice, can stow away a remedy just in case.

Unfortunately, says Vereen, too many sick people 'drag themselves out to the airport, thinking they have to go because they already planned the trip''a silly notion that could prove disastrous.

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.