A closer look at plane crashes in Oklahoma reveals a disturbing trend. Pilots are taking drugs that go unreported to the FAA, until it's too late.
A small plane crashed on April 28, 2008, on Interstate 44 near Miami, killing the pilot. Over the next three years, a series of small plane crashes killed ten more people in Oklahoma. We discovered there's more to these crashes than meets the eye.
Autopsy reports show all of the pilots had prescription drugs in their systems when they crashed. Many of them narcotic pain relievers and drugs with warnings when operating heavy machinery.
In fact, crash scene investigation reports show drug-use by pilots may have been a contributing factor in six out of 15 Oklahoma crashes between 2008 and 2010. That's 40 percent.
On October 14, 2009, a private pilot crashed a helicopter near Tahlequah, killing himself and a passenger. An autopsy shows the pilot had nine different drugs in his system, including "impairing doses" of a narcotic pain reliever and methamphetamine.
"It was an accident that was ready to happen and it did," said former NTSB Investigator Gene Doub.
Doub is a veteran aircraft accident investigator formerly for the National Transportation Safety Board. He says pilots using drugs is nothing new but it's a problem that's getting worse as more medications are readily available. Prescription drugs and even over-the-counter medications like Benadryl have contributed to a large number of plane crashes in the U.S.
"What we're seeing is just the Oklahoma tip of the iceberg," Doub said.
On July 22, 2010, a medical helicopter crashed near Kingfisher, killing the pilot and a flight nurse. The official cause will be released this week, but an autopsy and medical records show the pilot was taking an arsenal of prescription drugs, including drugs to treat hypertension, muscle relaxers and sleeping pills. It was enough to astound even a seasoned investigator.
"And to top that off... he had hydrocodone from lortabs in his system," Doub said.
"And this is someone who's flying a medical helicopter?" asked investigative reporter Jennifer Loren.
"That's right. A professional," Doub confirmed.
That pilot, and all five of the others with prescription drugs in their systems, never reported their medical conditions or medications to the Federal Aviation Administration. They're required to as part of their licensing, but private pilots are not required to take drug or blood tests. Medical flight pilots are supposed to take random drug tests, but still, the medication portion of their paperwork is based on the honor system.
"It says do you take any prescription medications... and it's usually no," Doub said.
But some pilots say it's not that simple. Their relationship with the FAA has become almost adversarial because of the process they have to go through to get their pilot's certificate, by listing the medications or any medical conditions they have.
The FAA does not provide pilots with a list of acceptable and prohibited medications. They take things on a case by case basis.
Some pilots hire companies like Pilot Medical Solutions to work through FAA red tape for them.
According to that company's executive director, pilots fear the FAA will force them to stop flying if they list the wrong medication.
"Because they just have no idea whether it is or isn't, and they don't want to risk whether or not it's going to be approved and so there is certainly a lot of difficulty with that process with pilots," said David Hale with Pilot Medical Solutions.
Our veteran NTSB investigator believes the fix is simple: Require all pilots to take a blood test.
"I think you would probably catch more guys than you could imagine," Doub said.
9 Investigates asked the FAA if it feels the current process is adequate in the wake of our findings. In a statement an FAA spokesperson says, "The FAA believes that educating pilots to make themselves aware of the potential detrimental effects of medications is the most effective way to address this issue."
The statement goes on to say, "On every medical examination, pilots are asked to list their current medications, so that these can be reviewed by the Aeromedical Examiner (AME) and/or the Aeromedical Certification Branch in Oklahoma City. The AMEs also review any pertinent medical history the airman provides, to include therapy for those conditions. Penalties and legal action are specified for falsification of the medical history form. The FAA does not have authority to subpoena medical records, so the foundation of the medical certification process is the truth and honesty of the airman."
However, the FAA gave 9 Investigates the exclusive rights to publish a letter written to pilots, addressing this specific issue. An FAA spokesman says the letter is to all pilots and will be released Tuesday.
If a pilot takes an over the counter medication to treat a cold or some other temporary treatment, it's up to the pilot to ground him or herself.