Flying in an airliner is exceptionally safe. However, there are always potential risks in flying and some may be less obvious than others. The health and wellbeing of the flight crew is something that may pass through the minds of passengers, but its importance is probably considerably less than such issues as terrorism or the storm they are flying through.
Stringent requirements have for decades been in effect to ensure that the pilots who fly airliners are physically fit. Airline pilots must have regular physical examinations by certified medical examiners to retain their airline transport ratings. This does not mean that pilots are physically invincible. Over one period of 15 years, 16 U.S. airline pilots died of natural causes while on duty.
There was one incident, in 1962, in which the physical incapacitation of a pilot resulted in the fatal crash of a U.S. commercial cargo aircraft. No U.S. airline passengers had lost their lives due to pilot incapacitation until 22 April 1966, when there occurred a confluence of adverse factors that resulted in a catastrophe. On that date, the supplement U.S. carrier Corporation was conducting an operation on behalf of the U.S. Military Airlift Command, using a Lockheed Electra turboprop.
The Electra departed earlier in the day from Monterey, California, bound for Columbus, Georgia. Its passengers were mostly military recruits on their way to Fort Benning, also in Georgia, for the purpose of advanced training. One pilot who saw the crewmen of the Electra before departure said they appeared to be in good shape. However, one of them was not. The 59-year-old captain, who was also the founder and president of the airline, was in such bad physical condition as to disqualify him from serving as an airline pilot.
One refueling stop was planned during the transcontinental service, at Ardmore, Oklahoma. As the Electra began its approach to Ardmore Municipal Airport in light rain and darkness, at around 20:30 local time, the crew initially requested that the Runway 08 lights be turned on, then shortly afterward asked for the lights on Runway 12. However, the aircraft continued towards the northeast, the pilots apparently trying to avoid an area of thunderstorm activity by landing in the opposite direction, on Runway 30. Only about a minute after its last radio transmission, the Electra crashed in the Arbuckle Mountains. Among the 98 persons aboard, only 15 passengers survived the fiery accident.
Examination of the wreckage revealed no evidence of prior technical failure in the aircraft. However, an autopsy performed on the captain revealed that he was suffering from coronary arteriosclerosis that was of such severity that the arteries from his heart had become brittle. This condition must have existed for some time, perhaps two years or more. So dire was the condition of the captain that two pathologists expressed the opinion that he may have actually died of heart failure before the crash. It was believed that the captain collapsed while at the controls of the Electra, leading to an uncontrolled descent from an altitude that was too low to enable the first officer to regain control and prevent the crash.
Records obtained from the his personal doctor further revealed the bleak state of the captain’s health. His history of heart disease dated back more than 18 years, and included numerous visits to the doctor for the purpose of treatment. Over a period of about three years before his death he had been experiencing symptoms of heart disease, specifically pain in the chest and left arm, and for this was receiving prescription medication, including nitroglycerin. In addition to heart disease, he had begun treatment for diabetes beginning in 1962, which continued up to his death. The most disturbing element of this story was the fact that the captain had concealed his condition from regulatory authorities. In the medical portion of his pilot’s license, he had never disclosed his ongoing medical treatment or the overall condition of his health.
As a result of the American Flyers Airline tragedy, government authorities began to work together to improve the quality of medical information received from pilots, and no accident of this type has occurred since in the operations of the U.S. airline industry.