Following the copilot's collapse with nausea from oil fumes in the cockpit air on an Air Berlin flight from Milan Malpensa to Dusseldorf in November, German accident investigator BFU has taken the unprecedented step of sending a blood sample from the copilot for analysis to a specialist scientific organisation.
From previous experience the BFU knew what it might find in the copilot's blood: tri-ortho-cresyl phosphate (TOCP), a chemical constituent of the anti-wear additives in aircraft engine oil. This neurotoxic organophosphate has, on numerous documented occasions worldwide, got into the engine bleed air fed to the cockpit and cabin for air conditioning and pressurisation.
So the BFU arranged for the blood sample - taken from the copilot at a Dusseldorf hospital immediately after the flight - to be sent to the University of Nebraska for analysis. The tests proved positive, the BFU has reported. There was indeed TOCP in the copilot's blood, and what is more it had bonded with one of the natural enzymes in the copilot's body that regulates muscular and cognitive neural activity.
This is what TOCP does. The neurotoxicity of organophosphates is a known and understood phenomenon.
The BFU has said it is not going to put this subject down*. It is going to investigate the medical consequences of TOCP poisoning for pilots. Actually this is well known, but the BFU wants its own proof.
This is just what the airlines and aircraft manufacturers have been dreading: a government agency that is not prepared to look the other way any longer, like all the others have done so far.
The UK Civil Aviation Authority, for example, has had to face several cases of the inflight incapacitation of airline pilots.
Its reaction? Heath and Safety issues in an aircraft cabin are not its job [actually that's a wilful misinterpretation of its duties], and besides which, it was the pilots' fault for not getting their oxygen masks on fast enough.
How refreshing to see an agency like the BFU with the courage to face up to an issue as controversial as this.
It may lead to the industry finally having to do something about a problem which has been well known and understood for fifty years, and which has robbed thousands of flightcrew and cabin crew of their health and livelihoods.
Watch now as those with interests at stake try to silence the BFU.
Watch the conspiracy theories about the blood samples being rolled out.
Watch for the denigration of the copilot as a total wimp because the captain was not affected to the same degree.
Even Boeing, which has eliminated the risk of organophosphate contamination from its 787 series by generating cabin air supplies from sources independent of the engines and auxiliary power units, cannot celebrate, because all its other types are conventional.
The Air Berlin flight in this case was a Boeing 737-700 operated for the airline by Germania, but in October last year an Air Berlin Airbus A330 had just such an event, and the BFU is looking into that, too.
No pressurised types that draw bleed air from the engines or APU are immune. That means all of them except the 787.
If you want to see just how convoluted this issue has become, visit my blog entry about Cranfield University's awful "report" on cabin air contaminants. Incidentally, Professor Ramsden, who dared criticise the report is no longer with the University.
*The link takes you to the BFU report, in German, and you have to scroll down the bulletin some distance to this report, which is for the event dated 18 November.
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