Three weeks ago the pilot of a FlyBe flight from Belfast international airport to Gatwick was preparing his passenger jet for take-off . He had just received clearance from air traffic control and released the aircraft’s brakes, pushing forward on the power levers in the cockpit to open the throttle.
As the plane began to accelerate down the runway at more than 100mph, he began to smell a strange odour described as similar to a ‘central heating boiler’. His throat became very dry and his eyes began to burn. Such was his discomfort that he was forced to hand control of the plane to his co-pilot. His fingers were tingling and his shirt soaked in sweat. He was confused, talking incoherently and unable to answer questions from his co-pilot. He could not accurately do safety checks. An emergency was declared and the flight returned to Belfast.
The three events are just some of dozens of cases detailed in a pilot database passed to The Observer compiled from confidential testimony to the pilots’ union, the British Airline Pilots Association (Balpa), and official records of the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). It details more than 100 incidents in the past three years in which contaminated fumes are alleged to have entered airliner cockpits and cabins. It reveals that in more than 40 of these events since 2003 one or more pilots were impaired in a way that could have affected their ability to fly. In many cases, pilots have been forced to breathe emergency oxygen to control the plane safely. Since 2004 pilots flying BA aircraft suffered a degree of impairment from fumes on at least six occasions.
Yet the public has never been told what is happening in the cockpit. An Observer investigation has also been able to establish that parliament has not been told the full extent of the problem. The database sent to The Observer by concerned pilots and cabin crew paints a picture of pilots flying with double vision, headaches, nausea, loss of concentration and disorientation. Some complain of feeling ‘spaced out’ and making errors; others say cabin crew have been affected, with some passing out and being hospitalised. An analysis of the CAA’s own database lists nine incidents last year when it had reports of crew suffering partial ‘incapacitation’. Its reports describe various flights where there are ‘oily smells on deck’ and pilots ‘feeling sick and using oxygen’.
The chemical name for the dangerous ingredient getting into passenger aircraft is triorthocresyl phosphate, more commonly known as TCP. It is an additive of engine oil used in commercial aircraft.
These oils are highly specialised synthetic lubricants vital to a jet’s operation. Research has shown that when they reach a very high temperature, as they do on take-off or landing, they burn and give off hazardous compounds like TCPs. These chemicals are part of the family of organophosphates, similar in structure to pesticides and chemicals used in sheep dip. For years they have been linked to long-term chronic health problems.
Passenger jets have to operate complex systems to ensure that the air within the cabin remains breathable for passengers and crew, even at high altitudes. The filtered air supply is known as the ‘bleed air’. Evidence uncovered by The Observer reveals that in some aircraft with poor engine design, leaky seals or a poor maintenance record, this air can become contaminated with fumes from the jet engines. Research suggests the effect of exposure to TCP can be mild, from a strange taste in the mouth to nausea. But it can lead to symptoms that can incapacitate pilots. Some scientists believe the long-lasting effects for those repeatedly exposed can lead to chronic health problems. Some in the industry fear a potential health scandal and have called it aerotoxic syndrome. Research by a consultant clinical neuropyschologist at University College London estimate that 197,000 passengers may have been exposed to such fumes in 2004.
‘Captain B’ is an experienced passenger jet pilot. He is scared that if he gives any clue to his identity he will be sacked. ‘You can sometimes smell the warning signs as you enter the cockpit,’ he says. ‘There is a smell like a wet rugby sock being heated on a radiator. Sometimes on take-off or landing I’ve found myself losing concentration, becoming light-headed and missing calls from air-traffic control. Sometimes you are simply struggling to keep ahead. Oxygen certainly helps, and if only one pilot is affected and things are going according to plan, then this should not cause too many problems, but God forbid there should be a need to take action, it could end in catastrophe.’
Captain Colin Barnett-Higgins, 62, flew for 35 years for several airlines. He took early retirement in 2000 on medical grounds after what he believes was repeated exposure to contaminated oil fumes. His troubles began in 1997. ‘You normally smelt it when starting the APU [auxiliary power unit] on the ground,’ he said. ‘That’s your source of electrics and air before the main engines start taxiing. It can get worse on take-off and you begin to feel very tired and exhausted. At the time I never realised. I just struggled on … I hope it doesn’t take a disaster for people to take notice.’
Today Barnett-Higgins suffers from chronic fatigue, acute headaches, memory loss and severe pains in his joints. He only realised his health problems may have been a result of fumes when he read of another incident five years ago in the Log, Balpa’s house magazine. ‘Until then I had put it down to getting older,’ he said.
The Observer has spoken to two other pilots forced to retire on health grounds which they believe were a result of inhaling fumes. Captains Julian Soddy and David Hopkinson both suffer symptoms associated with organophosphate poisoning. In Hopkinson’s case, he filled in an air safety report about toxic fumes on his BA aircraft but this does not appear on CAA records. ‘It seems that many other events, before and after, have also not been properly reported. The result is that the regulatory authorities say they are not aware of a significant problem,’ he said.
Others in the industry have contacted The Observer anonymously. One pilot for a regional airline said: ‘I have seen us fly families to their holiday in Spain or the Greek islands with thousands of young kids on the way to the beach. If only they knew what they must be breathing when the engines leak. One of our captains left last year with neurological problems. Nobody wants to talk about it, we just do the job and it pays the bills.’
It’s not just pilots. An air hostess said: ‘I was a cabin crew member on a 757 in August last year. All the crew had headaches and felt like we were all drunk after smelling fumes in the cabin most of the flight from Glasgow to London. Two passengers asked what was going on. All I could do was the usual and say the smell was harmless. Harmless my foot, our union has several crews sick from these fumes.’ An engineer for BAe 146s – one of the worst affected – said: ‘We’ve had numerous events where crews have been lucky not to bend the aircraft. I know crews who are sick. I will not let my family fly on the 146 because I believe exposure to those oil fumes is harmful. The public needs to know.’
The first recorded event of synthetic jet oil contaminating the air supply was in 1977. The former chief doctor at the US Air National Guard investigated an incident and said it required urgent attention. Six years ago The Observer first drew attention to the problem when it investigated a number of events linked to the BAe 146 used by a number of airlines. This is in part due to the plane’s design and the problem it has with leaking engine seals. Yet a report by the Air Accident Investigation Branch in 2004 detailed contaminated fume problems in a number of other aircraft, in particular the Boeing 757. ‘It was clear that the BAe 146 was not the only aircraft type affected and that the Boeing 757 had also been similarly affected. Report of other aircraft types such as the F100 [Fokker], A320/321 [Airbus], B737 [Boeing] and DHC-8 [De Havilland] experiencing “fumes” although not to the same extent,’ said the board’s report.
Some pilots, cabin crew and trade unions believe there is huge pressure from the airline industry to downplay the problem to avoid spending millions rectifying it. There is also the threat of huge legal bills should crew or passengers prove their health problems are linked to toxic fumes while flying. The response by the industry is that, while it admits there are incidents involving contaminated air, there is no evidence it presents a major safety issue or health hazard, and the amount of TCP those on an aircraft might ingest is too small to present ‘a significant health risk’.
The Countess of Mar, with the Liberal Democrat peer Lord Tyler, has been using the Lords to reveal the problem. In November she asked the Department of Transport: ‘How many reports [on exposure to contaminated air in UK aircraft] have been received for each year since 1995?’ Responding for the government, Lord Davies of Oldham, quoting from reports made to the CAA, said that since 2003 there had been 100 incidents but only one case of ‘pilot impairment’. He added that all these reports were investigated and ‘specific continued airworthiness actions have been taken in respect of BAe 146 and Boeing 757 aircraft to mitigate any effects and to reduce the frequency of occurrence. However, the number of events where impairment has been reported has remained low.’
Data obtained by The Observer and published today reveals that the level of pilot impairment is higher than previously admitted, a fact the CAA has had to accept after responding to our inquiries.
A BA spokesman said: ‘While we know of incidences where the crew have raised concerns about fumes in the cockpit, investigations carried out in conjunction with the Civil Aviation Authority found that there were no health implications associated with these fumes. Further studies into the cabin air on our Boeing 757 fleet were carried out by an independent specialist and concluded that the concentration of oil compounds in the cabin were well below the toxicological threshold for humans. In 2004 we put in place extensive procedures to ensure that engine oil on our 757 fleet is serviced correctly and that engines are not over-filled, and we have seen a great reduction in this issue since then. Our fleet of 13 Boeing 757s would make around 22,000 flights a year in total and incidents only occur on a handful of these flights.’
Regarding its fleet of BAe 146 aircraft operated by low-cost BA Connect, previously called Citiexpress, he said: ‘This is an industry-wide issue relating to how a set of seals within the engines has been fitted to a large number of BAe 146 aircraft. We are working with the manufacturer and will look to implement a solution with each engine during their maintenance overhaul procedures.’
In 2000 the Australian Senate launched a year-long investigation after a near air disaster was caused by fumes entering a cockpit. Senator John Woodley, who led the inquiry, is astonished that little has been done. ‘Some people in the industry and some of the regulators seem to think they are God and so can take risks with the lives of their employees and customers, but they are not God and this is not a joke,’ he said.’It is time they got serious. It seems they are waiting for blood on the runway before they act.’
Across the skies this weekend thousands will fly without knowing of the danger that could be seeping in through the air-conditioning system. Pilots spoken to by The Observer are demanding that others take their concerns more seriously before something terrible happens.
Dossier of Danger
FlyBe, 8 December 2004
Flight crew became incapacitated. According to the CAA report into the incident, the first officer ‘felt unwell (faint and breathless with shaking hands) and oxygen was administered for the last 20 minutes of flight’. The captain also had a headache with flu-like symptoms and was ‘in a state of euphoria’. He had to land the plane single-handedly.
Citiexpress, 25 July 2005
One flight crew member and two cabin attendants felt dizzy and unwell during take-off and cruise, according to the CAA. Oxygen given to one of cabin crew.
British Airways, 31 August 2005
One pilot incapacitated during flight. CAA report spoke of ‘abnormal smells’ and the co-pilot allegedly suffered with headaches, had difficulty concentrating and focusing with spots before the eye, and experienced ‘severe vomiting’.
To read the full Observer report from 2006 click here
10 years later and time for another Observer report – Mr Barnett?