My flying career began on the 14th of December 1988. My 24th birthday. It was a smiling eager young man who strode out for a trial lesson on a small Piper Tomahawk.
My career ended 19 years later on the 15th of February 2007. In my 19 year career I flew numerous light aircraft and 2 commercial aircraft - a turboprop and a short-haul jet.
My commercial career began on the 2nd Feb 1994. At the time I had been a flying instructor for the previous 4 years. I had 2000 hours and had spent years trying to get a commercial job. Finally, I was starting my commercial journey.
I spent 2 years flying a turboprop as a first officer, getting my command in the summer of '96. During this time I was a fit and active person. I played rugby regularly, ran three times a week and lifted weights. My career was going from strength to strength and I was promoted to training captain a couple of years later. I flew the aircraft until June '01. At this stage I was still in excellent health and looking forward to the challenge of a new aircraft type.
I wished so much that it would hit us just so the duty day would end. Just for it to end - it didn't matter how.
I started flying a new aircraft in July '01. Initially all was well. I found the new wizz bang jet exciting and challenging to fly. The new aircraft type gave my career the enthusiasm and burst of energy it needed. Over the next couple of years we had a number of non-descript fume events. Ranging from just smelly aircraft to a full-on mayday with a return to departure airport. This major event occurred in April 2004. After the incident I and the crew attended the medical centre. All of us were checked out and all the crew except myself were declared fine. I was suffering from the effects of smoke and chemical inhalation. My symptoms at the time included sore throat, frontal headache, drowsiness and general thick headedness. Almost like a hangover but without all the fun beforehand.
I resumed work the day after. Over the next few weeks and months I began to suffer from fatigue. No matter how much rest I took I felt completely exhausted. At times I was physically sick with fatigue. I blamed this on the heavy rosters at the time. Eventually two things happened. Both on the same day. Number one happened at the end of a 4 sector early. Started at 5 am, still flying at 3.30 PM. I was so tired my mind started to play tricks on me.
Being vectored downwind for the approach, a TCAS target came up on screen (an indication of another aircraft nearby). I wished so much that it would hit us just so the duty day would end. Just for it to end - it didn't matter how. I was fighting these thoughts to remain rational until we landed. After shutdown the first officer looked at me and just said "you are not yourself, maybe you need a break ". I will never forget those words and am forever grateful to him for his honesty.
I knew I had to do something. On returning home my wife took one look at me and booked me a doctors appointment. Apparently I had turned grey and gaunt. The doctor signed me off work for a 4 week period. The company were shocked. The first 2 weeks I don't remember much. I started to improve and was desperate to get back to work. Some facets of life started to re appear. I recall looking around my house and seeing mail unread for weeks. My friends at the local asked where I had been for the last couple of months. I had been too tired to even carry out normal life.
After four weeks I resumed work, keen and eager to resume flying. Shortly afterwards the fatigue started again. In addition to this over the next 3 years I started to suffer a number of unrelated symptoms. Things like tingling fingers, stomach problems, tingling down my right arm and shoulder, short term memory problems, irritability, mood swings and lack of concentration. When I was training I found I couldn't run very far and the same weights seemed too heavy for me. I just did not have the energy to train properly. I put this down to just getting older.
At the time (December 06) I was a union rep. One of our members approached me in the crew centre to ask me about possible health risks of fume events. I knew nothing of this but told him I would investigate and get back to him. Over the next few days I searched on the Internet and researched symptoms etc. As I did, I recall thinking some of these symptoms sounded a lot like the ones I was suffering. The more I read, the curious I became to see if there was a link to my situation. I spoke to my AME (Aviation Medical Examiner), BALPA (pilot union) and even rang the CAA (Civil Aviation Authority) to get more information. So little was available.
I continued flying, still curious. Eventually I sought help from my GP. She arranged a blood test. A week later the result came back and showed the presence of organophosphate compounds in my blood. Where could these come from? I didn't smoke, didn't live near any chemical installations and couldn't think of anywhere apart from my work environment where I could have been exposed to such chemicals. I had after all been flying bleed air aircraft for the last 14 years and suffered a number of fume events.
Again after the result, I sought help from the CAA and BALPA. Again no practical advice given. So I carried on flying. A couple of weeks later I suffered almost a re-run of the day before I went off with fatigue the last time.
I was exhausted, making numerous mistakes and even asked 3 times if we had been given take off clearance. I just could not concentrate or retain information. I felt physically drained. The aircraft I was flying had a Tech Log entry to say it was prone to smell of chemicals and as a result the last 4 rows were not to be used by passengers and the plane was only to do flights of 1 hour or less.
At the end of the flying day the first officer asked if I was ok. We both knew I had made too many mistakes that day. On waking the next morning I again felt very hung over, again without the drinking or fun before hand. I just knew I couldn't continue like this. I rang the CAA for advice saying I was concerned about the effects of possible exposure to fumes and the effects it may be having on me. When I detailed my symptoms, the doctor patiently listened and then grounded me. My flight the day before, was to be my last.
I underwent months of testing including blood tests, cognitive functioning, genetic DNA, autonomic nerve tests. Finally I was diagnosed with toxic encephalopathy and neuropathy. In short brain damage due to chemical exposure.
Since then my career has ended. I am now a house husband. Health-wise I am a shadow of my former self. I still train (on doctors advice) but I am no longer the marathon-running, rugby-playing training captain I once was. I have virtually no short term memory. Every thing I do, I do from a list which I carry around with me. I have the same conversations over and over again. Strange things also happen. I get lost in a town I know well. Often I get in the car and then don't know where I am going or why. As I write this it is 11.55 am. I am desperate to sleep.
So that is my story. Very few people understand what is meant by Aerotoxic Syndrome. BALPA and the airlines are desperate to ignore or distance themselves from any evidence that links aircraft and in particular contaminated bleed air, to long term health effects.
Please read my story with an open mind and decide yourself. If you research further you will find I am one of hundreds of pilots who have had their careers prematurely and very much involuntarily ended by this syndrome.
This testimony in German
This testimony in Spanish