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NTSB: Opioid use, spatial disorientation contributed to deadly Florida plane crash

The National Transportation Safety Board report on a December 2017 plane crash that killed three people near Orlando, Florida, concludes the flight instructor’s use of opioid pain killers likely impaired his ability to recognize and correct the student pilot’s spatial disorientation.

National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators said that a toxicology report showed that flight instructor Kamalesh Naik, 56, of Sanford, Florida, had “significant amounts of oxycodone as well as its active metabolite, oxymorphone, in [his] liver tissue.” Oxycodone, a potent prescription opioid drug, was also found in his muscle tissue, the NTSB report says. The opioids likely slowed Mr. Naik’s reaction when the student pilot experienced trouble handling the Beech C90 plane.

The NTSB report does not provide the names of the men who died in the plane crash, but Seminole County deputies publicly identified them days after the accident. Mr. Naik, 22-year-old Men Tao, who was piloting the plane, and passenger Hou Xupeng, 23, all died when the plane crashed into Lake Harney, which straddles the Volusia and Seminole County lines a few miles northeast of Orlando. Mr. Men and Mr. Hou were both Chinese nationals.

Pilot’s spatial disorientation

According to the NTSB report, Mr. Men took his first High-Performance Aircraft course at L3 Airline Academy in Sanford when the crash occurred. The report says that he was practicing landing during instrument meteorological conditions, meaning he relied on the aircraft’s instruments instead of visual reference to land.

Minutes before making his third landing attempt, air controllers changed the landing runway and gave Mr. Tao new instructions for his approach. Instead of maintaining 1,600 feet, as instructed, the aircraft descended to 1,100 feet, prompting controllers to issue a low-altitude alert. Controllers issued a second low-altitude alert as the plane descended further at a rate of more than 4,800 feet per minute.

The pilot responded about five seconds later, “yeah, I am sir, I am, I am.” The plane alternately ascended and descended before radar contact was lost in the vicinity of the crash site.

Investigators said the plane’s flight pattern indicates autopilot was initially in use until the final approach when Mr. Men manually maneuvered the plane in restricted visibility and “conditions conducive to the development of spatial disorientation.”

Investigators also found that the accident circumstances, including altitude and course deviations and the subsequent high-speed impact, indicate the effects of spatial disorientation. The report describes how the plane’s movements were consistent with a “graveyard spiral,” the term given to a potentially deadly predicament spatially disoriented pilots may experience.

Instructor’s opioid use

Investigators found no evidence of instrument or mechanical malfunction as a contributing factor in the plane crash.

The NTSB report concludes that Mr. Naik should have been able to recognize and correct the pilot’s spatial disorientation. However, toxicology tests showed the instructor had oxycodone in his blood at levels high enough to produce psychoactive effects and “impair mental and/or physical ability required for the performance of potentially hazardous tasks.”

The instructor’s wife reported that her husband had back issues. She was unsure of the extent but knew that he took prescription ibuprofen. She could not recall if her husband had a prescription for oxymorphone or oxycodone.

Aviation litigation

Beasley Allen lawyer Mike Andrews focuses much of his practice on aviation litigation and currently represents families of Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 victims involving the Boeing 737 MAX aircraft. In addition to his Ethiopian Airlines crash clients, Mike has represented people seriously injured in a variety of aviation crashes and the families of those killed in both civilian and military airplane crashes and helicopter crashes.

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