Norwegian airline captain permanently injured

A SAS captain was seriously injured and can never fly again after being exposed to an unidentified toxic gas on the way from Gardermoen to Paris.

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( 10 September 2000 at 2.45 p.m. Over the Skagerrak, en route from Oslo Airport Gardermoen to Charles de Gaulle Airport, Paris, with 54 passengers on board:

After five minutes in the air, the co-pilot noticed a smell resembling that of burning electrical wires or insulation. No smoke was visible. Both pilots felt unwell and summoned the cabin crew. The purser entered the flight deck and also noticed the acrid smell.

The captain decided to return to Gardermoen. Both pilots put on their oxygen masks, but after a while the captain took his off because he wanted to be aware of any changes in the gas smell and because of condensation in the mask.

The smell came and went
When they commenced the descent the smell disappeared, but after about ten minutes it became strong again. The co-pilot still had his oxygen mask on, but the captain, without a mask, felt confused and dizzy, so he put his mask back on and transmitted a distress signal. The aircraft made an emergency landing at Torp Airport at 2.55 p.m.

The cabin crew were advised that an emergency evacuation of the aircraft might be necessary, but this was cancelled because the gas odour disappeared just before the landing.

“The captain felt unwell after the incident. His general state of health deteriorated and he was granted sick leave on the grounds of fitness. After some time he was declared incapable as a pilot on medical grounds, resulting in loss of licence,” according to the report of the Aircraft Accident Investigation Board.

The pilot is said to be still strongly affected by the incident. SAS and the injured captain have agreed that he will not make a statement to Dagbladet. The SAS airliner was put back into normal service after the near-accident, and is still in use.

Unknown in Norway
Yesterday Dagbladet reported a Swedish incident on 12 November 1999 which almost ended in disaster. During a landing approach, both the captain and co-pilot of a BAe 146 airliner were completely incapacitated by a toxic gas.

The Swedish aircraft was subjected to thorough examination, but as in the Norwegian incident, no faults or traces of toxic gasses were found in the machine. However, in contrast with the Norwegian accident investigation board, which allows the question of the cause of the accident remain unanswered, the Swedish accident investigators conclude that contaminated cabin air was probably the cause of the near-accident. So-called organophosphates, highly toxic compounds resembling nerve gas, which are formed at high temperature after oil leaks in aero engines, are implicated.

“The Norwegian industry appears to be very slow to register what is going on in the rest of the world,” says Halvor Erikstein, an occupational hygienist in the Norwegian Federation of Oil Workers (OFS).

Gas not ruled out

Neither SAS nor the Aircraft Accident Investigation Board will rule out the possibility that the Norwegian captain got into difficulty because he was exposed to this kind of gas.

“Because we do no know the cause of the gas odour on the flight deck, we won’t venture to confirm or rule out that the incident was caused by a toxic gas originating in an oil leak,” says accident investigator Tor Nørstegård to Dagbladet.

Torkjel Vik, who is responsible for health, safety and environmental issues in the Norwegian Civil Aviation Authority, is not sufficiently familiar with the highly toxic organophosphates either, but he has announced that he will now investigate the problem thoroughly.

Espen de Lange, chief safety representative for SAS pilots, says that the airline went to great lengths to discover the cause of the incident.

“The emergency landing at Torp is the only incident we have experienced for which we have been unable to find a cause. While in our opinion it is highly unlikely, we cannot entirely rule out that the cause was a toxic gas,” he says to Dagbladet.

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