Susan is a pilot, but can never fly again

“There was often a smell of dirty socks on board.”

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•Please contact me if you have knowledge of any kind about toxic fumes in aircraft, e-mail

( reported yesterday, 7 June, that flight crew and passengers are exposed to toxic fumes while flying. It is feared that airline employees all over the world have incurred permanent neurological damage after exposure to toxic organophosphates, originating from oil leaks in engines, in cabin and flight deck air. Susan Michaelis (43) is one of the pilots who are struggling to be taken seriously.

“Suddenly one day my health failed totally after a flight. It felt as if I had had a stroke. That turned out to be my last flight,” says Michaelis to

This happened in 1997 and in 1999 her pilot’s licence was withdrawn by the Australian air transport authorities.

Doctors are in no doubt that Susan Michaelis has sustained physical injuries; the debate concerns whether exposure to toxic substances aboard an aircraft is sufficient to cause industrial injury.

Childhood dream
Susan Michaelis grew up in Melbourne and from an early age she dreamed of being a pilot. At the end of the 1970s it wasn’t easy for a woman to become a pilot in Australia, so she didn’t start her training until 1986 – but just to make a point, as it were, her results were so good that she was awarded the Sir Donald Anderson Trophy in 1987 by the Australian air transport authorities.

Susan worked for a couple of years as a flying instructor before becoming an airline pilot. Her problems began in 1994 when she began to fly BAe 146 aircraft for the airline National Jet Systems, based in Canberra.

“Oil vapour was always leaking into the air supply. Noticing a strange smell was more the rule than the exception. I worked in this environment for three years until suddenly I couldn’t take any more. There was often a smell of dirty socks on board,” says Michaelis, who is a member of the pressure group AOPIS.

AOPIS is a non-commercial international group of aviation personnel who wish to make airline staff aware of the hazards connected with toxic fumes originating either from oil leaks or electrical equipment. Several thousand cabin crew are believed to have sustained permanent damage as a result of such poisoning. AOPIS currently has about 1500 sufferers registered in its organisation.


Constant pressure in my head” met Susan Michaelis a few weeks ago. The former pilot appears to be highly intelligent and is very well spoken, but shows clear symptoms of the effects of exposure to chemicals.

On several occasions, without warning, she loses the thread of what she is saying. She notices this herself and asks for help to get back to the subject. Susan has learned what it means to live with this condition for several years. A couple of hours of concentration clearly take their toll on her. Deep lines appear around her bright eyes, she is in pain and she needs to return to her hotel room to relax.

“I have constant pressure in my head and a feeling as if my brain is not getting enough oxygen. My head and face feel numb, I am oversensitive to chemicals, am often tired and weary and am troubled by memory lapse. These symptoms will never go away, even though my last flight was almost ten years ago,” says Susan Michaelis.

Opposition from industry and authorities

After health problems terminated her career as a pilot, she has been a zealous activist in the fight to get problems connected with contaminated cabin air taken seriously.

“We are still being told both by the aircraft manufacturers and the authorities that the oil leaks are not dangerous to health. We think this is odd, considering that it is now well known that many hundred airline flight crew have had their health destroyed by this. We have repeatedly warned the industry and authorities of the problems connected with contaminated air supply in aircraft. It looks as if the aircraft industry has too much influence,” Michaelis points out,

“By hiding behind a wall of doubt the authorities continue to fail us and the travelling public.”

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