Was cold medicine factor in plane crash?

Federal investigators cite impairment from drug, but physician disagrees

Posted: Thursday, December 14, 2000

Federal investigators say over-the-counter drugs might have contributed to a plane crash that killed four Juneau residents last year. However, a physician outside the investigation said the amount of medicine found was so small it probably didn't play a role.

Private pilot Glenn Cave ingested a cold medicine that causes drowsiness some time before he crashed his Cessna into a North Douglas mountain ridge in bad weather, according to a final report released by the National Transportation Safety Board. The crash killed everyone on board, including Cave's wife Shirley, and newlyweds Jason and Jessica Lidholm.

The NTSB report lists the probable cause as Cave's continued flight into low visibility, clouds and rain without use of flight instruments, and lists factors associated with the accident as "mountainous/hilly terrain, low ceilings, the pilot's improper in-flight decision making, and the pilot's impairment from over-the-counter drugs."

Investigators wrote that a postmortem toxicology test revealed the presence of chlorpheniramine and dextromethorphan in Cave's blood and urine. Dextromethorphan is used as a cough suppressant and chlorpheniramine is found in a number of over-the-counter cold remedies, according to the NTSB report.

"The warning associated with (chlorpheniramine) states, in part: 'Do not drive or operate machinery while taking this medicine as it may cause drowsiness,'" the report said.

The NTSB investigator who wrote the report is traveling and did not immediately return a phone message left by the Empire, but a physician with the Federal Aviation Administration said the amount of chlorpheniramine found in Cave's blood was insignificant. The exam revealed 0.017 micrograms of the drug per milliliter of blood, according to the report.

"I think it's very, very slight traces. That could have been taken a long time ago. In my opinion it would have no impact at all on his performance," said Dr. Robert Rigg, who helps pilots with medical problems as part of his job for the FAA.

Rigg emphasized he had not read the NTSB's final crash reporth. He said the FAA doesn't allow pilots to use any medication that might cause sedation, preferably eight to 12 hours before they fly depending on the drug and other factors.

"(Drowsiness) impairs your responsiveness and maybe lulls you into a sense of complacency that you may not otherwise have," he said. "We don't allow pilots to use them within a certain period of time before they fly. That doesn't mean they couldn't use them when they're not flying; it doesn't mean they might not have traces left when they are flying."

The crash occurred Aug. 8, 1999. The Caves left the Haines airport with their friends, the Lidholms, despite an advisory from the Juneau control tower recommending against a visual-only flight into Juneau due to "reported and forecast low ceilings and visibility," according to the report.

The party first landed out the road to have dinner at the Echo Ranch Bible Camp and departed for the Juneau airport at 6:20 p.m. Minutes later, Cave radioed the air traffic control tower, and a specialist said the airport was visible but warned him of bad weather to the west, according to the report.

At 6:40, Cave radioed the tower from Outer Point; when asked whether he was heading for the airport, Cave said no, "I think I'll go around the island here, it looks awful low up that way." Ten minutes later Cave told the tower he was turning back he was not heard from again.

A witness on the ground told investigators, "I saw the airplane just fly out of the clouds, just a few feet from the treetops, and make a hard right turn. I couldn't believe he was turning to the right, into the hillside." Rescuers found the wreckage on a steep, heavily wooded ridge about 500 feet up north Douglas Island. Investigators said they did not find any evidence of mechanical problems.

Kathy Dye can be reached at kdye@juneauempire.com

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