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A survey of health symptoms was
undertaken in pilots who were members of
the British Airline Pilots Association flying
the Boeing 737, Boeing 757 and Airbus
A320. Six hundred questionnaires were
sent out to members, and 106 pilots
responded. Survey respondents were
predominantly male (104/106) and many
had extensive flying experience. With
regard to leak events (that is, leaks of
engine oil and hydraulic fluids into the
aircraft), 93/106 reported that they had
been involved in at least one. The total
number of incidents reported was
estimated to be 1,674+, with all but seven
occurring on the B757. Following exposure
to the contaminated air, high rates of
symptoms were reported by the pilots,
including: irritation of the eyes, nose and
throat; headaches, light-headedness and
dizziness; fatigue, weakness and a
decrease in performance; a general
increase in feeling unwell; concentration
difficulties and confusion; diarrhoea;
nausea, vomiting and gastrointestinal
problems; numbness (head, limbs, lips,
fingers); short-term memory impairment;
and joint pain/muscle weakness. These
symptoms are a direct breach of US
Federal Aviation Regulation 25.831, which
includes a specific requirement that cabin
air should not cause symptoms of
discomfort, fatigue, irritation or toxicity.
J Occup Health Safety — Aust NZ 2003, 19(3): 253-261
A survey of
symptoms in
Boeing 757
Susan Michaelis is a former Air Transport Pilot, now
Research Associate with the School of Safety
Science, The University of New South Wales.
Address for correspondence: Ms S Michaelis,
Research Associate, School of Safety Science, The
University of New South Wales, Sydney, NSW 2052,
This article was written in conjunction with the British Airline
Pilots Association (BALPA).
During the last several years, numerous reports were
received by the British Airline Pilots Association
(BALPA) from its members that they were
experiencing exposures to contaminated air supplies
while at work. The correct procedure for flight crew
to follow after experiencing fumes in the flight deck
is to fill in the aircraft maintenance technical log and,
if it is felt that the incident is more than transient, to
file an Air Safety Report (ASR). The airline then
decides whether to send the ASR to the UK Civil
Aviation Authority (CAA) under the Mandatory
Occurrence Reporting Scheme (MOR) — unless
the captain has specifically requested this by ticking
the MOR box on the ASR form. Data from the
CAA clearly indicated that the number of reports
received was significantly less than the number of
incidents that the crew were experiencing.
Therefore, it was decided by the union to carry out
a survey of short-haul pilots to determine the scale
of the problem and to see if under-reporting of
events was an issue.
The Australian Federation of Air Pilots (AFAP) had
previously done a survey of its members in relation
to problems that they had had with fumes on the
British Aerospace 146 (BAe 146).1Since that survey
had shown a significant pattern of symptoms and
that under-reporting was of concern, it was felt that
a survey among BALPA members might show a
similar pattern.
The study population comprised all members of
BALPA who were pilots on the Boeing 737, Boeing
757 and Airbus A320 in one United Kingdom
A survey questionnaire was prepared which was
divided into five sections: demographics; flying
history; flight deck events; health survey; and other
comments. The first four sections collected specific
data form answers to specific questions. The last
section was an open-ended section that allowed
participants to provide personal observations.
Six hundred questionnaires were sent out to the
survey population in October 2001. One hundred
and six replies were received.
Respondent demographics
Of the 106 respondents, 104 were male. Their ages
were: 20–30 years (n = 18); 30–40 years (n = 40);
40–50 years (n = 25); and above 50 years (n = 23).
Respondent flying history
The flying history of the respondents was: 1–2 years
(n = 7); 3–5 years (n = 12); 6–15 years (n = 36);
16–25 years (n = 24); and 26+ years (n = 27). Many
pilots had a significant flying history, with nearly half
of them having over 16 years’ experience.
Most respondents reported that they were flying
the B757: not specified (n = 1); B737 (n = 2); B757
(n = 102); and A320 (n = 1).
Respondent flying events
When asked whether they had ever experienced a
smoke or fume smell during the flight deck event,
96 respondents replied “yes”. When these 96
respondents were asked how many smoke or fume
smells they had experienced, an estimated 1,674+
events were reported (with 1,667+ on the B757
from 93 respondents). By any standard, this is a
large number of events.
There are clear criteria by which incidents involving
the presence of contaminants in the cabin or aircraft
must be reported. These are definable as defects or
major defects. Few of these events were specified as
events involving smoke: never (n = 74); occasionally
(n = 19); sometimes (n = 6); often (n = 1); and no
answer (n = 11). However, many involved fumes on
the flight deck which were not associated with
another aircraft in the vicinity: never (n = 3);
occasionally (n = 42); sometimes (n = 34); often (n
= 25); and no answer (n = 1). Of the 93 B757
respondents who reported a fumes event, 80
believed that the cause was oil contamination of the
Health symptoms in BALPA Boeing 757 pilots
254 J Occup Health Safety
Aust NZ 2003, 19(3): 253-261
air supply system. Of the 93 B757 respondents who
experienced fumes, 89 indicated that both pilots had
smelt the fumes, with events lasting from a number
of seconds to hours. A breakdown of these events is
shown in Table 1.
As noted above, a number of these findings were
in contravention of company or CAA safety
requirements. Soon after the survey, the airline took
positive steps to ensure that its crew always adhered
to company and CAA procedures in relation to
oxygen use. The Civil Aviation Authority has since
issued advice for crew to use oxygen when fumes
are present. The airline also took steps to phase
out a specific engine model which seemed to be
significantly more troublesome than a newer engine
These findings indicate that leak events are
occurring and are being under-reported by pilots,
symptoms reported may be impairing the pilot’s
ability to fly, safety procedures (such as using
oxygen) are often being ignored, and the
significance of leak events is poorly understood by
company medical personnel and crew. This is a
similar trend to the extensive under-reporting that
was found in Australia by the Australian Senate
Inquiry into the BAe 146 problem.2
Health survey
The questionnaire contained a number of questions
about health problems, including symptoms,
duration of symptoms, and the like. Of the 106
respondents, 104 respondents noted that their
health was good before they began flying (the other
two gave no answer).
Table 2 shows respondent answers to the question:
“Have you experienced any of the following
symptoms during your work pattern?”
These symptoms are indicative of at least
discomfort, fatigue, irritation and/or toxicity.
Symptoms reported as being “occasional” by at least
10 respondents include: irritation of the eyes, nose
and throat (37%); headaches, light-headedness,
dizziness (33%); fatigue, weakness, decreased
performance (30%); general increase in feeling
unwell (27%); concentration difficulties, confusion
(21%); diarrhoea (16%); nausea, vomiting,
gastrointestinal problems (15%); numbness (head,
limbs, lips, fingers) (12%); short-term memory
impairment (11%); and joint pain, muscle weakness
Of all the data collected in this survey, the symptom
severity data reveal the most about health problems
from flying on the B757, namely:
a wide range of symptoms was reported, in many
body systems;
some symptoms were reported at quite
moderate rates (for example, irritation,
headaches and fatigue);
some symptoms occurred quite frequently (for
example, confusion, memory impairment,
diarrhoea and nausea); and
some symptoms, such as coordination, fatigue or
memory effects, presented significant safety
These data show that the range of symptoms is
extensive, and their frequency cannot be dismissed
as being part of the normal health symptom
background. Other symptoms, such as fatigue,
coordination or memory problems, may have
additional significance to safety.
Pilots were also asked about whether their health
had suffered while flying on the B757. Most
considered that the symptoms occurred not only
following specified leak events, often occurred on
duty after leak events, and improved after duty or on
days off (see Figure 1).
These data suggest a substantial juxtaposition
between occupation and effects.
Comments made under the section “other
comments” in the questionnaire included:
After my most noticeable occurrence, I
experienced tingling in extremities for 24 hours,
in addition to a feeling of lower than normal
concentration and memory skills.
J Occup Health Safety — Aust NZ 2003, 19(3): 253-261
Health symptoms in BALPA Boeing 757 pilots
256 J Occup Health Safety
Aust NZ 2003, 19(3): 253-261
Details of flying events
Question Response
How many smoke or fume smells 96 respondents reported 1,674+ events
on the flight deck events have you
On which aircraft type did this/these 1,667+ events were on the B757
What do you think, or what was 80/93 respondents believed that the cause was oil contamination of
the cause? the air supply system
How long were you exposed to Answers varied from a number of seconds to up to four hours
abnormal fumes during each event?
How would you describe each event? Answers regarding the smell included:
banana smell
bitter taste
blueish mist
dirty socks smell
“funny” smell
hot oil smell
insidious smell
nauseating, oily smell
plasticine-type smell
vomit-type smell
smelly feet
taste of oil
Answers regarding symptoms included:
bad smell
burning smell
dry throat
hazy smoke
head felt odd
• headache
irritated nose
• light-headiness
metallic taste
splitting headache
stinging eyes
tingling skin
tunnel vision
visible fumes
Did both pilots experience the event, 89/93 respondents said that both pilots experienced the fumes
fumes or smells? or smells (but a few commented that the fumes were sometimes
detected to different degrees of strength by the pilots)
J Occup Health Safety — Aust NZ 2003, 19(3): 253-261
Question Response
If you experienced an event, did you Most (90%) did not seek medical advice. Common statements for
see or consider seeing a company not seeking medical advice included:
doctor or your GP? If not, what the individual felt better when in the fresh air after the event
influenced your decision not to see a no perceivable ill effects
company doctor or your GP? the event was short, so the respondent did not think it was a
• ignorance
the individual felt better after the fumes had cleared
the company doctor was inaccessible or not available
the company doctor said the symptoms were food poisoning, so
go home and rest. I was not convinced
the respondent was too tired to hang about for the company
the symptoms abated so I thought I was OK
devotion to duty
lack of ill effects
known problem
the respondent had another flight to do (commercial pressure)
the respondent was told no need to worry about long-term effects
the company said fumes had no long-term health effects
no tests were available
part of the job on the B757
the company health department said “no need to see a doctor”
unwilling to risk licence
company doctors are not to be trusted
night stopping, so only local doctors are available
events are so common, I would be going to the company doctor
every tour
If you saw a doctor or GP, what tests Of the 10% who sought medical advice/tests, advice included:
or advice was given? go and rest
the effects are fully reversible after fresh air exposure
the individual saw a company nurse who asked if they felt OK and
then sent them home — no tests were done, only names put in a
nothing to worry about
haemoglobin test
lung function test
blood test
blood pressure check
no known ill effects from oil smell inhalation
cholinesterase test — not done by the company
Did you use flight deck oxygen? 96 respondents said “no”. Comments included:
only when really bad
crew appeared to believe that short-exposure events without
visible fumes were not worthy of using oxygen
Did you report the event or There was substantial non-ASR-MOR reporting. Of the 1,667+
file an ASR? fume events on the B757, only 61 were reported in an ASR.
Company doctors cannot be trusted. This is too
Captain had degraded attention and I could not
allow him to fly the approach or landing.
How much did my company know about this
but chose not to mention?
I feel that, as a regular reporter of fumes on the
flight deck, engineering is not taking my reports
seriously as I am a “regular complainer”.
My worst experience was when I was asked to
“report further” on oily smells on the flight
deck. On return to my departure airport —
because they were so bad and because we both
felt ill — I grounded the aircraft (Report and
— I don’t think the company is doing nearly
enough to resolve the obvious problem on the
B757. The engineering department certainly
appears unsympathetic in this regard.
It is my impression that hot oil smells during
take-off and the first few minutes have recently
become a much more regular event on the
B757s. Of 20+ events, most have been in the
last year.
First time on I was on the B757, the smell was
not so prevalent, second time, much more often.
I am now on the B737, partly because of the
fumes, and now feel much better.
Long-term feeling of fatigue.
I reckon that every 3rd or 4th sector on the
B757 I can detect oil vapour.
I am concerned that I may have suffered long-
term/permanent damage.
Health symptoms in BALPA Boeing 757 pilots
258 J Occup Health Safety
Aust NZ 2003, 19(3): 253-261
Health problems in pilots
No Some-
Symptom answer Occasionally times Often Long term Never
Irritation of eyes, nose and throat 3 39 19 4 1 40
Blurred vision, tunnel vision 9410092
Respiratory distress difficulties 10420189
Headaches, light-headedness,
dizziness 4 35 15 3 2 47
Balance/coordination difficulties 10320091
Disorientation 12930082
Memory impairment (short-term) 8 12 4 1 2 79
Numbness (head, limbs, lips, fingers) 5 13 3 1 0 84
Fatigue, weakness, decreased
performance 7 32 18 5 1 43
Concentration difficulties, confusion 7 22 7 2 1 67
Skin irritations 10876075
Nausea, vomiting, gastrointestinal
problems 9 16 5 0 1 75
Diarrhoea 12 17 11 2 1 63
Joint pain, muscle weakness 9 10 5 1 0 81
General increase in feeling unwell 6 29 7 2 3 59
Immune system disorders 10320091
Intolerance to foods/alcohol 10441285
Intolerance to chemicals/odours 10 4 11 1 0 80
Cancer (please state type) 2 (1 basal cell carcinoma and 1 prostate)
When reported, I was told unless you use
oxygen nothing will be done.
Overall, the survey provided information about the
health issues for pilots flying on (mainly) the B757:
1. The oils used in aircraft engines contain toxic
ingredients which can cause irritation, sensitisation
and neurotoxicity.3This does not present a risk to
crew or passengers as long as the oil stays in the
engine. However, if the oil leaks out of the engine,
it may enter the airconditioning system and cabin
air. This is a direct contravention of the US Federal
Aviation Authority’s and the European Joint
Aviation Authorities’ airworthiness standards for
aircraft ventilation (FAR/JAR 25.831):
“(a) Each passenger and crew compartment
must be ventilated and each crew compartment
must have enough fresh air (but not less than 10
cubic ft per minute per crew member) to enable
crew members to perform their duties without
undue discomfort or fatigue.
(b) Crew and passenger compartment air
must be free from harmful or hazardous
concentrations of gases or vapours.” (emphasis
This study has shown that contamination of the
cabin and flight deck air supply causes toxic
exposures to, and adverse health effects in, crew (on
the flight deck, these fume events are sometimes
producing effects in both pilots).2,4
2. Although there is a perception by aircraft
manufacturers and airline operators that “a little bit
of contamination” should not be regarded as an
operational problem, the author believes that this
problem should at least be defined as a defect (as
required under the aviation regulations).
3. The findings of the present survey are consistent
with other studies previously published on this issue,
including a study undertaken by the author on
J Occup Health Safety — Aust NZ 2003, 19(3): 253-261
Do symptoms only
occur after leak
Did you have symptoms
prior to flying?
Do symptoms improve
on holidays or days off?
Do symptoms decrease
a few hours after
duty time?
Do symptoms
increase more on duty?
Have symptoms
increased since flying?
Number of respondents
No answer
Symptom incidence in pilots
health symptoms reported by Australian BAe 146
pilots.1,5-7 Both the BAe 146 pilots and the B757
pilots reported a similar pattern of extensive
symptoms at high to moderate rates (including eye,
nose and throat irritation, headaches and dizziness,
fatigue, feelings of being unwell, concentration
difficulties, memory impairment and nausea),
although the symptoms were at a higher frequency
and with more long-term effects among the BAe
146 pilots. In addition, symptoms occurred not only
after specified leak events but also during “non-
event” flights, and were more prevalent on the B757
and BAe 146 than other aircraft.
4. Residual contamination (as well as specified leak
events) may be causing problems.
5. There is a lack of understanding by pilots
regarding the toxicity of the oil leaks, the health
effects on OHS and the necessity to use oxygen.
This is further compounded by the airline health
professionals who, when confronted with a pilot
who has been exposed in a fume event and who is
concerned about its consequences, have a poor
understanding of the short and long-term medical
issues that may arise.
6. Pilots continue to fly when experiencing
discomfort or symptoms.
The findings of this survey (including the number of
crew reporting fume events, the number of fume
events themselves, and the relatively high correlation
of some groups of symptoms) suggest that, at least
for the B757, this is a problem that must not be
Pilot exposure to contaminated air that causes
discomfort or symptoms such as irritation, headache
or fatigue is a clear contravention of the
airworthiness regulation FAR 25.831, which
includes a specific requirement that cabin air should
not cause symptoms of discomfort, fatigue, irritation
or toxicity.
Contaminants in the air of an occupational
environment should, under normal circumstances,
alert management to a potential problem. Proper
medical and scientific research needs to be
undertaken in order to help airline management and
crew to better understand both the short-term and
long-term medical effects of being subjected to air
Over the past 50 years, the concept of duty of care
has emerged as one of the most important legal
responsibilities for employers. In the workplace, the
duty of care of an employer to its workers has been
crystallised into OHS legislation. Aviation safety is
something that a person outside of the industry
would understand to cover all aspects of safety,
including the health and safety of its workers.8
However, this does not seem to be how all industry
insiders see it. Many in the industry see aviation
safety as being about making sure the planes keep
flying. Both the aviation regulators and the airlines
themselves think that OHS is not their business —
which is strange, because if they do not look after the
health and safety of workers in the industry, who
will?9The most important message that BALPA
would like to send to its members who have
experienced fume events is:
no matter where a report of fumes or odours
comes from, take it seriously;
recording every fume event provides the union
with the data required to present detailed
arguments to the airline companies. It is only
from such a position of strength that the union
is able to work effectively with the companies to
address such problems;
record all relevant details related to the event,
including aircraft registration, flight and cabin
crew affected, flight details, time, place and any
underlying issues, and provide these to your
employer and the CAA via ASR/MOR reports
and inform the Air Accident Investigation
Branch if deemed necessary;
Health symptoms in BALPA Boeing 757 pilots
260 J Occup Health Safety
Aust NZ 2003, 19(3): 253-261
enter every defect/incident in the aircraft
technical maintenance log for engineering
action; and
use oxygen (if appropriate) in line with company
policy, manufacturer’s checklists, CAA
guidelines and basic airmanship.
More scientific and medical research is needed on
the short and long-term effects of exposure to
contaminated air and, until this is completed, all
areas of the aviation industry should take fume
exposure events seriously. It is vital that the above
recommendations are taken seriously; they should
be seen as an important part of educating crew and
the aviation industry, thereby addressing the
The author would like to thank BALPA for
providing support in conducting the survey and
finalising this report.
1. Cox, L and Michaelis, S. A survey of health symptoms in
BAe 146 aircrew. J Occup Health Safety — Aust NZ 2002,
18(4): 305-312.
2. Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References
Committee. Report on air safety and cabin air quality in the
BAe 146 aircraft. Canberra: Parliament of Australia, October
3. Winder, C and Balouet, J-C. The toxicology of commercial
jet oils. Environ Res 2002, 89: 146-164.
4. Mandatory Occurrence Report (MOR) UK CAA OCC BAe
146 199900440, 21/1/99; MOR BAe 146 OCC
200008340, serious incident, 5/11/00 (subject to AAIB
investigation — report withheld); MOR B757 OCC
20007913, 25/10/00; MOR B757 OCC 200008363,
7/11/00, serious incident; Air Safety Report B757 GBPEE
9/7/02; Australian Transport Safety Bureau OCC
199702276 BAe 146, NJF; Swedish Air Investigation
Bureau RL2001:41e, BAe 146 SE DRE, 12/11/99.
5. Winder, C and Balouet, J-C. Aircrew exposure to chemicals
in aircraft: symptoms of irritation and toxicity. J Occup
Health Safety — Aust NZ 2001, 17(5): 471-483.
6. Winder, C, Fonteyn, P and Balouet, J-C. Aerotoxic
syndrome: a descriptive epidemiological survey of aircrew
exposed to in-cabin airborne contaminants. J Occup Health
Safety — Aust NZ 2002, 18(4): 321-338.
7. Van Netten, C. Air quality and health effects associated with
the operation of the BAe 146-200 aircraft. Appl Occup
Environ Hyg 1998, 13(10): 733-739.
8. Winder, C, Michaelis, S and Weber, R (eds). Aviation air
safety. In the proceedings of the Aviation Air Quality
Symposium, Australian Defence Force Academy, University
of New South Wales, held in Canberra, 7 December 2000.
Reports in Safety Science, University of New South Wales,
August 2001.
9. Michaelis, S. Aircraft cabin fumes: an aviation safety issue
(editorial). J Occup Health Safety — Aust NZ 2002, 18(4):
J Occup Health Safety Aust NZ 2003, 19(3): 253-261
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Full-text available
The concerns that were brought to the Australian Federation of Air Pilots regarding air quality problems revealed a number of operational and OHS issues. This prompted the design and conduct of a survey of symptoms in members who fly BAe 146 aircraft in Australia. A total of 19 pilots and two flight attendants responded. Survey respondents showed high rates of symptoms which included headaches, eye, skin and upper airway irritation, neuropsychological impairment, respiratory problems, food/alcohol intolerances, muscle/joint pain, diarrhoea, and so on. While the results of this survey cannot be considered representative, they do provide self-reported data from a small number of pilots about health problems on the BAe 146, and suggest that the denials by the airlines should be re-examined.
Full-text available
Jet oils are specialized synthetic oils used in high-performance jet engines. They have an appreciable hazard due to toxic ingredients, but are safe in use provided that maintenance personnel follow appropriate safety precautions and the oil stays in the engine. Aircraft engines that leak oil may expose others to the oils through uncontrolled exposure. Airplanes that use engines as a source of bleed air for cabin pressurization may have this source contaminated by the oil if an engine leaks. Examination of the ingredients of the oil indicates that at least two ingredients are hazardous: N-phenyl-1-naphthylamine (a skin sensitizer) and tricresyl phosphate (a neurotoxicant, if ortho-cresyl isomers are present). Publicly available information such as labels and MSDS understates the hazards of such ingredients and in the case of ortho-cresyl phosphates by several orders of magnitude.
Poor air quality and health complaints from flight crews operating BAe-146 aircraft, requiring admission to emergency departments on several occasions, led to an investigation into the source of these problems. Health complaints could be classified as those consistent with exposure to carbon monoxide, respiratory irritants, and possible neurological agents. Cabin air is bled off from the engine's combustion air, passes through a catalytic converter to clean the air from oil contaminants, is cooled from 550° to 50°C, and enters the cabin after it passes through an airpack unit which conditions the air as appropriate. Excessive oil leakage from oil seals overloaded the catalytic converter, allowing smoke and lubricating oil components to enter the cabin. A complaint aircraft air, during a test flight, was found to contain oil contaminants including siloxane lubricating oils, as well as methylated propane and butane ester derivatives. Tricresyl phosphates, known to be neurotoxic, were identified in bulk oil samples, but could not be demonstrated in the cabin air. Air quality measurements in a problem aircraft tested on the tarmac indicated carbon monoxide at 3 ppm and carbon dioxide at 900 ppm. Air quality measurements during normal commercial flights of three noncomplaint aircraft (two BAe-146s and one de Haviland Dash 8-100) showed no detectable levels of carbon monoxide, 800 to 2700 ppm for carbon dioxide, and 19.6 to 21.9 percent for oxygen. Carbon dioxide and oxygen levels would change predictably during takeoff and landing for the former and pressurization and depressurization for the latter. Carboxyhemoglobin levels in four individuals admitted to emergency departments ranged from 0.7 to 2.0 percent. Since no direct carbon monoxide measurements were available during these incidents, it was recommended that potential problem aircraft be equipped with datalogging carbon monoxide monitors to identify or eliminate carbon monoxide exposure as a problem.
21/1/99; MOR BAe 146 OCC 200008340, serious incident, 5/11/00 (subject to AAIB investigation — report withheld); MOR B757 OCC 20007913, 25/10/00; MOR B757 OCC 200008363, 7/11/00, serious incident; Air Safety Report B757 GBPEE 9/7/02; Australian Transport Safety Bureau OCC
  • Mandatory
  • Report
  • Mor
  • Bae
Mandatory Occurrence Report (MOR) UK CAA OCC BAe 146 199900440, 21/1/99; MOR BAe 146 OCC 200008340, serious incident, 5/11/00 (subject to AAIB investigation — report withheld); MOR B757 OCC 20007913, 25/10/00; MOR B757 OCC 200008363, 7/11/00, serious incident; Air Safety Report B757 GBPEE 9/7/02; Australian Transport Safety Bureau OCC 199702276 BAe 146, NJF; Swedish Air Investigation Bureau RL2001:41e, BAe 146 SE DRE, 12/11/99
Aviation air safety In the proceedings of the Aviation Air Quality Symposium, Australian Defence Force Academy, University of New South Wales, held in Canberra
  • C Winder
  • S Michaelis
  • Weber
Winder, C, Michaelis, S and Weber, R (eds). Aviation air safety. In the proceedings of the Aviation Air Quality Symposium, Australian Defence Force Academy, University of New South Wales, held in Canberra, 7 December 2000. Reports in Safety Science, University of New South Wales, August 2001