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Editor’s Note: This article is Part 2 in a two-part series on the impact of COVID-19 vaccines and vaccine mandates on airline safety in the U.S. Read Part 1 here.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in January quietly updated its Guide for Aviation Medical Examiners (AMEs), allowing aviation doctors for the first time to give medical clearance to some pilots diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS), a rare neurological disorder connected to certain COVID-19 vaccines.
The FAA made the change — along with October 2022 updates for electrocardiogram (EKG) test limits — without citing scientific evidence and while the agency has been operating without a permanent administrator since March 2022.
The FAA’s medical guidance appears to diverge from international standards.
These updates come amid an alarming uptick in incidences of pilots incapacitated by medical emergencies during flights, increasing numbers of near-collisions in the air and at airports and in-flight emergencies transmitted by pilots during flights in the U.S.
The Defender previously interviewed several pilots and an air traffic controller who sustained serious adverse events connected to the COVID-19 vaccines.
Recently, more vaccine-injured pilots have come forward with their stories, including Sierra Lund, an athlete and pilot who was diagnosed with vaccine-induced myocarditis soon after receiving the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine.
Steve Kirsch launched an online petition which has reportedly collected over 25,000 signatures of pilots, flight attendants and other aviation industry employees who are concerned about vaccine injuries in their ranks.
Steve Kirsch’s newsletter — FAA Press Office responds: There will be no investigations into pilot death/disability caused by the COVID vaccines https://t.co/WUe32GpkYX
— Steve Kirsch (@stkirsch) January 27, 2023
Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., chairman and chief litigation counsel for Children’s Health Defense, today called on U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg to investigate the spike in pilot health emergencies, calling it a public safety issue.
GBS mentioned for first time in FAA medical guidelines
According to a Jan. 25 update to the Guide for AMEs, “In Item 46, Neurologic, Demyelinating Disease,” “expanded guidance” has been provided and a “new disposition table” was added for GBS.
The new guidance, beginning on page 173 of the latest edition of the guide, instructs aviation medical examiners to issue a medical certification to pilots diagnosed with GBS in instances where they experienced a single episode, with no complications, which is “fully resolved,” and from which they have recovered “with a minimum of six (6) months’ stability.”
This appears to be the first time GBS is mentioned in the AMEs guide and clearances are provided, at least in certain instances, to pilots diagnosed with the condition. The 2022 edition of the guide contains no specific mention of GBS.
According to the Mayo Clinic, GBS “is a rare disorder in which your body’s immune system attacks your nerves. Weakness and tingling in your hands and feet are usually the first symptoms.”
GBS has been linked to COVID-19 vaccines — and in particular, the Johnson & Johnson (Janssen) vaccine.
An April 2022 study published in JAMA Network Open found an increased risk of GBS following vaccination with the Ad26.COV2.S Janssen COVID-19 vaccine.
And a February 2023 study published in JAMA Network Open found that vaccination with the Janssen Ad26.COV2.S COVID-19 “was associated with increased risk for GBS.”
On Dec. 23, 2022 — just one month before updating the AMEs guide with new guidance related to GBS — the FAA advised pilots and air traffic controllers that they could receive Johnson & Johnson’s (J&J) Janssen vaccine.
On March 13, the FDA updated its “fact sheet” for the Janssen COVID-19 vaccine to indicate a risk of myocarditis and pericarditis. However, the FAA does not appear to have adjusted its guidance accordingly.
The FDA revised its fact sheet for the Janssen/Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine to include a warning about possible increased risks of myocarditis and pericarditis, particularly within the first week after vaccination. https://t.co/80EzyUphZ3
— Betty C. Jung (@bettycjung) March 15, 2023
According to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS), there have been 3,266 reported cases of GBS following administration of a COVID-19 vaccine or booster.
These figures show a disproportionately high number of GBS cases (537, or 16.44%) following administration of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine, even though the J&J vaccine represents just 2.6% of the total number of COVID-19 vaccines and boosters administered in the U.S. as of March 23.
VAERS has been shown to report only 1% of actual vaccine adverse events.
According to FAA data obtained by via a Freedom of Information Act request submitted by US Freedom Flyers (USFF), while diagnosed cases of GBS remain low, the FAA in 2022 denied a pilot a medical certificate due to GBS for the first time since 2013.
It’s unclear whether the updated guidance is related to the heightened risk of GBS posed by the COVID-19 vaccines that the FAA continues to recommend to pilots and aviation professionals.
FAA updates medical recommendations without supporting evidence
These updates come on the heels of revisions the FAA recently made to the Guide for AMEs, in reference to first-degree atrioventricular (AV) block with a PR interval of less than 300 milliseconds (ms).
The FAA on Oct. 26, 2022 updated its AMEs guide, increasing the acceptable “PR interval” for issuing medical clearance to pilots from below 210 ms to below 300 milliseconds ms. While the previous guidelines were applicable to pilots under age 51, the new guidelines have no age limit.
The PR interval — the time it takes for an electrical impulse to be transmitted from one part of the heart to another — is a key indicator of heart health. According to Merck’s MSD Manual, AV block refers to “partial or complete interruption of impulse transmission from the atria to the ventricles.”
The previously accepted threshold of 210 ms was visible in the AMEs guide as recently as May 2022, as evidenced in a Jan. 27 letter by Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) to the FAA, and also in the 2017 edition of the guide (page 218) provided to The Defender by USFF.
Senator Ron Johnson sent a letter to the FAA asking them to explain these changes as it risks the safety to all passengers. pic.twitter.com/vH6o7Raq31
— Mr. E.P. Unum (@EPUnum_) January 29, 2023
Federal Air Surgeon Susan Northrup, M.D., M.P.H., has stated that the FAA’s guidelines pertaining to AV block and the acceptable PR interval were changed not in October 2022 but in 2017.
However, in his Jan. 27 letter, Johnson quoted a Jan. 20 email sent to him by the FAA, which stated:
“First-degree AV blocks up to 300 ms were added to the FAA’s list of normal variants in 2017.
“The AME guide was updated to reflect this in October 2022 for clarity and to provide guidance for AMEs.”
The FAA so far has provided no evidence, at least publicly, to indicate this change was made in 2017 instead of in 2022.
However, those who questioned the FAA’s change to its AV block and PR interval guidelines have faced “fact-checking” and accusations of spreading “fake news.”
A Jan. 20 “fact-check” by PolitiFact, for instance, accepts the FAA’s claims at face value, stating “the agency’s cardiology consultants provided information indicating that a PR interval under 0.3 seconds isn’t a risk for subtle or sudden incapacitation.”
PolitiFact did not clarify what “information” it was referencing.
Other “fact-checkers,” including Agence France-Presse, have referenced a 2018 FAA video as evidence the FAA had already changed its guidelines by then. However, the video raises more questions, as it references PR intervals below 210 ms and above 300 ms — but nothing in-between.
Moreover, the video recommends aviation medical professionals consult with the AMEs guide for specific guidance. However, the 2017 edition of the guide and subsequent editions through October 2022, appear to have kept the 210 ms guidance.
The Jan. 20 email from the FAA to Johnson also claims that the FAA’s updated guidance pertaining to AV block and the PR interval was based on “new scientific evidence” which “enabled the FAA to safely raise the tolerance used” for its guidelines.
“According to the Federal Air Surgeon’s Cardiology Consultants and a review of the literature, first-degree AV blocks between 200 and 300 milliseconds (ms) do not require a cardiac work up and can be followed as a normal variant,” the email further claimed.
However, the “new scientific evidence” and the “literature” the FAA said it relied on is not specified in any known agency documentation.
This is despite requests for such evidence, submitted to Northrup in January by Kirsch, founder and executive director of the Vaccine Safety Research Foundation, as previously reported by The Defender.
Kirsch said at the time the new range “accommodates people who have cardiac injury,” adding that the FAA’s new cardiovascular standards represented “a tacit admission from the U.S. government that the COVID vaccine has damaged the hearts of our pilots. Not just a few pilots. A lot of pilots and a lot of damage.”
Tucker covers Steve Kirsch’s bombshell finding about the FAA loosening its EKG range for pilots while offering no explanation as to why to the public.
Still flying? pic.twitter.com/VJOLbUYR2N
— Don Matchett (@DonMatchett2) January 18, 2023
A Dec. 28, 2022, update to the FAA’s Guide for AMEs pertaining to renewals of a special issuance relating to selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) states the change was made “after careful study of data from 425 pilots in the SSRI program.”
This suggests the FAA can and does reference specific evidence to support updated medical guidance when such evidence is available. No such evidence was referenced to the FAA’s updated guidance regarding AV block and the PR interval or to GBS, however.
FAA update on AV block and PR interval raises more question
The FAA’s update pertaining to AV block and the acceptable PR interval also appears to have been made in contravention with accepted medical science.
Merck’s MSD Manual, most recently updated in January, classifies first-degree AV block as any case where the PR interval exceeds 200 ms. The manual also notes that “first-degree AV block is rarely symptomatic.” This indicates that there may be a risk that pilots may be entirely unaware of this condition until their next physical examination.
Similarly, Johns Hopkins Medicine states that “first-degree heart block may have no bothersome symptoms.”
And a 2009 study titled “Long-term outcomes in individuals with prolonged PR interval or first-degree atrioventricular block,” published in JAMA and based on the Framingham Heart Study, found that “Prolongation of the PR interval is associated with increased risks of AF, pacemaker implantation, and all-cause mortality.”
Former FAA test pilot Brett Vance, who retired from the agency after being given a “job or jab” ultimatum following the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate for federal workers, said the FAA’s updated guidance for AV block and the PR interval were made “completely outside the required vetting procedure provided by the Notice of Proposed Rule making (NPRM) process.”
In updating its AV block and PR interval guidelines, the FAA also appears to be issuing guidance that contravenes internationally accepted norms, such as those of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).
ICAO — a U.N. body — publishes the Manual of Civil Aviation Medicine. The most recent edition, published in 2012, states that “first degree atrioventricular block is present if the PR interval exceeds 210 ms” — matching the FAA’s guidelines up until October 2022.
The FAA’s guidance is nevertheless influential. For instance, NASA “adopts the medical standards policy and guidelines of the Office of Aerospace Medicine of the FAA as the initial basis of determining an individual’s medical qualification for flight duty in NASA aircraft.”
And the FAA itself shares “best practices” with aviation regulatory agencies in other countries, including “the delivery of aviation expertise and knowledge to aviation authorities and air navigation service providers around the world on critical functions for safety and efficiency.”
Alarming rise in pilot incapacitations and near-collisions
The increasing number of pilot health emergencies during or immediately before passenger flights in recent weeks and months has led to increasing concerns about the health of airline pilots, the safety of air travel and the possible links these incidents may have to the COVID-19 vaccines.
You can listen to the recording of the Twitter space here: https://t.co/u9STvd952k
— US Freedom Flyers (@USFreedomFlyers) March 19, 2023
Canadian physician Dr. William Makis tracked and compiled a list of recent pilot incapacitations — seven of which were recorded this month alone. These include:
- March 25: TAROM Flight RO-7673 from Timisoara, Romania, to Hurghada, Egypt, was diverted to Bucharest after the captain, who had complained about chest pain and an increased heart rate, fell unconscious on the flight deck.
- March 22: Southwest Flight WN613 from Las Vegas to Columbus, Ohio, was diverted back to Las Vegas shortly after taking off after the captain collapsed. An off-duty pilot from another airline who happened to be on the flight as a passenger, helped the first officer return the flight to Las Vegas.
- March 18: Air Transat Flight TS739 from Fort-de-France to Montreal, Canada, where the first officer was incapacitated about 200 nautical miles south of Montreal, in U.S. airspace.
- March 13: Emirates Flight EK205 from Milan to JFK Airport in New York City was diverted due to pilot illness, approximately 90 minutes after takeoff.
- March 11: United Airlines Flight 2007 from Guatemala City to Chicago O’Hare was diverted, landing in Houston, due to an “incapacitated pilot” experiencing chest pains.
- March 11 (reportedly): A British Airways pilot collapsed at a Cairo, Egypt, hotel and died, shortly before he was scheduled to fly from Cairo to London Heathrow.
- March 3: Virgin Australia Flight 717 from Adelaide to Perth made an emergency landing a half hour after takeoff after the first officer suffered a heart attack.
Southwest Airlines 6013 LAS-CMH departing Las Vegas diverted as pilot collapsed shortly after takeoff morning of March 22, 2023
5th pilot collapse in past 3 weeks!#diedsuddenly #cdnpoli #ableg https://t.co/yorlDGt8E4
— William Makis MD (@MakisMD) March 22, 2023
There is no information as to whether any of these incidents were related in any way to an adverse event connected to the COVID-19 vaccines. However, the growing frequency of such incapacitations has raised alarm among some aviation experts and opponents of vaccine mandates.
Publicly available official data regarding pilot incapacitations at present and on a historical basis is sparse. However, two studies of inflight incapacitations of airline pilots provide a strong indication that the recent number of such incidents is abnormally high.
A 2018 study in Aerospace Medicine and Human Performance found that between Jan. 1, 1995, and Dec. 31, 2015, a total of 173 U.S. airline pilots “experienced some form of inflight medical incapacitation” — including 23 cardiac events in total.
This figure, which averages out to 8.23 incapacitations of U.S. pilots per year during the period studied, can be compared with the two known incapacitations of pilots on U.S. air carriers just in the past month.
Stew Peters interviews USFF President Josh Yoder about recent events regarding pilot health and longstanding safety concerns.@JoshYoder @realstewpeters https://t.co/W3cKQt5xpT
— US Freedom Flyers (@USFreedomFlyers) March 24, 2023
During this period, according to data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics and the U.S. Census Bureau (for 1995 figures), the total number of U.S. domestic and international flights remained at similar levels or was higher than in 2022.
In 1995, for instance, 8.053 million flights took place in total, compared to 8.689 million in 2022. In 2002, this figure had reached 9.109 million, by 2005 it reached 11.306 million, and in 2010, U.S. flights totaled just over 10 million.
This illustrates that the number of flights — and, therefore, the number of flight crews in the air — was not significantly lower at any point in the 1995-2015 period studied, compared to the present.
A 2004 study by the FAA’s Office of Aerospace Medicine also contains notable findings, recording 39 incapacitations (6.5 per year) and 11 impairments (1.83 per year) during the period studied.
The same study noted that four of these incidents resulted in deaths — in each instance “because of cardiac events.” Specifically, “three of the four deaths resulted from myocardial infarctions … while one was the result of a cardiac dysrhythmia.”
Recent incidents involving pilot incapacitations have been coupled with an increasing number of recent near-misses of aircraft in the skies and on the tarmac.
FAA officials beginning ‘to see things that we don’t expect to see’
In a March 14 interview with NBC Nightly News, Acting FAA Administrator Billy Nolen said aviation officials have begun “to see things that we don’t expect to see,” referring to the recent spate of serious near-misses.
“FAA Investigating Close Call Between Planes at DCA.”
“In an interview with NBC , acting FAA Administrator Billy Nolen said that while it remains safe to fly, officials have grown concerned as they have begun ‘to see things that we don’t expect to see.’ https://t.co/1C5o51UnWb
— Michael J. Schoen (@MichaelSchoenDC) March 15, 2023
NBC News, quoting FAA data, noted that “there have been fewer overall near-miss incidents over the past six months than in the same periods prior,” — although the data cited only provides a comparison with 2022.
However, NBC News clarifies that the number of “serious runway events” or near misses per year over the past decade has ranged from four to 10 — a figure which appears to have already been reached in 2023.
These incidents include:
- March 7: Republic Airways Flight 4736 crossed a runway at Reagan National Airport near Washington, D.C., without clearance, placing it in the path of another flight that had just been cleared for takeoff, United Airlines Flight 2003.
- Feb. 4: A near-collision almost occurred between Southwest Flight 708 and a FedEx cargo jet at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, after an air traffic controller “may have double-booked” a runway. The two planes reportedly came as close as 100 feet to each other.
In testimony before the Senate Commerce Committee March 15, Nolen stated that this incident was “not something that we expected to take place.”
- Jan. 13: Delta Air Lines Flight 1943, which was about to take off from JFK Airport, almost collided with American Airlines Flight 106 when the latter aircraft “crossed over from an adjacent taxiway and into the path of the departing Delta flight.”
Varying explanations have been provided by federal officials to account for these incidents.
Referring to an “uptick in serious close calls,” Buttigieg told CNN earlier this month that “pilots, ground crews and controllers alike seem to be experiencing this uptick. Some have described it as a kind of rust.”
Buttigieg’s agency, the U.S. Department of Transportation, oversees the FAA.
Are you serious.
We’ve been telling you what it is, and it certainly isn’t rust. @SecretaryPete @JoshYoder @LTCTheresaLong https://t.co/59lv52IvgJ
— US Freedom Flyers (@USFreedomFlyers) March 15, 2023
Nolen told NBC News, “We’re coming out of the backside of this pandemic … truly we’re seeing pent-up demand for flying. Flying has come back with a vengeance, so to speak,” attributing an increased demand in flying with a recent retirement wave in the FAA. Combined, this has produced “some pressures in the system,” Nolen said.
Notably, the FAA has been without a permanent administrator since the resignation of previous administrator Steve Dickson halfway through his term. At the time, Dickson attributed his decision to resign to the long periods of time he was spending away from his family.
On Saturday, President Biden’s nominee for the position, Denver International Airport CEO Phil Washington, withdrew his nomination. According to Reuters, this withdrawal came “after Republican criticism that he was not qualified to serve as the top aviation regulator.”
Josh Yoder speaks with Prime News about Phillip Washington, and the need for FAA head candidates to have aviation experience.@JoshYoder https://t.co/xCGKM00a6n
— US Freedom Flyers (@USFreedomFlyers) March 23, 2023
According to Politico, Republican Senators said Washington, a military veteran who is not a pilot, mostly held experience leading large transit agencies.
Despite operating without a permanent leader for one year, the FAA has gone ahead with significant changes to its AMEs guide in reference to GBS, AV block and accepted PR intervals, in the midst of facing an “uptick” in near-collisions, pilot incapacitations and, as reported Tuesday by The Defender, flight diversions for medical reasons.