Captain Lee Trenchard, a former training and examiner pilot with Etihad Airways, watched in horror as his own health deteriorated to the point where he was landing planes badly and failing to recall simple orders from air traffic controllers.
The loss of co-ordination and short term memory has since been diagnosed as “aerotoxic syndrome”, with one medical expert warning: “It is imperative for his recovery that [he] is not compelled to fly again either as a passenger or pilot.”
Mr Trenchard, 52, believes the same syndrome that caused basic mistakes in his flying was responsible for historic crashes previously attributed to fatigue and pilot error.
“I would bet there have been accidents because of pilots going downhill like this,” he said. “We need to wake up and fix this as an industry, for passengers and air crew. It’s a killer.”
Until the diagnosis, he had been sceptical about the existence of toxic air, an issue that divides the flying community.
In almost every passenger jet, breathing air enters the cabin unfiltered via a bleed pipe off the jet engine.
Any leak in the engine oil seals can at high temperature produce dangerous compounds, like organophosphates, that accumulate in the body and attack the brain stem and nervous system. Lawyer Frank Cannon is examining if airlines can be sued over this under health and safety regulations.
He’s had chronic and acute exposure to aero engine fumes. Aerotoxic syndrome is a disabling disease that results from years of being a frequent flyer or cabin crew
Mr Trenchard, of Cheshire, suffers painful joints, weaker muscles and headaches.
He said he had a “fume event” on an Etihad flight to Melbourne in 2009.
“I was flying the Airbus A340-600, a large aircraft and tricky to handle. I was landing it beautifully. But within a couple of years, I was landing the plane badly, I wasn’t fully in control. I was a trainer and examiner and junior pilots held me in awe, then they saw me make mistakes and wondered what I was doing. I realised I wasn’t fit to fly.”
Last year doctors warned Mr Trenchard not to fly again. It meant he did not return to his job in Abu Dhabi and the airline fired him.
Dr Jenny Goodman, an expert at London’s Biomedical Unit, said: “He’s had chronic and acute exposure to aero engine fumes. Aerotoxic syndrome is a disabling disease that results from years of being a frequent flyer or cabin crew.”
An Etihad spokesman denied any allegations of liability for any illness and said its cabin air met all quality standards.
He said: “He was assessed by independent medical staff and there was no evidence of him suffering from any syndrome.”