Carbon monoxide signs in crash passenger’s blood

The crashed aircraft, photographed in 2016. Source: CC BY-SA 2.0, James, Cheltenham Gloucestershire, UK

Football player Emiliano Sala had a high level of carbon monoxide in his blood before the aircraft he was travelling in crashed, the United Kingdom Air Accidents investigation Branch (AAIB) has said in a special bulletin.

Sala and pilot David Ibbotson, 59, were on a Piper PA-46 Malibu that crashed into the English Channel on 21 January this year on a flight from Nantes in France to Cardiff, Wales, where the 28-year-old player was to start with a new team. Sala’s remains were recovered from the submerged wreckage in February.

‘Toxicology tests on the blood of the passenger showed a carboxyhaemoglobin (COHb) saturation level of 58 per cent,’ the AAIB bulletin said. ‘COHb is the combination product of carbon monoxide (CO) with haemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying protein molecule contained in red blood cells.’

Carbon monoxide is a colourless, odourless gas produced from the incomplete combustion of carbon‑containing materials including coal, petrol, avgas and jet fuel. It readily combines with haemoglobin in the blood, displacing oxygen and causing incapacitation, unconsciousness and death through a form of hypoxia. Like altitude related hypoxia, its onset is gradual and insidious. It is a long-standing hazard in general aviation aircraft, particularly in winter flying, when it can enter the cabin through a malfunctioning heating system.

The AAIB bulletin said a COHb level of 50 or above in an otherwise healthy individual was generally considered to be potentially fatal. And since the Piper Malibu had no partition between the cockpit and the cabin, it was likely that the pilot was also ‘affected to some extent by exposure to CO’.

The FAA has a leaflet, ‘Carbon Monoxide: A Deadly Menace’, which lays out the actions a pilot should take if the presence of CO is suspected:

  • Turn the cabin heat fully off.
  • Increase the rate of cabin fresh air ventilation to the maximum.
  • Open windows if the flight profile and aircraft’s operating manual permit such an action.
  • If available (provided it does not represent a safety or fire hazard), consider using supplemental oxygen.
  • Land as soon as possible.
  • Do not hesitate to let ATC know of your concerns, and ask for vectors to the nearest airport.
  • Once on the ground, seek medical attention.
  • Before continuing the flight, have the aircraft inspected by a certified mechanic.


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  1. Besides maintenance precautions and CO alarms, flying LOP is the most drastic way to minimize the amount of CO produced. If you get the production of CO to almost nothing the risk of poisoning even with a leaking heater is greatly reduced.

    Not many people realize this fact.

  2. Paul, you are most welcome. If you would like to email me your phone number I am happy to explain this to you in simple English, as well as email you a graph of the chemical composition of exhaust gases by compound vs fuel to air ratio. It is simple to follow with a small amount of guidance, and very educational. Email address is davidbrown ‘at’ and please note I there should be an @ character in there. I get enough spam from having my email address shared all over the internet :-(

    I would extend the same invite to whoever this Walter is, but usually the ignorant are so arrogant that they think they know everything and are incapable of learning. It is funny that data backed facts are no weapon against a deeply held superstition. And people who display such ignorance and arrogance fall into this category. So Paul, feel free to contact me, I am sure my time will not be clogged up with trying to help Walter.

    Best regards
    David Brown.

  3. Walter seems to have developed a severe case of what is known as “Having yourself on” when he wrongly assumes that just because I read his comments along with all the others, he ‘thinks’ that means I am a fan of his, which could not be further from the truth because I have a particular disliking for smug arrogant self centered people, so in future I will studiously ignore any further of his comments!

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