Workplace drug and alcohol testing in the air

Traces of cocaine have been found in the pilot killed in the tragic helicopter accident on the Gold Coast last year, however, that doesn’t mean the drug played a part in the accident. Credit Alec Douglas

An aviation safety expert says that pilots may face an increase in drug and alcohol testing. This follows the news that the Sea World Helicopters pilot who died in a mid-air collision in 2023 had traces of cocaine in his system.

The news was released in an interim report into the accident on the Gold Coast. The report includes results from a toxicology report on the pilot killed in the crash, which shows he returned a positive result for low levels of cocaine metabolites.

It should be noted, however, that this doesn’t mean the pilot was high at the time of the crash. Chief Commission of the The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) Angus Mitchell is quoted in an ATSB media release as saying that the exposure to cocaine was likely not recent and was unlikely to have impaired the pilot’s ability to fly the helicopter.

“A forensic pharmacologist engaged by the ATSB has stated that the very low concentrations of these metabolites suggest exposure was not likely to have occurred in the 24 hours prior to the accident, and it is unlikely there would have been impairment of the pilot’s psychomotor skills,” Mr Mitchell said.

The ATSB’s final report into the helicopter accident is expected to be released later this year.

Drug and alcohol testing part of the solution

An interesting question from the interim report is whether cocaine would have been found in the pilot’s system if he had been drug and alcohol tested before flying the helicopter? The answer isn’t absolutely definitive, however, as it would depend on which testing method was used.

Saliva drug testing – the testing method that Integrity Sampling recommends – won’t detect cocaine if it hasn’t been used within 24 hours. However, if urine testing was used, the cocaine may have been detected. That’s because cocaine can be detected in urine for up to two to three days after use.

That aside, aviation safety expert Professor Ron Bartsch, says the toxicology report on the pilot could lead to greater self-regulation by operators. In an ABC News article, Mr Bartsch explained that all operators are required by the Civil Aviation Authority (CASA) to develop and adhere to a drug and alcohol management plan, which includes random and unannounced testing.

“Smaller charter operators are less likely to be overseen by CASA as much as what fare-paying passengers and airlines would expect,” Mr Bartsch said in the article. “Maybe this might cause CASA to increase their surveillance of such operators.”

Pilot had previously passed drug and alcohol testing

As noted previously, in this case, it’s likely the pilot was fit and able to fly the helicopter without issue. Pilots, like all employees, are free to do what they want in their personal time and this includes drinking alcohol and taking drugs. The only stipulation is that they report to work in a safe condition – including not being under the influence of drugs and alcohol.

In a statement, Sea World Helicopters confirmed the pilot had faced random drug testing previously and passed without incident. They added that their drug and alcohol management plan exceeds CASA’s requirements.

“SWH pilots have always been required to undergo a daily alcohol breath test and show zero blood alcohol content before commencing duties,” the statement says. “Pilots also undergo a pre-employment drug test. This can also be extended to random testing if there are reasonable suspicions that a pilot may be under the influence of drugs.”


Traces of cocaine have been found in the pilot killed in the tragic helicopter accident on the Gold Coast last year, however, that doesn’t mean the drug played a part in the accident. Credit Alec Douglas

By Michael

Michael is the founder of Integrity Sampling and is responsible for overseeing all national operations. He is based at Integrity Sampling's head office in Melbourne and is also responsible for the co-ordination of drug and alcohol testing within Victoria, assisting in the implementation of drug and alcohol (fit for work) policies and the presentation of drug and alcohol education and awareness programs. You can connect with Michael Wheeldon on LinkedIn

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