As both a land and seaplane instructor most of my life, I take every aircraft accident personally, whether I knew the pilot or not. The death last November of Roy Halladay, former MLB star pitcher for the Toronto Blue Jays and later the Philadelphia Phillies and a multiple Cy Young award winner, seemed even more needless than many because of the low-altitude maneuvers he was performing just before the crash. How many times, I thought, have I cautioned students against such stunts close to the ground or the water? What was he thinking, I wondered?
Halladay’s Icon A5 crashed in shallow water near New Port Ritchey, Florida, under near-perfect skies on November 7, 2017, after a short flight from a lakeside beach in Odessa. The airplane’s Rockwell Collins engine control unit recorded the airplane’s altitudes first at 1,909 feet, then 600 feet, then down to 36 feet and finally 11 feet above the water. The final data point showed the airplane 200 feet above the water before it descended in a final steep 45-degree bank.
There was certainly plenty of finger pointing after the accident, some focused on Halladay’s flying habits, some on Icon for marketing efforts that seemed to encourage low-level maneuvers exclusive of landing or takeoff.
More distressing, though, were the details contained in the autopsy released yesterday to Flying. No surprise that Roy Halladay — his given name was actually Harry Leroy Halladay — suffered from multiple broken bones and internal organ damage when the aircraft hit the water. Even at the relatively low speeds associated with an Icon A5, slamming into the water at nearly any angle is like hitting concrete. Halladay was a relatively new private pilot having logged just over 700 hours, of which 51 were in the Icon A5.
What was unknown until the autopsy surfaced was that Halladay was still breathing after the accident, perhaps while people stood on the deck of nearby boats shooting videos after witnessing the crash. No one jumped in the water to help, to see if the pilot was still alive. The autopsy said contributing to Halladay’s death in addition to the blunt head and chest trauma was “foamy fluid in the larynx and airways,” meaning a contributing cause of the MLB star’s death was drowning.
If the details of the multiple traumas to Halladay’s body were not insult enough, the Pasco and Pinellas County Coroner’s report discovered the former ball player had enough mood-altering drugs in his system to confirm he shouldn’t have been driving a car, much less flying an airplane.
Halladay’s blood report listed zolpidem, amphetamine, free morphine and ethanol, while the urine test uncovered cotinine, dihydromorphone, fluoxetine, hydromorphone, morphine, morphine metabolities, nicotine and zolpidem. A physician/pilot I spoke to about the results said there was no doubt Halladay was “soused,” when he crashed. He also said some of the drugs, most of which are not on the FAA’s list of approved medications, were essentially contradictory, like zolpidem, a generic name for Ambien, a sleep aid, and amphetamine and Adderall a medication to perk people up and is often used to treat ADD. Fluoxetine was another strange addition to this medical cocktail of Halladay’s. Fluoxetine is a generic name for Prozac used to treat depression.
As to the mentions of morphine, our source didn’t think that seemed strange for a retired baseball star who might be coping with the aches and pains of who knows how many injuries he’d suffered over the years … but certainly morphine didn’t belong in his system while he was flying.
What the autopsy could not tell us was exactly how soon before his flight Halladay ingested this cornucopia of medications. In the end, however, there’s little doubt that many things were troubling Roy Halladay on the day he crashed his Icon A5.
The real question is how we talk to new pilots about the risks they add to each flight with these kinds of medications in their system. (This story was amended at 6:08 EST)