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No evidence of pilots dying on flights from COVID-19 vaccine effects
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There is no evidence that causally links adverse side effects from COVID-19 vaccines to incidents of pilots dying or becoming incapacitated on flights.
There were several incidents in March of pilots falling ill on flights, but no details support claims they were related to vaccine effects.
The Federal Aviation Administration and the International Air Transport Association say they have seen no credible evidence to support claims there has been an increase in pilot deaths or incapacitations due to vaccines.
Ever since most major airlines began to require pilots and other employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 in 2021, many social media users have baselessly claimed that the vaccines are causing pilots to die or become incapacitated in the air.
PolitiFact has previously rejected similar claims, as have many other fact-checkers. Still, the claims persist.
"Shock claim! 80% of pilots have taken the COVID jab," read text on top of a video shared April 23 on Instagram. Below that, the text read, "Healthy pilots are suffering from myocarditis and dropping dead on flights."
This post was flagged as part of Meta’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram.)
The claims are made in the video by Josh Yoder, one of the speakers at a United for Transparency in COVID-19 treatment rally March 20 in Venice, Florida. Yoder in the video also mentioned recent pilot incapacitations he said were part of the fallout from airline vaccine mandates.
Although there are recent examples of pilots dying or being incapacitated on flights, the Federal Aviation Administration, as well as the International Air Transport Association, an airline trade group, say they have seen no increase in such cases. The FAA said medical emergencies on flights are rare, but this is why two pilots are required aboard passenger or cargo transport planes.
Yoder is the president and co-founder of U.S. Freedom Flyers, a group that opposes vaccine mandates for the airline industry.
Yoder told PolitiFact that his organization has seen a "significant increase" in pilots contacting it for help after being diagnosed with myocarditis, experiencing chest pain or developing neurological complications after taking the vaccines. He said most pilots are reluctant to speak publicly for fear of losing their flight medical certification.
He also said there have been "numerous" pilot deaths, though only a few have made headlines. When we asked for specific evidence of pilots dying, he offered some cases, but closer examination shows there’s nothing tying them to vaccines.
Yoder said that he "can’t say that every cardiac death is myocarditis or that it’s conclusively caused by the vaccine" because of a lack of information from the FAA and airlines.
Here are some of the examples he shared:
In November, a pilot for Envoy Air, a subsidiary of American Airlines, became incapacitated shortly after takeoff on a flight leaving Chicago and later died. It’s not clear from news reports what caused the pilot’s medical emergency, nor whether he was vaccinated. Fact-checkers at Lead Stories said a case number from the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office in Illinois that matches details of the incident, as well as an obituary of a man named in some reports, listed his cause of death as natural and related to hypertensive cardiovascular disease.
Bob Snow, an American Airlines pilot, had a cardiac arrest and collapsed on the flight deck shortly after landing a plane in Texas on April 9, 2022. Snow, who survived, said he was vaccinated Nov. 4, 2021, and blames the COVID-19 vaccine for the incident.
A British pilot died while co-piloting a small plane in June 2022. According to USA Today, that pilot had a history of being treated for high blood pressure.
Yoder provided PolitiFact with five examples of pilots being incapacitated during, or in one case shortly before, flights in March. Again, there are few public details about the incidents or the pilots’ health, much less any evidence they can be tied to vaccines.
Two days after Yoder’s speech in Florida, a Southwest Airlines pilot became incapacitated after feeling stomach pain during a March 22 flight from Las Vegas to Ohio. An off-duty pilot from another airline who was a passenger on the plane went to the cockpit and helped a second Southwest pilot land the plane, according to news reports. The pilot’s condition or vaccination status is not publicly known.
The FAA said in a statement to PolitiFact that the agency’s Federal Air Surgeon determined that the COVID-19 vaccines are safe for pilots and air traffic controllers.
"The FAA has seen no credible evidence of aircraft accidents or incapacitations caused by pilots suffering medical complications associated with COVID-19 vaccines," the FAA said.
The FAA told PolitiFact that it investigates every in-flight pilot medical issue, but doesn’t maintain a database of those events. Pilot medical issues are rare because the agency has strict medical requirements in place, the FAA said.
Albert Tjoeng, a spokesperson for the International Air Transport Association, said his group also "has seen no evidence to support" claims there has been an increase in pilot deaths or incapacitations because of COVID vaccines.
There is a small, but increased risk of getting either myocarditis or pericarditis after COVID-19 vaccination, particularly in male teens and young adults, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.
Myocarditis is an inflammation of the heart muscle, and pericarditis is inflammation of the lining outside the heart. Most patients recover quickly, the CDC said.
The CDC has cited data that shows the risk of myocarditis is higher in all age groups from the COVID-19 infection itself than the vaccine. A study published in an American Heart Association journal in August reached the same conclusion.
An Instagram post shares a video of a man saying that "healthy pilots are suffering from myocarditis and dropping dead on flights" because of COVID-19 vaccines.
There may be pilots who have been diagnosed with myocarditis, a rare side effect from the vaccines, or who have blamed the vaccines for adverse side effects. But there is no evidence that pilots are dying on flights because of the vaccines.
The FAA and the International Air Transport Association said they have seen no credible evidence to support claims that vaccines are causing illness or deaths of pilots on flights.
We rate the claim False.
Staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report
Instagram video, April 23, 2023
Sarasota Herald Tribune, "COVID-19 'transparency' rally calls for Sarasota Memorial to start new query," March 20, 2023 (story is behind a paywall, but accessed through Nexis)
Email interview, Josh Yoder, president and co-founder of U.S. Freedom Flyers, April 27, 2023
The Epoch Times, "IN-DEPTH: One Moment He Was in Command of a 150,000-Pound Plane, the Next He Was Technically Dead," April 18, 2023
The Epoch Times, "IN-DEPTH: US Officials Reject Compensation for People Diagnosed With COVID-19 Vaccine Injuries," April 27, 2023
Reuters, "COVID vaccine injury plaintiffs face long odds in U.S. compensation program," June 16, 2022
Federal Aviation Administration statements, April 27 and April 28, 2023
FAA, "Sudden in-flight incapacitation in general aviation," August 1987
Email exchange, Albert Tjoeng, spokesperson for the International Air Transport Association, April 28, 2023
CBS News, "Nearly all major airlines mandate COVID vaccine for employees," Oct. 11, 2021
Air Line Pilots Association, "Reduced-Crew Operations and Pilot Incapacitation," April 2023
Air Line Pilots Association, "Aviation's Safeguard: Two Pilots Always on the Flight Deck," accessed April 28, 2023
The Washington Post, "A Southwest pilot ‘fainted.’ Then an off-duty pilot stepped in to help.," March 23, 2023
NBC News, "Pilot from another airline helps land Southwest flight after captain falls ill," March 23, 2023
CNBC, "Envoy Air says a pilot who was reported incapacitated during flight has died," Nov. 22, 2022
Simple Flying, "Envoy Air Pilot Who Was Incapacitated Midflight Passed Away," Nov. 23, 2022
Lead Stories, "Fact Check: Death Of Envoy Pilot Has NOT Been Linked To COVID-19 Vaccine Or Booster," Dec. 6, 2022
USA Today, "When his copilot died, a pilot thought it was a joke and kept flying, report says," Feb. 22, 2023
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Selected Adverse Events Reported after COVID-19 Vaccination," accessed April 27, 2023
CDC, "Cardiac Complications After SARS-CoV-2 Infection and mRNA COVID-19 Vaccination — PCORnet, United States, January 2021–January 2022," April 8, 2022
American Heart Association, "COVID-19 infection poses higher risk for myocarditis than vaccines," Aug. 22, 2022
Newsweek, "Flight to New York Forced to U-turn Mid-Atlantic After Pilot Falls Ill," March 16, 2023
The Daily Mail, "Off-duty pilot who was a passenger on Southwest Airlines flight helped land plane after captain became ill mid-flight – the fifth pilot collapse in last three weeks," March 23, 2023
The Sun, "BA TRAGEDY Veteran British Airways pilot collapses and dies shortly before he was due to captain packed passenger jet," March 11, 2023
Houston Chronicle, "United flight headed to Chicago diverts to Bush Airport for medical emergency," March 11, 2023
Click2Houston, "United Airlines flight from Guatemala diverted to Bush IAH due to medical, technical emergencies, official says," March 11, 2023
The Associated Press, "Indonesian pilot dies after landing plane amid health issue," July 21, 2022
KHOU, "United Airlines flight from Guatemala diverted to IAH for 'technical issue,' airport spokesperson says," March 11, 2023
Simple Flying, "First Officer Incapacitated During Air Transat Airbus A321 Flight," March 25, 2023
National Library of Medicine, "Arrhythmias, Sudden Cardiac Death and incapacitation of pilots," Aug. 12, 2008
Australian Transport Safety Bureau, "Pilot incapacitation occurrences 2010–2014," Feb. 18, 2016
KGUN-9, ABC, "Pilot shares heroic in-flight cardiac arrest story," June 24, 2022
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