OneIndia Exclusive: IAF’s Aviation Toxicology Lab adds teeth to air crash investigations

Written by: Dr Anantha Krishnan M
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Bengaluru, Oct 07: India's only Aviation Toxicology Laboratory (ATL) has gone live and kicking with state-of-the-art-facilities in Bengaluru.

Situated inside the Institute of Aerospace Medicine (IAM), a premier Indian Air Force (IAF) unit next to HAL Airport, the ATL has already developed protocols for evaluating 20 different drugs (molecules) which are required in aviation accident investigation.

IAF’s Aviation Toxicology Lab adds teeth to air crash investigations

The need for an ATL was felt soon after the Air India Express Boeing 737 crash in Mangalore, in May 2010, which killed 158 people onboard. A Court of Inquiry had blamed the pilot for the crash.

In an exclusive interview, IAM Commandant Air Commodore Deepak Gaur says that the ATL has the latest technology and expertise for the analysis of samples from air crashes in a highly refined manner.

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"This laboratory was established with an objective to augment aircraft accident investigations. The lab also aims at improving flight safety by conducting exclusive scientific research in the field of aviation toxicology," says Air Commodore Deepak, an MD in Aerospace Medicine.

The ATL is now refining the sample preparation techniques which will enable analysis of postmortem specimens from air crashes including blood, urine, muscle and other tissues.

Nodal center for medical investigations of all air crashes

The IAM has always been the nodal center for medical investigations of all air crashes in India (both military and civil). Now, the ATL augments the existing facility for postmortem investigations at IAM.

The laboratory is capable of detecting performance impairing substances such as drugs, alcohol and combustion gases, which may cause incapacitation of the aviator resulting in an aircraft accident.

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"Internationally this is being done by many countries -- a process termed as ‘human performance-associated post-mortem aviation toxicology.' The lab also has the capability to evaluate toxins and gases in the environment of the aviator," Air Commodore Deepak said.

The laboratory is equipped with modern equipments like liquid chromatography mass spectrometry (LCMS), gas chromatography mass spectrometry (GCMS) and high performance thin layer chromatography (HPTLC).

Lab activities kept on a low key

To a specific query on the challenges of air crash investigations, the IAM Commandant said: "The availability of good quality and quantity of biological specimens from air crash site is the key. The specimens have to be then collected and despatched in proper preservatives and temperature to IAM, which is an important part of air crash investigations. The major challenge is to screen for large number of drugs, alcohol and combustion gases from the limited biological samples from air crash victims."

While the IAF announced the setting up of the ATL in August 2013, most of the activities have been kept on a low key so far.

The officials refused to divulge details of the kind of crash investigations undertaken by the lab so far. However, sources confirm that the lab played a critical role in investigating the IAF's C-130J Super Hercules crash (in March near Gwalior last year), which killed five personnel.

What's Aviation Toxicology?

It is an emerging branch of forensic toxicology that aims at detection of minute quantities of toxic chemicals, drugs and medications that could have contributed to performance impairment of the aircrew, thus leading to an air crash. It is a highly specialised field, with only four such facilities present worldwide, including ATL.

IAM to be honoured at IAF Day celebrations

An IAF official confirmed to OneIndia that the IAM will be receiving a unique honour during the Air Force Day Parade to be held at Hindon on October 8.

IAM is set to receive the Chief of Air Staff Unit Citation for the ‘Best Unit in Operations Support Role' during 2014-'15.
"This is the first time in the history of IAF that a non-combat unit has been selected for such an honour," says the official.

In July this year, the Rajiv Gandhi University of Health Sciences, Karnataka declared IAM as the ‘Centre of Excellence,' the first such honour ever out of its 610 colleges.

(The writer is a seasoned aerospace and defence journalist in India. He is the Consultant Editor (Defence) with OneIndia and tweets @writetake.)

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