Flying High [On Aspartame]
Mary Nash Stoddard
If you are a passenger in flight, you may want to save the article to read after you arrive at your destination. It is not our intent to unduly alarm the flying public. This is important information each of us needs to know.
Are pilots more susceptible to aspartame reactions than everyone else? This is a question I am asked frequently by members of the media. The answer is, “No, pilots are no more vulnerable than the rest of us.” It is just that their jobs depend on a higher degree of mental and physical acuity than most. Their medical certification requires that there is no history of seizure activity, which aspartame is capable of causing in some.
The first pilot I met who had lost his medical certification to fly was USAF Major Michael Collings. I met him after hearing him testify at the third Senate Hearing on the safety of Aspartame. I spent time with him again when London’s Thames TV flew us into Washington D.C. to tape a special documentary they were doing on the issue. Over coffee one day I asked him to relate more details of his case. I already knew how he traced the problems of tremors and seizures suffered from 1983 to 1985 directly to his patterns of NutraSweet consumption. When his duties took him to remote places where there was no diet soda or diet Kool Aid, he was free of the tremors, and whenever he resumed intake of artificially sweetened beverages, his tremors resumed, growing more severe, and culminating in a grand mal seizure that put him in the hospital and ended his career as a pilot. Collings’ tremors and seizures ended on October 6, 1985, the day he quit ingesting NutraSweet. Michael told me how he had not once but twice turned down the invitation to become a member of the prestigious Thunderbirds.
They could not understand his decision, but he related to me that at the time, he could not fly ‘wing tip to wing tip’ with anyone. They will never know the real reason Major Collings rejected their offer unless they read it here.
The next pilot I met who had lost his “medical” was Brownwood, Texas pilot, Charles King. He suffered symptoms similar to Major Collings’, and like Collings, he only suffered them during his use of Aspartame products. The FAA took his anecdotal symptoms seriously enough to revoke his medical certificate and end his flying days for a few years. However, King fought the system until he miraculously got his license back in 1990. To date, his is our only real success story. We consider it a major breakthrough.
He hasn’t lost his license, but he almost lost his life. After just two cups of NutraSweet hot chocolate, pilot George E. Leighton experienced blurred vision so severe he was unable to read instruments on his panel and very narrowly avoided a tragic landing. Safely on the ground, he related his story to the coworkers in his office. Two of them recounted similar symptoms experienced after brief exposure to aspartame. He claims ‘this makes Aspartame particularly frightening to pilots, since in a single pilot IFR, full workload situation, partial impairment of capability can be just as fatal as total impairment (unconsciousness).’ Leighton has become somewhat of an activist now, investigating suspicious incidents related to flying and attempts to raise the consciousness of the FAA and others about the issue.
Leighton wrote this letter to the editor of the US Air Force Flying Safety magazine after they printed an Aspartame Alert to all Air Force pilots:
“I would particularly direct your attention to the potential altitude effects of the methanol contained in Aspartame. To my knowledge, there has been no investigation of its binding to the hemoglobin (like carbon monoxide), thereby inducing hypoxia as suggested by Dr. Phil Moskal. Perhaps your Air Force Flight Surgeons would be interested in pursuing this from a medical viewpoint. I do not have the resources to pursue such an investigation and the FAA is stonewalling the whole Aspartame issue. The FAA’s inaction is very likely politically motivated. As a General Aviation News article points out, Samuel Skinner the boss of the FAA as Secretary of Transportation at the time was formerly employed by NutraSweet’s law firm, and Spotlight, April 6, 1992, reveals that his wife is presently employed by that firm. Later, as President Bush’s Chief of Staff, Samuel Skinner was in an even more powerful political position with direct influence over all government agencies, including the FDA, the FAA, and your own DOD. Through his own past employment and his wife’s present employment with NutraSweet’s law firm, it would seem that NutraSweet had a pipeline directly to the top. It should be noted that without the 1977 direct intervention of Samuel Skinner (who was then U.S. Attorney for the Justice Department’s Chicago office) and his associates, a grand jury would most certainly have indicted Searle/NutraSweet personnel for fraud and criminal behavior in concealing the deadly effects of the drug Aspartame from the FDA. The drug would never have been approved for use as a food additive and I would not now be writing this. I am continually appalled by the apparent indifference and inaction by various pilot-oriented organizations … FAA, AOPA, ALPA, and others … to the in-flight hazard posed by pilot’s ingestion of diet drinks or other drinks laced with Aspartame (NutraSweet or Equal). In the Navy Physiology article, for example, they state: … ‘Aspartame can increase the frequency of seizures … (susceptibility) to flicker vertigo or to flicker-induced epileptic activity. It means that ALL pilots are potential victims of sudden memory loss, dizziness during instrument flight (i.e. vertigo), and gradual loss of vision.’This certainly is a direct safety-of-flight item and should be dealt with as such. Instead, the Navy … ‘ offers a heads up to a potential problem.’ Let me ask you a question. If you became aware of a component of every Air Force aircraft which was subject to sudden, catastrophic in-flight failure, would you simply write an innocuous ‘heads up to pilots’ at the end of an obscure article in your magazine? Of course not! You would take immediate emergency action to ground all aircraft until the safety-of-flight item was removed. Aspartame (NutraSweet/Equal) is that safety-of-flight item! I do not expect to see Aspartame banned from the marketplace at this time; that is an unrealistic expectation. My immediate, personal goal, however is to have all pilots informed of the potential safety-of-flight hazard posed by Aspartame. At least, they could then make an informed decision whether they wished to risk their lives and careers by playing airborne Russian roulette with Aspartame-laced products. Of course, a more appropriate question may be asked: ‘Should pilots even have this right, when other people’s lives are at stake?”
The following is a harrowing account by Capt. Harold Wilson:
“Each day was exciting, filled with both adventure and danger, life was
great. I had been chosen for a special assignment and sent to the
Aleutian’s to provide an essential air service in an area of tremendous
distances, horrendous weather, and unbelievable isolation, where only a few
pilots had ever gone before, some never to return. Yet I thrived in this
environment, confident that I could handle any weather and mechanical
problems or whatever else got in my way. Feeling that I had arrived, life
could not get any better. At the peak of health, I soared high on silver
wings, master of the sky.
Then it all changed. In a moment of time my career was over, my life
forever changed. An event took place that for the first time was beyond my
control. No amount of training could have prepared me for this; it’s not
covered in flight school or in the emergency checklists. A part of me died
One stormy August afternoon I was flying a charter flight high above the
Bering Sea when without warning I collapsed unconscious.
There was no other pilot on board; the aircraft was a sophisticated and
highly complex twin engine prop jet. One of the passengers on the flight
came forward and sat in the empty copilot seat. He knew nothing about
flying, but was good with radios and was able to announce our plight using
one of the 5 two-way radios on board. Over the years I had carried many
important and distinguished passengers but none so important as my guardian
angel, who guided the aircraft for the next 10 minutes.
The Coast Guard base at Kodiak, one of the largest in the U.S., and the Air
Force rescue center at Elmendorf were both put on alert, yet despite all
their military might there was little they could do except to listen on the
radio for what they believed was the imminent loss of the flight into the
ocean. We were a thousand miles away far out over the ocean in one of the
most remote places on earth.
It was later determined that with no one at the controls the aircraft had
entered a high-speed spiral dive with the air speed rapidly accelerating to
where the aircraft would begin to disintegrate within the next 30 seconds,
then fall into the icy waters of the Bering Sea two miles below.
Having been a flight instructor for 15 years, and teaching people to fly, I
know that it would have been impossible for a passenger without knowledge of
flying to have controlled the aircraft during that time, given all the
conditions that existed, Including the passengers statement that the
aircraft was in a steep dive with the horizon rotating as we came down
through layers of dense storm clouds.
Arriving at deaths door at 400 mph, there seemed no human way out of this
one. By the time I regained consciousness, the aircraft had fallen to just 800 feet
above the ocean. Miraculously, by now in level flight and at a safe air
speed. It was a miracle. I have not been able to fully reconstruct what took
place during that time.
I recovered and flew on to land at Atka, a tiny village of 95 Aleuts located
on a small island in the Bering Sea. We were more than 1000 miles from the
nearest road. As millions of people heard of the event on the evening news,
I spent the longest night of my life on that Island and pondered the events
of which I could not understand. There is a period of time missing from my
26 hours were to pass before I could see a doctor 1300 miles away. Many
Americans are not aware that such remote places exist in their country.
For so many years I was used to helping people in medical emergencies. Now
that I needed help, I could not call a local pilot–for that was me. In the
gathering darkness at the close of that day I felt utterly helpless and
Many people enjoy reading about themselves in the press, however, next day
when I read the Anchorage News (largest newspaper in Alaska) and found that
my story had made the headlines on the front page, it was far from being
pleasant reading. Why me? I was at the peak of health, now this. Why ?
As I searched for answers I went through several years of medical testing
which shed only limited light on what triggered the event.
After that event my life and my mind were in turmoil. My career, which had
consumed most of my life for the past 25 years, had been torn away in a
sudden and cruel manner. Being told that I would never fly a commercial
aircraft again was something I could not accept. I went into shock, getting
around in a daze. My world devastated. In one day I went from being one of
the senior pilots, to being not only unemployed, but also unemployable and
seemingly unwanted, my career stripped away forever. Words alone cannot
describe the magnitude of the void that now flooded my life. And, all because of a
sweetener? How sad.”
George E. Leighton is a pilot and noise control consultant based in Orange, CA., and an FAA certified ATP flight instructor.
ACSN cofounder, James Turner and I met with Chief Deputy Flight Surgeon, Dr. Jon Jordan at his FAA office, as long ago as 1989, presenting our concerns and looking for solutions for pilots. One of the answers was to establish a pilot hotline for the purpose of taking adverse reactions confidentially, which we did. Since then, based on our work, the US Air Force published two warnings in their official Flying Safety magazine in 1992. We believe the flying public and pilots have a right to know we have collected several reports of grand mal seizures in the cockpit in flight on commercial airlines.
Is aspartame the unidentified terror in the cockpit of every aircraft? Many pilots have reported adverse reactions to the Aspartame Consumer Safety Network Pilot Hotline. The effects of aspartame on pilots should be the concern of each member of the flying public.
This article was written based partially on the evidence presented in these studies/medical and scientific texts:
1. National Cancer Institute Cancer Statistics Review 1973-87. Bethesda, N111 Pub. No. 89-2789
2. Roberts, H.J.; Does Aspartame Cause Human Brain Cancer?. Journal of Advancements in Medicine. Vol. 4, No. 4, Winter 1991
3. W.C. Monte, Aspartame: Methanol and the Public Health. Journal of Applied Nutrition, Vol. 36, No. 1, 1984.
4. P.J. Shaw, Excitatory amino acid receptors, excitotoxicity, and the human nervous system. Current Opinion in Neurology and Neurosurgery 1993, 6:414-422 UK
5. T.J. Maher and R.J. Wurtman, Possible Neurologic Effects of Aspartame, a Widely Used Food Additive. Environmental Health Perspectives. Vo. 75, p. 53-57, 1987.
6. M.E. Drake, Panic Attacks and Excessive Aspartame Ingestion. p. 631 The Lancet, Sept. 13, 1986
7. Congressional Record, Senate. Saccharin Study and Labeling Act Amendments of 1985. May 7,m 1985, p. S5489-5516
8. Congressional Record Senate. Aspartame Safety Act of 1985. August 1, 1985, p. S10820-10847
9. Ishu, II: Incidence of brain tumors in rats fed aspartame. Toxicol Letters 1981, 7:433-437.
10. R.G. Walton, Seizure and Mania after high intake of aspartame. Psychomatics, 1986; 27:218-220
11. R.J. Wurtman, E.R.Walker, Dietary Phenylalanine and Brain Function, MIT Press May, 1988.
12. D. Remington, B. Higa, The Bitter truth About Artificial Sweeteners. Vitality House Press, 1987
13. H.J. Roberts, Aspartame, NutraSweet. Is It Safe? The Charles Press, December 1989.
14. B.A. Mullarkey, Bittersweet Aspartame, A Diet Delusion. NutriVoice, Inc. ISBN 0-944366–00-7 1992. 65 pgs.
15. Excitotoxins … The Taste That Kills – Russell L. Blaylock, M.D. Health Press, Santa Fe, N.M. 1994
Mary Nash Stoddard, Founder
Aspartame Consumer Safety Network and Pilot Hotline [since 1987]
P.O. Box 2001 – Frisco, TX 75034 – U.S.