Crashes Involving Light Planes

In light-plane crashes, the forensic pathologist usually deals with only a few bodies, which are generally in much better condition than those from the crash of a commercial aircraft. If there is more than one individual involved, the forensic pathologist may have to determine who was the pilot by the pattern of injuries. Patterned abrasions and contusions from restraint belts, the console or controls might indicate who was the pilot. Recovery of tissue from these surfaces with subsequent DNA typing might also identify the pilot.

Differentiation of a pilot from a passenger is said to be possible by the finding of "control surface injuries." These are alleged to occur when the forces generated by the impact of the crash are transmitted to the pilot's arms and legs through the aircraft controls. Control surface injuries of the arms consist of lacerations of the palms, fractures of the carpal and metacarpal bones, and fractures of the distal radius and ulna. In the legs, there are fractures of the tarsal and metatarsals and of the distal tibia and fibula. In a review of 100 aircraft fatalities, however, Campman and Bexfield found a high incidence of these injuries in the passengers as well.1 They concluded that the presence of these injuries lacked sufficient sensitivity and specificity to indicate that the individual who incurred them was the pilot in control of the aircraft.

As in all air crashes, the pathologist must identify charred and dismembered bodies, document injuries, and determine whether natural disease, drugs or violence played a role. Because of the smaller number of bodies, identification is usually easy. Most identifications are based on fingerprints and dental records, occasionally on comparison of ante- and postmortem X-rays and, though rarely, the use of DNA.

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