In the years before the Bristol Commons helicopter crash, an anonymous tipster and neurologist worked to stop the pilot from ever flying again. But the FAA has said none of its regulations could have prevented him from getting behind the controls in the first place.
Diagnoses of dementia, cognitive decline, tremors and Parkinson’s disease did not stop Henry Schwarz from stepping into his Robinson R-44 helicopter and crashing, according to records provided to The Virginia Gazette by the Federal Aviation Administration under the Freedom of Information Act.
At every step before the crash, Schwarz fought the FAA and his doctor in an attempt to regain his medical certificate, which was revoked in 2016.
At the time of the crash — July 8, 2018 — Schwarz, 85, of Fairfax County, lacked a valid medical certificate — a document that gives licensed pilots the privilege to fly, according to records.
In 2018, Schwarz told the FAA he had fired the Georgetown University Hospital neurologist who diagnosed him with dementia. Schwarz also told them he had stopped taking medicine to treat dementia in June 2017.
Schwarz’s new doctor sent a letter to the FAA on Jan. 19, 2018, and told the agency his dementia diagnosis had changed.
“I am Henry Schwarz’s neurologist. He no longer has a diagnosis of mild dementia, and now has a diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment, and should be evaluated as per the guidelines of the FAA. Thank you for your consideration,” the three-sentence letter by Dr. Haideh Y. Sabet said.
Less than a month later, Schwarz sent a letter to the FAA demanding the agency re-issue his medical certificate. He touted his safety record and awards as a civilian and military aviator, however, he made no mention of a previous airplane crash into a cornfield in 2000.
He argued the only significant impairment he suffered from was abnormal vision, which was corrected with reading glasses.
The FAA rebutted his arguments and attempts to regain his medical certificate with a five-paragraph letter dated April 12, 2018. It read, in part:
“We have again reviewed your complete file and regret that we have no alternative except to sustain our previous denial … due to your aeromedically significant cognitive impairment and Parkinson’s disease,” the letter stated.
“… Presently we can offer you no encouragement for favorable consideration. Your interest in flying is appreciated and your disappointment completely understandable.”
Less than three months later, Schwarz died in a fiery helicopter crash in Williamsburg that claimed not just his life, but also that of 91-year-old Jean Lonchak Danylko.
History of illness
In the late spring of 2015, Schwarz underwent an unspecified neurological surgery, according to his medical records. Less than a year later, in January 2016, Schwarz underwent surgery to have deep brain stimulation probes implanted.
The probes helped keep Schwarz’s Parkinson’s disease under control by limiting the shakes and tremors he’d endured for nearly 20 years, according to his medical records.
Since February 2002, Schwarz was prescribed a beta-blocker drug to reduce the tremors — he disclosed it to the FAA in 2008. The FAA had records of the medicines Schwarz’s doctors prescribed him, but only after Schwarz made them available during his efforts to have his medical certification reinstated. It wasn’t until Aug. 8, 2016, when an anonymous tipster contacted the FAA that the government began to take action on Schwarz’s neurological conditions: the agency threatened to revoke his flying privileges.
The medical certification process is mostly self-reported: The medical history form pilots fill out before their flight physical asks about 20 different categories of illness.
Pilots certify that everything they’ve disclosed is accurate and truthful under threat of perjury, according to Dr. Gregory Biernacki, one of Williamsburg’s two aviation medical examiners. Failure to disclose any condition could prompt federal charges, resulting in up to a $250,000 fine and five-year jail sentence for the pilot.
Examiners such as Biernacki perform a thorough physical including a vision test. They note a person’s psychiatric demeanor and check reflexes and coordination, among other things. The doctors also ask about any medical conditions a pilot self-discloses on the history sheet and can order the pilot to take further tests if something is awry.
However, a pilot can shop around for a new doctor, one not familiar with their medical issues, if a previous one knows the pilot’s medical history, Biernacki said. Examiners submit their findings to the FAA after each exam, regardless of whether or not a pilot passes or fails.
“The big thing is that if you wanted to get around it, you wouldn't go to anyone that knows your history,” Biernacki said. “No aviation medical examiner is going to certify (a pilot) if they know the person is lying on their form.”
Doctors also lack the ability to question a patient about their medical history before the flight physical, according to Biernacki. Federal law under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act leaves that discussion for the physical itself. And if an examiner doesn’t think the pilot is being truthful, they can refuse to certify the pilot or order additional health testing.
Pilots 60 years and older are required to have a flight physical every two years for Schwarz’s pilot classification.
Before each flight physical, when Schwarz filled out a medical history cover sheet, he never disclosed that he suffered from a cognitive impairment, dementia or Parkinson’s disease until his certificate had already been revoked.
Before the diagnoses of Parkinson’s and dementia, Schwarz saw Dr. Ronald Johnson in Fredericksburg for his flight physicals for about 11 years. After the FAA pulled Schwarz’s medical certificate, based on the anonymous tip that came in between his two-year flight physical schedule, he switched aviation medical examiners.
Schwarz had seen two other aviation medical examiners in the previous 20 years, but Johnson was his flight physician for the longest period, according to the records.
Schwarz only acknowledged the Parkinson’s diagnosis and brain surgery to have deep brain stimulation probes implanted after the anonymous tip triggered a review of his file.
“The caller made the allegation that you have been diagnosed with Parkinson’s and are being treated by Dr. Steven Eechien Lo who is a neurologist,” stated a letter from the FAA dated Aug. 8, 2016. “In addition, you continue to fly.”
Less than a month later, Schwarz told the FAA in a health filing he had been diagnosed with a “touch” of Parkinson’s. The FAA revoked Schwarz’s medical certificate. He continued to fly for about two years.
Dementia and its treatment would have been disqualifiers, according to Biernacki.
“It's not just the medication, it's the underlying disorder. It's still disqualifying. Dementia would be disqualifying and so would medication to treat dementia.”
Additionally, lying or failing to provide information on the medical history is another disqualifier, according to FAA regulations.
Both dementia and Parkinson’s disease required the FAA to decide whether Schwarz was fit to fly. In an attempt to bolster his argument for reinstatement, Schwarz told the FAA he stopped seeking treatment for dementia.
The same day Schwarz stopped taking his medicine for dementia, he drove his late-model Chrysler 300 sedan through a brick partition that divided the two-car garage at his home.
The crash was severe. When the fire department arrived after neighbors called 911, firefighters discovered Schwarz’s vehicle at rest on top of the partition in the middle of the two-car garage. The Fairfax County Fire Department report indicates there was significant structural damage to the building. Neighbors photographed the incident.
Schwarz crashed his car into his garage again a month later. No crash report was ever filed with police because the incidents occurred on private property, according to the Fairfax County Fire Department.
Schwarz later touted his perfect driving record in an attempt to get the FAA to reinstate his medical certificate.
No ‘no-fly’ list for pilots
Disregarding the anonymous call, his neurologist’s report to the FAA and the FAA’s decision to revoke his medical certificate, Schwarz continued to fly.
The FAA said Friday that airports are not required to check pilots’ licenses or medical certificates before they fly.
“Airports are not required, and do not, check pilots’ credentials before flight,” FAA spokeswoman Marcia Alexander-Adams wrote in an email.
Access to aircraft and hangars is wholly controlled by the property owners, Alexander-Adams wrote. “Every member of the aviation community has a role to play in safety and security.”
However, the FAA has little recourse to stop a pilot from flying illegally in the first place. After the agency receives a tip that a pilot flew illegally, they can revoke a pilot’s license or medical certificate and they can impose fines. That’s it, according to Alexander-Adams; they have no way to prevent someone from flying illegally.
When a pilot flies and threatens those on the ground, it’s generally a problem for local law enforcement, Alexander-Adams wrote. At worst, the agency will revoke a pilot’s certificate if they have one and fine them, but that’s after an incident occurs.
Since the crash in July, pieces of Schwarz’s estate have been sold off. The contents of three of his aircraft hangars were auctioned for less than $60,000 before taxes and fees. His home in Fairfax County near Mt. Vernon has remained off the market, according to real estate website Zillow.
The community in Bristol Commons is trying to rebuild, and site plans for a new complex were submitted to Williamsburg in January.
In the interim, families continue to grieve the emotional and financial loss from the crash, and a 10-unit residential building remains a hollow shell of what it was just a year ago.
The National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation into the crash remains ongoing with no new updates as of Friday, according to spokesman Terry Williams.
Roberts can be reached at 757-604-1329, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @SPRobertsJr.