‘Speedball’ use by Centerville pilot wasn’t first at Spirit Airlines

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

High-risk drug use by Centerville pilot wasn’t first at Spirit Airlines

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

Another pilot in 2007 was stripped of certification after test revealed potent mix of cocaine, other drugs.

Spirit Airlines Captain Brian Halye — the Centerville dad found dead with his wife of overdoses by their children — is not the first pilot from the ultra low-fare airline suspected of taking a “speedball” of hard drugs.

A random drug test found another Spirit captain “far above” the minimum confirmation levels for cocaine, morphine and heroin after a full day of domestic and overseas travel in 2007, the Dayton Daily News found.

The incident sparked nearly a decade of unsuccessful efforts by Captain Jeffrey Swaters to prove his innocence after the Federal Aviation Administration issued an emergency order yanking his certifications. In 2016 a federal appeals court denied his most recent legal action.

His first appeal went before an administrative law judge for the National Transportation Safety Board, who concluded that the drugs involved “are mind-altering drugs that affect the pilot’s faculties in a way contrary to safety.”

“I cannot readily fathom why a pilot, with the responsibilities and experience the respondent has as a captain with a commercial airline, would jeopardize his promising career and livelihood by use of prohibited drugs,” Judge William A. Pope II ruled on March 4, 2008.

The drugs involved in the incident involving Swaters are similar to those found in Halye after his death in March. Swaters’ verified positive drug test showed the presence of cocaine, morphine and heroin while Halye’s toxicology screen showed the presence of cocaine and carfentanil, an extremely powerful opioid drug.

I-TEAM: Airline pilots union fought drug testing for decades — and still does

The autopsy does not reveal whether Halye knew he was taking carfentanil, which drug dealers have been known to slip into other drugs like heroin. But the intentional combination of cocaine — a stimulant — and such other sedating drugs like heroin is known as a “speedball.”

Both Halye and his wife Courtney had injection marks on their bodies.

“I’ve not actually seen a person go through conversion [from the effects of one drug to the other], but I’ve reviewed police reports of people who took both of them together,” Dr. Vina Spiehler, a pharmacologist certified in forensic toxicology, testified during a 2008 National Transportation Safety Board hearing involving Swaters.

“And initially, they show the cocaine stimulation and then after a few minutes, maybe 15 or 20 minutes, they switch over and go on the nod and begin to show the effects of heroin,” Spiehler said.

Neither the Florida-based Spirit nor an attorney for Swaters immediately responded to requests for comment.

Despite multiple requests over the past 11 weeks by the Dayton Daily News, Spirit has not revealed the last time Halye was subjected to a random drug test during his nine-year Spirit career, if ever.

A Daily News examination after Halye’s death revealed pilots can go years without a random drug test.

Properly executed, such random drug tests have detected drugs in the urine of pilots like Swaters, who left Spirit before Halye arrived.

MORE: Spirit Airlines pilot’s overdose draws national attention

Swaters completed a line of flight from San Juan to Orlando, to Fort Lauderdale, to Kingston, Jamaica and back to Fort Lauderdale when he was met at the gate by a Spirit manager who told him he was randomly selected for drug testing.

The pilot was given the necessary paperwork to take the test at 3:40 p.m., but his urine sample wasn’t collected until nearly 9 p.m. due to car trouble, he said, according to a 2009 U.S. Court of Appeals ruling.

Swaters’ verified positive test — the concentration of cocaine alone in his urine was detected at 9,455 nanograms, or 63 times the 150-nanogram confirmation cutoff point — prompted years of legal battles and arguments, including a claim the urine tested wasn’t his.

In a 2016 ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals D.C. Circuit denied Swaters’ attempt to conduct a DNA test in the hope of proving the urine is not his. The court upheld U.S. Transportation Department guidelines forbidding the release of urine samples for DNA testing.

Read more pilot drug testing coverage:

» FAA, Spirit Airlines ‘quickly became aware’ of Centerville pilot’s death

» How drug testing airline pilots is like playing Jenga


The Dayton Daily News has reviewed thousands of pages of records since the overdose death of Spirit Airlines Captain Brian Halye. The newspaper continues to dig into the circumstances behind Halye’s death— work made possible by your subscription.

About the Author