It’s been 2 months since the Germanwings Flight 4U9525 tragically crashed in the Alps from what appears to be, deliberately by the First Officer. It’s taken me a while to post anything about this event, as I have been reflecting on it. At the time I airborne and had just flown across the Alps and heard a few gestures of condolence on the air traffic control frequency, but did not fully understand the scope of the tragedy till we landed. The investigation is still on-going, so I won’t comment specifically on this particular accident. It did however bring the issue of the pressure put under pilots and mental health further to the surface.
Once a year, every pilot with a license is required to submit to a medical examination and is required to pass this in order to continue exercising the privileges of the license. The medical examination itself is solely a physical check. The examination involves blood & urine analysis and checks the eyes, ears, heart, weight amongst many things. This is to ensure that the individual is reasonably fit to perform their duties with little risk to encountering a medical problem during a flight – though this does still occur.
The mental health of a pilot is never checked at the examination, other than a potential and informal chat about life in general with the Doctor. I raised this point in my last examination and asked that shouldn’t it be prudent to check a pilot’s mental health as well as their physical health? I have thought about this after hearing numerous stories in the industry of incidents and close calls due to the mental health of the pilot. This could be something as small as having had a bad day before coming into work or something as serious as the stress of the death of a loved one or a divorce. More seriously, are there more cases where pilots are suffering mental problems silently due to the stigma attached to such issues?
My intention is not to be scare mongering, but to open up a discussion of an important issue and for the industry as a whole to deal with it. This is how we make aviation even safer.
Lastly, I would like to share a piece written by a fellow pilot, Steve Franco, who draws on his own personal experience.
“The events of the Germanwings tragedy have really touched a nerve with me. It’s a truely catastrophic event and my thoughts are completely with the families of all onboard.
I have taken these events very personally..
Not just because I have a pilot’s licence and want to ‘jump on the bandwagon’ but because just over a year ago I had to make a conscious decision in my head to discontinue flying on the basis that I found I was suffering severe anxiety and depression.
The events onboard that Germanwings Airbus 320, if true as reported are unforgivable in many ways BUT it’s key to note that if mental issues are to blame that it could have been prevented! Now I made a conscious decision to stop flying not because I was afraid that I would harm myself and I certainly would not have harmed others! I stopped because I felt my focus and full attention would not have been directed fully at the task of safely flying an aeroplane without distraction.
Thoughout flight training you learn about how stresses and issues within your personal life can affect your performance on the flight deck, lead to incidents or accidents and generally are a recipe for disaster. The problem is the “manuals” solution is to just to try sort them out before you come to work, tell your doctor or to stop flying. Fine, all resonable answers but my issue is the lack of support. When going for a Class 1 (commercial aviation) medical the doctor asks you questions to gauge your mood and general “how’s life?” probes, airlines do initial psychometric testing upon interview for a position but all this is simply NOT ENOUGH. The thing is Pilots are humans! I feel the general view is that people forget and once you have the label of “pilot” above your head that you suddenly have an S on your chest and wear a cape. As humans pilots go through the same stresses as anyone. Relationship troubles, family feuds, financial difficulty and countless others.
Flying is becoming a more difficult career day by day. The industry is expanding faster and faster. Airlines are cutting costs, cutting wages and frankly cutting corners. As I said earlier in this post the events on that Germanwings aircraft are terrible and tragic but the airlines could have stopped this from ever happening. FREQUENT psychometric testing throughout training and employment, airlines and training organisations pushing the open approach to therapy and councilling, increases in wages for junior flight crew and more overide systems built into flight deck doors. These are just a couple of things that I believe may help.
I’m not claiming to be any expert but the point of this post (which I found really difficult emotionally to write) is that Mental health needs A LOT more attention within the aviation industry. If that first officer acted because of mental health problems then that is horrible and it breaks my heart to think all those people lost their lives because of a selfish act. Airlines and Manufacturers need to stop cutting corners and more support needs to be given to employees within the industry. My depression and anxiety is something not many knew about me and it has been extremely testing and hard but thankfully the support of close friends and family is putting me back on the path of clouds with silver linings. R.I.P to all those on-board and I pray that nothing like this happens again.” —Steve Franco