Mental Health of Airline Pilots Should Be A Hot Topic For The FAA, But It’s Apparently Not.

by William Angelley on July 10, 2012

Anyone who flies places their life in the hands of the pilot.  Yet, on commercial flights, the normal passenger knows nothing or next to nothing about the pilot.  How many flight hours does he or she have?  How many of those hours were in the type of aircraft being flown?  What type of background and training does the pilot have? What about the pilot’s mental health?

Earlier this month, a federal court judge in Amarillo, Texas found that a Jet Blue captain “suffered from severe mental disease or defect.”  On March 27, the pilot was in command of a Jet Blue flight from New York to Las Vegas when he began acting irrationally, including running down the aisle ranting about terrorism and religion.   He was ultimately restrained by several of the passengers and the first officer and another Jet Blue pilot on board landed the plane in Amarillo.   The pilot was apparently well respected and had a clean record prior to this incident.

The Federal Aviation Administration requires regular physical examinations for all pilots.  The frequency of these visits depends on the age of the pilot.  The FAA does not, however, require any review or assessment of the mental stability of the pilot.  The only way a pilot’s mental problem would be discovered under the current rules would be if a medical doctor noted it during a physical exam or if a co-worker reported it.

The Jet Blue case should heighten concerns on this lack of psychological evaluation.  Hopefully, this is a rare case.   Nonetheless, it seems obvious that regular psychological exams, in addition to physical exams, would be prudent for commercial airline pilots.  Such exams should also be required as a matter of course for certain life-altering events mentioned above, like divorce or death of a family member.  After all, a mental break by an airline pilot can be as dangerous, maybe more dangerous, than a physical event in flight. As a result, it seems that a regular mental review would be equally practical.

If you have any questions about this incident or any other aviation issue, please call William Angelley at (214) 580-9800.

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