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How can we identify potentially mad or suicidal pilots?

April 1, 2015 Aviation, Headline News No Comments Email Email

egtmedia59Following the Germanwings tragedy in the French Alps, in which an apparently suicidal pilot caused the death of 150 people, focus has turned to how best to check the mental health of pilots and screen them for suicidal tendencies.

A psychiatrist at the Group Health Research Institute in Seattle told National Public Radio in the US that basic questionnaires to help identify people at risk were badly flawed. They were notoriously unreliable, he said, routinely missing many people who later killed themselves.

“For more than half of suicide attempts or deaths, we don’t have any clue or signal ahead of time,” the psychiatrist said.

Any questionnaire which could put a person’s employment or livelihood at stake would only encourage people at risk to lie, he pointed out.

Studies analysing millions of suicides show that only about 55% of people who kill themselves have any previous contact with a mental health professional. Even among people who take these surveys, results flag only about 30% who later kill themselves.

In the airline industry, pilots are often the best people to keep an eye on the welfare of other pilots, their colleagues.

Psychotic episodes can happen to pilots, as to anyone else. In March 2012, a JetBlue pilot shouting “They’re going to take us down!” charged around the aircraft he was meant to be flying, while ranting about bombs and threats from Iraq. Passengers seized him and wrestled him to the ground to prevent him storming his way back into the cockpit.

That flight, heading to Las Vegas, made an emergency landing with the co-pilot at the controls. The pilot, Clayton Osbon, was later found to have gone insane, suffering a major psychotic episode.

Interestingly, Osbon, 52, is now suing JetBlue Airways for USD 14.9 million, saying the airline should have grounded him because it knew he was incapable of flying.

Osbon filed his lawsuit in Manhattan federal court three days after the crash of the Germanwings plane in the French Alps, Reuters reported.

Experts say, however, that trying to screen pilots more aggressively could have the unintended consequence of driving people with mental health problems underground.

The Sydney Morning Herald quoted Dr Ian Cheng, president of the Australasian Society of Aerospace Medicine, saying pilots who report depression are generally able to return to flying after being grounded for a period of at least several weeks for treatment.

In New Zealand, the acting Director of Civil Aviation in that country, John Kay, said that a pilot’s medical certificate could be suspended while determining their medical fitness to fly.

“It is unlikely that someone who has a medical or behavioural condition of concern would be considered as being fit to hold a medical certificate. In addition, to hold a licence a pilot must remain ‘fit and proper’. When assessing an individual’s fit and proper status the Civil Aviation Act allows the Director of Civil Aviation to take into account any history of mental health of serious behavioural problems.

“As with medical certificates the CAA will always take a precautionary approach on such matters.”

Anyone distressed or seeking support should call Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14.

Written by : Peter Needham

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