A Delta pilot has been indicted for lying to the FAA in order to be certified to fly, claiming that he didn’t suffer depression even though he had sought help from the Department of Veterans Affairs for a “major depressive disorder.”
The pilot had claimed his VA disability benefits for covering “knee strain and tinnitus.” The pilot is not flying for Delta as a result.
This issue perfectly encapsulates the catch-22 faced in dealing with pilot mental health issues. If he hadn’t sought treatment, he’d be able to fly. He needed to lie about his treatment to fly for Delta. But you want a pilot to seek treatment, not fly without it.
You don’t want clinically depressed pilots in the cockpit, but if you ban them from the cockpit they won’t raise their hand and seek treatment they’ll try to hide it so they don’t lose their job. And that’s worse.
- Silk Air flight 185 from Jakarta to Singapore was crashed by its pilot in 1997.
- Germanwings 9525 from Barcelona–El Prat to Dusseldorf was crashed by the co-pilot in an apparent suicide in 2015.
- Two other incidents in between, EgyptAir 990 and LAM Mozambique Airlines Flight 470, are possible cases of pilot suicide as well.
Copyright: viewapart / 123RF Stock Photo
These incidents are incredibly rare, and stand out because there aren’t very many of them. However it’s an issue that safety agencies and airlines have sought to tackle for years.
One estimate says pilots suffer from depression at twice the rate of the general population. In 2010 the FAA allowed pilots to fly while on anti-depressants. They don’t want to force pilots to hide the challenges they face or to go untreated. And being depressed isn’t necessarily dangerous.
At the same time many pilots may think that anyone checking up on them is looking for an excuse to ground them. There are cultural issues that make it difficult to get help, and consequences for those who need the most help for getting it. So even ostensibly ‘safe spaces’ in which to seek treatment, such as through pilots unions, face challenges. There is no simple answer here but it’s one airlines, pilot unions, and the FAA need to work collaboratively towards.
American’s latest podcast for employees turns out to be about this very issue.