Mental health vetting of pilots ineffective, US experts say

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Posted: Mar 27, 2015 3:35 PM
Mental health vetting of pilots ineffective, US experts say

WASHINGTON (AP) — There is little effective, real-world screening of airline pilots for mental problems despite regulations in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere that say mental health should be part of their regular medical exams, pilots and safety experts said.

The crash of Germanwings Flight 9525 into an Alpine mountain, which killed all 150 people aboard, has raised questions about the mental state of the co-pilot. Authorities believe the 27-year-old German deliberately sought to destroy the Airbus A320 as it flew Tuesday from Barcelona to Duesseldorf.

In the U.S., the Federal Aviation Administration requires that pilots receive a physical exam from a flight surgeon annually or every six months depending upon the pilot's age. The International Civil Aviation Organization, a U.N. agency that sets global aviation standards, also requires that pilots receive a periodic medical exam including a mental assessment.

Technically, doctors are supposed to probe for mental problems, but pilots said that's usually not how it works.

"There really is no mental health vetting," said John Gadzinski, a captain with a major U.S. airline and former Navy pilot. In 29 years of physicals from flight surgeons he's never once been asked about his mental health, he said.

Bob Kudwa, a former American Airlines pilot and executive who maintains his commercial pilot's license, said his most recent medical exam by a flight surgeon dealt mainly with checks for problems people experience as they get older. "They don't do anything for your head, no," he said.

There also is no confidential reporting, Gadzinski said. "If you had a mental health issue, you certainly wouldn't tell your flight surgeon about that because it goes right to the FAA," he said. A negative mental health evaluation would likely cause the FAA to withdraw the pilot's commercial license, which would end his or her career, he said.

Pilots are also required to disclose existing psychological conditions and medications on health forms they fill out themselves for the FAA. Failure to do so could result in a fine of up to $250,000. The forms include questions about whether a pilot is depressed or has attempted suicide, Gadzinski said.

"Is this really the best way? Ask the guy who is mentally ill if he's mentally ill and if he says 'no' then, hey, we're good to go?" he said.

Mike Karn, president of the Coalition of Airline Pilots Associations, said some airlines and unions collaborate on pilot-to-pilot counseling programs for pilots experiencing unusual stress. The programs are mostly confidential, but promises of confidentiality no longer apply if a pilot-counselor feels safety is at risk, he said.

"You really want to create that culture where somebody can just come forward and ask for help," said Karn, an American Airlines pilot.

Europe has a single standard for pilot medical exams. "These medical assessments are done by doctors with a specialty in aviation health," said Richard Taylor, a spokesman for the United Kingdom's Civil Aviation Authority. "They know what to look for, physically and mentally."

German prosecutors, who are also investigating the crash, said Friday that they've found evidence that co-pilot Andreas Lubitz may have hid an illness. They didn't identify the illness. Officials for Lufthansa, which owns Germanwings, have said Lubitz performed well on tests of his flying skills and they had no idea he was troubled.

Airlines typically ask pilots to take mental health screening exams when they apply for a job, but follow-up after hiring is cursory at best, experts say.

"If you've got 12,000 or 15,000 pilots like American Airlines has ... every now and then you're going to get a crackpot no matter how hard you try," Kudwa said.

When that happens, other pilots who fly with the unstable pilot "sooner or later (are) going to let the boss know and then a check airman will be flying with him" to see if there is a problem, he said.

A check airman is an airline pilot who monitors the skills of other pilots by flying with them and watching how they perform. Still, check rides prompted by mental health concerns are rare, Kudwa said.

"You try to get these guys who are on the edge out of the program, but even in my career I ran into guys where I thought, 'How did he get through the system?'" said Kudwa, who was with American for 28 years. "Or people change. Or, as we see in today's environment, people get radicalized by social media."

U.S. airline pilots generally receive training from their airlines about every six months to keep flying skills sharp. At that time, the chief pilot or check pilot monitoring their performance often asks pilots a few questions about their emotional stability, said John Goglia, a former National Transportation Safety Board member and aviation safety consultant.

"It's very, very loose," Goglia said. "It's easy to get around that because it's not a mental health professional who is asking the questions. ... 'Is everything all right at home? Are you fighting with your wife? Are you kicking the kids and dog?' It's not much. It's usually pilots looking at pilots."

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Associated Press writer Danica Kirka contributed to this report from London.

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