German Wings 9525

German Wings 9525 Comments Published July 9, 2015

I just received my copy of “Aerospace,” the Journal of the Royal Aeronautical Society.  In this issue an article called “New Rules for Pilots Medicals?” appears. The authors examine the medical confidentiality for non-pilots versus pilots in the U.S. and Canada. In Canada a pilot’s privacy is suspended as a condition of the issuance of a pilot license. Further, license holders are required to advise an attending physician that they hold an license. In the U.S. pilots have the same rights to medical confidentiality as other citizens except when an exam is conducted by an AME. The article discusses the relative under-reporting vulnerabilities of both systems. The German Wings accident raised questions about the limits of medical confidentiality for pilots. These questions lead to questions as to accountability. In Canada most large airlines have their own medical departments. That sounds good at first, but that system is vulnerable to abuse. EG., “Doc, you need to find something wrong with Don, so we can get rid of him.” Future court rulings are likely to clarify employer’s duty to know of a pilot’s poor mental health.

My take on this is that a better balance should be found for the individual’s right for confidentiality versus the public good. That sounds a bit like the guns controversy in the U.S.  Both of these controversies are about the attempt to identify and disarm the crazies. When I go for my FAA physical and complete the Form 8500-8, I dutifully answer all the question with honesty. I list any medical provider seen since the last physical. That includes my annual general checkup, dermatological checkup, etc. As such, I would be in favor of adopting the Canadian system of suspended confidentiality.  The notion of airlines having a greater duty to detect aberrant behavior is a slippery slope, rife with potential for abuse. Even so, I think a ruling requiring a fellow pilot to report aberrant behavior is at hand. Today if a pilot permits a fellow pilot to operate an aircraft while alcohol impaired, that pilot is considered as guilty as the drunk. Expanding that rule to include behavioral aberrations might be a good idea.


(Published March 30, 2015) (More below)

The recent crash of German Wings 9525 has revived some of the old controversy about crazies in the cockpit. Although not closely related to automation and workload, the title of this blog is “Why Airplanes Crash.”

A pilot who would cause 150 people to die lies in an extreme subset of those who would make aviation less safe through their unacceptable behavior. When Crew Resource Management (CRM) became the mantra for behavior in the cockpit in the ‘80s, the ostensible motivation was to better utilize resources such as copilot knowledge, flight control assistance, and ATC. Great ideas all, but a main focus became the retraining of the tyrannical, narrow-minded, dinosaur captains who were scaring their fellow pilots. Not all cockpit jerks were/are captains, either. I was involved in some interventions of “fringy” pilots. One of these was a first officer, a Viet Nam F-105 veteran who had a low tolerance for the flying ability of captains. He frequently got into squabbles with captains that I had flown with and had no problems. He soon became a captain. I suppose the first officers avoided him like the plague.

Another strange case was the guy who defueled the airplanes. His big thing was that the company was wasting money by hauling such huge amounts of fuel around. In reality, the safety and economy of having extra fuel comes from lots of experience in the industry. After a few complaints from first officers, the chief pilot sternly told him not to do that any more. Of course, he continued. That’s when we had the intervention. He was given six months of counseling with no flying. My friend, Tom, drove to his house to check his progress. On the way Tom needed some fuel for his car. He stopped at a little country store along the way. An old man in coveralls emerged from the store and suspiciously eyed Tom’s license plate frame, which proclaimed the company logo.

“You work for that airline?” He asked.

Tom replied in the affirmative.

“I ain’t sellin’ no gas to anyone who works for the same company as that SOB (the captain that we’re discussing).


It’s funny now, but who would want to get on an airplane with him? How can pilots be screened so that these sorts of behaviors never occur in the first place? One solution that was popular in the old days was to hire former military pilots. A perfunctory personnel department interview process was sufficient since some other reliable entity had done all the work. This was fairly effective. I remember the screening I endured to enter the Air Force. That was very thorough, and operationally, debriefings were merciless.

But even that became controversial. After flying for Delta for a few years, a discussion emerged as to just which source was best for new hire pilots. I maintained that former fighter pilots were best because they usually were at the top of their Air Force training class, and had very challenging missions. The transport guys replied that all I knew was rough maneuvering of the aircraft without any consideration for the comfort of others.

I’ll never forget a meeting I attended in Germany on this issue. The Lufthansa Chief of Personnel delivered a speech in which he announced that all for future new hire pilots would be “ab initio” civilians. That means that Lufthansa would train its pilots from no aviation experience whatsoever. He looked exactly like the late John Denver. When I protested, he cited statistics that cast the former Luftwaffe pilots in an unfavorable light. I believe that the underlying theory was that the Luftwaffe pilots brought an unacceptable concept of risk management to the airline cockpit. Maybe so, but I don’t recall any of them intentionally flying an airplane into a mountain.

What can be done to prevent another German Wings 9525 or Egyptair 990? Huge lawsuit losses will surely get Lufthansa’s attention. If found negligent, airlines around the world will devote more resources to background checks and the hiring process in general.

There is a disconnect between general medicine and aeromedical medicine. One of the questions on the FAA application for medical certification asks about any other medical professionals with whom I have consulted lately. They want to know for what, which doctor, when, and contact information. If caught lying, you lose your license. Although FAA policy on the continuing of flying while on psychotropic drugs has become more lenient in the last 20 years, many pilots would rather risk taking antidepressant drugs illegally than risk losing their job through official channels. Many choose to continue flying untreated.

How is an airline to know? Enter “Professional Standards.” This is a Pilots Association Committee that receives complaints from pilots lodged against one of their fellows. Its effectiveness is limited to those who can be shamed into behaving. The committee has no power except persuasion. It is axiomatic that the association does nothing to harm its members. Therefore it is reluctant to divulge any of its information to company management.

The congenitally ill pilot applicant could be eliminated through a very thorough background investigation and screening process. The subsequent deterioration of mental health might be noticed by fellow pilots, but perhaps not. How are we to detect the mentally ill pilot who behaves normally, does not seek medication or counseling, and fails to mention his or her dilemma to their aeromedical examiner? I believe the answer is that we cannot.

The best that we can do is to be extremely sensitive and vigilant for any subtle clues that we have. And also to act upon those clues. Further, we must create an environment that removes the stigma and risk to those who need help. The first item on my cockpit briefing has always been, “How are you feeling today?” Even when I am alone.

April 1, 2015

This is not an April Fool’s Joke.

I received this comment from Bob Flocke, retired U.S. Army, ALPA Staff, and Mayor of Wimberley, TX: “…….. It reminds me of the old Personnel Reliability Program we had in the Army, and I imagine in other services too, for those working with nuclear weapons. After a comprehensive initial screening, it relied to a great extent on self reporting medications, illness and personal situations that could effect a soldier’s reliability with nukes. Also, there was a peer and superior observation component. All of a PRP soldier’s records–personnel, finance and medical–were marked to indicate a PRP member. Easy to monitor when one is seeing military doctors. Nothing other than the threat of military discipline, kept members from seeking medical or psychiatric attention for something that might reflect negatively, but it worked for the most part. We couldn’t afford a misstep in handling and firing nukes.”

Like Bob, I had a Background Investigation (BI) for access to nuclear weapons. In theory, if WW III happened, those of us in single-seat fighters would take off with nuclear weapons and become the first in history to be alone with one. The D.O.D. actually sent guys in dark suits, sunglasses, and wires out to Uvalde, Texas to ask my childhood neighbors if I was OK. I don’t recall hearing about any unauthorized nuclear detonations at our hands, so I suppose that the system works well.

Where is the disconnect between the airline background investigation which works poorly, and the DOD system which works well? How would you answer the questions confronting the Lufthansa CEO now? His answers seem a little lame to me. I would like to be able to say, “We hired lots of military pilots and we had access to their records. For the non-military people, we sent guys out to investigate very thoroughly.”  That would sound pretty good to the jury. The airlines should get ready for the coming storm that will nail them for their unwillingness to adequately screen their new hires. When that storm subsides, they should devote the resources to the issue that would have been reasonable in the beginning.