WITH ALL the attention on the behavior of the EgyptAir co-pilot, there are surprising facts about mental standards for America’s 83,000 commercial pilots — pilots in the United States are tested every six months by a medical doctor, but not by a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist.
“There is nothing formal that is done except the encounter in the interview, in the office,” said FAA approved medical examiner Dr. Stuart Mushlin, from Harvard Medical School. “There is no formal psychological testing except seeing how the pilot behaves in the interview.”
The FAA requires pilots to answer questions about their eyes, ears, nose and throat, other physical conditions and mental problems. Do they have a personality disorder or a psychosis? Do they manifest delusions, hallucinations, grossly bizarre or disorganized behavior, suicide attempts, substance abuse, alcohol or drugs?
If the answer is yes, they would likely lose their license to fly. That’s exactly why doctors say pilots are often reluctant to admit they’re having problems.
“Unfortunately, in most organizations, there is a social stigma to admitting that one might need psychological help, social help, mental help,” said Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Dr. Richard Bloom. “I think the organizations are doing better at combating that stigma than they used to, but it still is a significant issue.”
Incidents of pilot breakdown are rare but not unknown.
MENTAL HEALTH OF PILOTS TESTED
Only last month, an America West flight from Phoenix to Austin was forced to land in Tucson when a pilot, riding as a passenger, broke down and started yelling, “get away from me”.
The worst proven case was in 1982 with Japan Airlines. Investigators say the pilot suffered hallucinations and had a history of paranoid schizophrenia before crashing his plane into Tokyo Bay, killing 24 and injuring 149. But officials say they do screen for problems. In 1998, the last year for which there are records, the FAA refused to re-certify 633 pilots in the U.S. for “neuropsychiatric” reasons.
The Airline Pilots Association says pilots are the most frequently tested and monitored professionals in the world, and that the mere suggestion that they be tested for psychological problems is unnecessary and offensive.
The bottom line is, according to experts, pilots in the U.S. are so well trained, they are for the most part stronger mentally than the average person, despite the tension of making life and death decisions for thousands of passengers every day.