Pilots Likely to Hide Mental Problems from FAA

By M. Penny Levin, Ph.D.
October 16, 2016

Pilots likely to hide mental problems from FAAIn the wake of the tragic crash of GermanWings 9525 last year, the relationship between pilot mental health and aviation safety has drawn widespread attention. Adreas Lubitz, the pilot of this flight, apparently had an extensive mental health history that was well known to both his America-based flight school and his Germany-based airline.

Over the years, the role of psychologists in aviation has been controversial, but this event gives rise to the question of the value that we can and should offer to the aviation industry, in two areas in particular.

As psychologists, it is easy to assume that our clinical skills are useful only in the therapeutic realm. We often fail to consider the value of these skills when applied to other disciplines, and the emerging field of performance psychology is a prime example.

Within performance psychology, psychologists work with athletes, performers, artists, military personnel and even airplane pilots.

Unlike psychotherapy, the focus of performance work is on building mental skills rather than treating psychopathology. While the audience and context are different, the goals of improved mental functioning and behavioral management are identical.

Mental skills are techniques that allow people to manage their thoughts and behaviors more effectively. They improve our ability to set goals, improve self-confidence, manage stress, sustain attention and concentration and engage in more productive self talk.

In aviation, this is critical because year-after-year, 70 percent of all aircraft accidents are attributable to pilot error. This is true even with the advent of vastly improved technology and automated cockpits. Stated another way, 70 percent of airplane accidents result from mental lapses! As psychologists, we are the most qualified professionals to assist in this realm.

Crew resource management is the term used to describe the mandatory “human factors” or “mental skills” training that commercial airline pilots receive. These programs are typically taught by experienced senior pilots and focus on areas such as crew communication, fatigue, situational awareness, error chains, workload management, complacency, fixation, distraction and overload.

However, because providing information does not change behavior, these problems continue to plague our pilots. We, however, are experts in behavior change, and this presents the first tremendous untapped practice area. In the early days of sport psychology, athletes were reticent about including us, but virtually all elite athletes now consider mental coaching to be an integral part of their training regime. Over time, pilots are also likely to welcome us so long as we can develop meaningful interventions that we present to them in a relatable and practical manner.

Pilots are not historically open to psychological intervention, and psychologists are typically not welcomed with open arms in the aviation community. This is true in part because of the medical/mental health certification process that all pilots must undergo on a regular basis. As part of this process, pilots are required to disclose any medical or mental health treatment. However, nearly all mental health conditions are disqualifying in terms of the pilot’s ability to remain active, leading some pilots to withhold this information from the FAA.

While there are severe penalties for failure to disclose these conditions, a May 2006 FAA report found that many toxicology reports of pilots who died in aviation accidents revealed the use of medications not reported to their Aviation Medical Examiners (AME) as part of the examination process. They concluded that “pilots who took psychotropic or neurological medications rarely reported the medications or their underlying medical conditions to the FAA. The decision many pilots make is that they would rather lie about mental health treatment than risk losing their flying privileges.

At this time, psychological testing is not required as part of the medical examination and AMEs are not trained in mental health evaluation. However, because reporting and treatment of most psychological conditions result in being “grounded” and even low levels of anxiety and depression can result in impaired performance, it is likely that this also impacts the high rate of pilot error we find year after year.

Among the recommendations of the European authorities in the aftermath of the GermanWings tragedy is increased psychological screening and testing. While this will not be welcomed in the pilot community, it does represent another significant emerging opportunity for expanding our scope of practice.

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M. Penny Levin, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and certified flight instructor in Lafayette Hill, Pa., as well as an adjunct professor at Temple University. Her expertise includes the psychological aspects of flight safety. Her website is: aeropsych.com or email: plevinphd@gmail.com.

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