Pilots’ mental health is in the spotlight once again after an off-duty pilot tried to crash an Alaska Airlines flight. 44-year-old Joseph D. Emerson pulled both fire extinguisher handles attempting to shut down the plane’s engines. However, disaster didn’t happen thanks to the quick intervention of the crew.
According to court documents, he said “I’m not okay.” Authorities then later discovered that he was awake for 40 hours and had experimented on using “magic” mushrooms. On top of that, he had been experiencing depression for months, or even years.
Required to Disclose Mental Health Issues
The FAA is the agency responsible for the medical examination and certification of pilots. Commercial pilots are required to have a first-class medical certificate which would involve a visit to a medical examiner provided by the FAA.
This is required every 12 months for pilots who are 40 years old or younger. On the other hand, older pilots are required to have the examination every 6 months.
Here, pilots need to self-disclose “mental disorders of any sort; depression, anxiety, etc.” Senior aviation medical examiner Dr. Brent Blue explained that disclosing mental health concerns including depression can result in the denial of a medical certificate. This would also mean “an incredible morass of paperwork,” and visits to specialized doctors. Not only does this process take more than a year, but it would also cost thousands of dollars. Blue said, “The FAA essentially encourages people to not report problems.”
The FAA Encourages Pilots to Seek Help
The FAA said in a statement that the agency has “invested resources to eliminate the stigma.” It added that “the FAA encourages pilots to seek help if they have a mental-health condition since most, if treated do not disqualify a pilot from flying.”
National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy called the FAA’s process of certifying pilots as “arcane.” She said, “You lie and you fly, or you get denied.”
Homendy also believes that the present rules have created a stigma. Homendy said, “What they’ve done is set up a situation where people are ashamed—or silenced—into not seeking help.”
There is a potential 5-year prison sentence and a $250,000 fine if a pilot is caught lying. However, Homendy fears that FAA’s rules could also worsen pilot shortages as they could deny anyone with a history of taking medications for ADHD as children.
With a new FAA administrator, NTSB’s Homendy said that she is discussing mental health approaches with the agency.