Pilot: Why I take this personally

Story highlights

  • Les Abend: Fliers should know that Germanwings crash is anomaly; airlines have procedures for vetting pilots' fitness
  • He says psych evaluations, medical exams, peer-oversight protocols keep such disasters rare

Les Abend is a Boeing 777 captain for a major airline with 30 years of flying experience. He is also a CNN aviation analyst and senior contributor to Flying magazine. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Well, I'll be the first to admit, I got caught off guard on this one. If indeed the assessment of the cockpit voice recording of Germanwings Flight 9525's final moments is an accurate one, it is shocking. It is inconceivable to me that a fellow pilot would use an airplane for his demise and the demise of his passengers.

Les Abend
It is my hope that there is more to this uncanny, horrific tragedy than just an extraordinary suicide event. Although a report of normal breathing from the co-pilot in the moments before the crash indicates that he was not incapacitated, how can one really tell? A farfetched idea, but could he have suffered a fit of schizophrenia never diagnosed, or suffered some other mental disorder, perhaps brought on by medication? I know, it's not likely.
As an airline pilot, I'm taking this incident personally. Why? A pilot betrayed the public trust. With all the other fears -- terrorism, disappearances of planes, aircraft malfunctions -- how do I reassure my passengers that they should not add medical illness, mental or otherwise, of the pilot to the list? For the moment, I'll have to believe that my customers are intelligent enough to realize that the Germanwings co-pilot is an anomaly.
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    Sure, as with any profession, pilots have isolated cases of stress-related troubles. But we have mechanisms to deal with such problems. One mechanism is very simple: Don't fly. It is incumbent upon us to determine our own fitness for duty. As a matter of fact, on every trip, I have to confirm that status before I electronically sign the flight plan. Whether it's as simple as suffering from the common cold or suffering from the distraction of a nasty divorce, airline pilots can just say "no" to flying.
    As part of the hiring process, we completed a psychological evaluation. With my airline, one part of the evaluation involved a written test that asked obscure questions in different ways. Another part of the test involved pilots listening to an air traffic control recording made during the angst of a thunderstorm event while at the same time completing a battery of math and shape-orientation problems.
    We were then asked questions specific to the conversations between the air traffic controllers and pilots we'd heard in the recording. The test was a measure of our multitasking abilities and our abilities to deal with stress. In addition, the airline's doctor conducted an individual mental evaluation.
    Airline pilots in the United States are required by the Federal Aviation Administration to take a medical examination once every six months. The examination is mostly physical, but the doctor is expected to ask some basic mental health questions, most of them about depression or alcohol consumption. In addition to requiring pilots to indicate any prior health issues during the previous six months, the application for the exam also compels us to self-disclose the use of medications, specifically for the treatment of depression.
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    If we have consulted a therapist, that also has to be disclosed. Yes, all bets are off if we deceive the system by hiding things from it, but by every indication, this rarely occurs. The consequence for deception is having your FAA pilot's license suspended.
    When it comes to experiencing stress, airline pilots are no different than anyone else. But we tend to deal with stress internally. I have been trained as a peer support volunteer in critical-incident stress management, a joint program between the pilots union and my airline uses as a debriefing method to talk pilots through any serious event experienced in flight.
    The idea is to mitigate any post-traumatic stress associated with such an event, and occasionally the process would uncover personal issues that would be referred to other support providers, like mental health professionals. I have found that my colleagues demonstrate an above-average ability to compartmentalize their problems and not let personal issues affect their job performance ... most of the time, of course.
    If personal issues invade the cockpit, mechanisms are in place to assist. What mechanisms? At my airline, both the company and the pilot's union work in unison. Programs to assist a pilot experiencing problems are just a phone call away. And if there is concern about a colleague's mental health, we can contact one of these programs on the other pilot's behalf, anonymously if necessary. In some circumstances a pilot can be removed from duty. At every recurrent training period, the curriculum includes a presentation reminding us of these mechanisms.
    No system is perfect. Yes, as with all human systems, somebody will fall through the cracks. Even a good psychiatrist can miss an impending suicide. Redesigning an airplane cockpit based on the infinitesimal chance that another Germanwings co-pilot is out there seems like an overreaction.
    If passengers require reassurance of my sanity, then it would be best to more actively promote the mechanisms already in place. We can start with education.
    As I fly back from London today, I am certain that the Gulf War Air Force hero beside me, who dealt with enemy missiles and raising a family, will do nothing other than an exemplary job. I am honored to call him my co-pilot.