Pilots subjected to ‘shallow’ mental tests

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The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is helping Malaysian officials determine whether the pilots of missing Flight 370 could have intentionally diverted or crashed the plane, raising questions about whether better psychological screening for pilots could prevent rare, but violent incidents.

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Malaysian authorities have opened a criminal investigation into the flight that disappeared March 8 because someone familiar with the 777-200ER’s controls is thought to have changed the plane’s course less than an hour after takeoff from Kuala Lumpur, based on military radar tracking.

The FBI will examine Capt. Zaharie Ahmad Shah’s personal flight simulator that he kept at his home for clues. The equipment has been flown to the USA.

The open question is whether one or both pilots aboard the plane might have diverted and possibly crashed the plane intentionally. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires stringent physical exams for US pilots, but monitors their mental health largely through their own reporting and prescriptions.

“The mental component is alarmingly shallow in its probing,” said Greg Raiff, chief executive officer of Private Jet Services in New Hampshire, an aviation consultancy that lines up charter flights for corporations, governments and sports teams.

Under FAA rules, commercial passenger pilots under age 40 have physical exams every year and those older every six months to keep their certificates to fly. Cargo and general-aviation pilots have less-frequent exams.

Before the appointment, the pilot fills out a medical history through part of the FAA’s website called MedXPress. Besides typical physical characteristics, the questions ask about medications, ailments such as vision or heart problems, and mental disorders such as depression or anxiety.

A doctor—called an aviation medical examiner—then meets with the pilot to check vision, lungs, heart, abdomen, extremities for swelling that could signal heart failure, and urine for possible diabetes or renal failure, said Ryan Rees, who conducts the exams at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida.

“Basically, the air medical is an overall survey to ensure that pilots don’t put passengers or people on the ground at risk,” Rees said.

“If we see anything that raises a flag, we defer it for FAA review. All of the ones that we certify are also reviewed by the FAA, and they verify whether it was a good decision or a bad decision,” he added.

Rees estimated that 10 percent or 15 percent of the pilots he sees are declined immediately or deferred for further FAA evaluation.

Medical conditions

Commercial pilots aren’t allowed to have insulin-dependent diabetes, for example. But pilots can fly with high blood pressure that is treated with medication and with coronary artery disease that is closely monitored.

The FAA also can review driving infractions, such as drunken driving charges, which the agency asks pilots to report within 60 days of a conviction or administrative action.

Computerization, both of the medical histories and prescriptions, helps prevent a pilot who fails a medical from applying to a different doctor, said Rees, who has caught one or two that way.

“Warning flags pop up immediately,” he said.

The 15- to 20-minute meeting also involves asking questions about the pilot’s mental status for depression or suicidal feelings, and about medication such as anti-depressants.

“There’s a lot of fantasies about flying in the air and ending things with as much damage as you can,” Rees said.

“That never is far from our minds as a possibility,” he added.

But psychological problems are rare in pilots who receive their certificates. Commercial pilots fly tens of thousands of flights each day in the United States without incident.

An FAA report in February of 2,758 aviation fatalities during a 10-year period found eight cases of probable suicide. Five of those pilots had commercial licenses, two of whom had a history of suicide threats or joking about suicide. But all the incidents happened in small propeller planes or a helicopter.

That report didn’t cover a couple of commercial crashes where investigators suspected pilots steered their planes toward the ground: SilkAir Flight 185, which crashed into a river in Indonesia in December 1997; and EqyptAir Flight 990, which crashed off the coast of Massachusetts in October 1999.

In a case without injuries, a JetBlue Airways pilot locked Capt. Clayton Osbon out of the cockpit in March 2012 after he began speaking nonsensically during a flight from New York City to Las Vegas.

Osbon then moved about the cabin yelling about Jesus and al-Qaeda before flight attendants and passengers restrained him for an emergency landing in Amarillo, Texas.

At trial for interfering with a flight crew, Osbon was found not guilty by reason of insanity after arguing he had a “brief psychotic disorder” from lack of sleep.

MCT Information Services

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