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Experts: Piloting has Inherent Stress Factors

  • Mary Motta

Experts agree that while no amount of personality tests could have prevented Germanwings co-pilot Andreas Lubitz from crashing a passenger plane in the French Alps, there are inherent stresses in the profession that can contribute to the overall mental health of airline pilots.

Dr. Andre Droog, president of the European Association for Aviation Psychology (EAAP) he has come to know the personality type that is drawn to becoming a pilot.

“They are quite well selected and very motivated in becoming an airline pilot. They sometimes have to overcome deceptions of [failing] an exam or something, but in general they are a group of very enthusiastic people and mentally very healthy," said Droog, who worked with KLM Royal Dutch Airlines' flight academy for 22 years.

"You hardly have any depressed pilots, but of course there may be some pilots who experience difficulties in their lives.”

After spending years working with pilots in the aftermath of training accidents due to mechanical or pilot failure, he says the job does have factors that may impose a lot of stress on an individual.

“It's a special job. You are working at irregular times; if you have a family, you are often not there [or] may be at home when everyone is at work,” Droog said. “If you are flying intercontinental flights, you may build up jet lag and fatigue and of course you have to manage your life very well.”

In his landmark book, Anxiety at 35,000 Feet: An Introduction to Clinical Aerospace Psychology, author Robert Bor echoes that sentiment, saying the handling of complex systems aboard an aircraft can contribute to the on-the-job stress.

“These are also shift workers who do not follow the same working hours as most people and their offices are cramped flight decks at 35,000 feet in the air,” he wrote.

Bor mentions other contributing factors such as regular simulator and lines testing, which can make the pilot "subject to the close monitoring of other crew members, which is likened to an incessant driving test."

Is testing the answer?

Like the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, the European Aviation Safety Agency does not require routine psychological tests. These tests can be taken if examiners find cause for concern during periodic physicals that include a discussion of mental well-being, the agencies’ guidelines reveal.

According to the U.N.’s International Civil Aviation Organization manual, “Personality tests alone have not been proven to be reliable tools to predict mental disorders or to assess with any degree of certainty an applicant’s suitability for an aviation career.”

EAAP’s Droog agrees, saying that while there should be some kind of testing for mental health, tests are not necessarily the answer.

“It is asking the right questions at the right time. [Pilots] have to perform during the year at least four times in a [flight] simulator for training and proficiency,” Droog said.

It is at this time, he says, that examiners giving those tests keep an eye on possible signs of fatigue and stress of the pilots. That’s the critical time to talk to them face to face about it.

“Psychological testing is very effective in the beginning before they start training just to select the right people for the job,” Droog said. "But psychological tests are not very effective in predicting life events and how people cope with them.”

A rare occurence

Before the Germanwings crash on Tuesday, the Aviation Safety Network, which tracks accident data, reported that since 1982 there have been five crashes, killing at total of 422 people, that were caused by intentional pilot action.

“These cases are very rare of course,” Droog said. “It’s difficult to look into the psyche of these pilots because they cannot talk any more; but it's a rather new phenomenon that people use big airplanes for their own purposes. We are all shocked by this.”

The aviation industry has already been making some changes.

In Asia, where two of five carriers with in-flight suicides since 1982 are based, psychological tests are now a common industry practice.

Under U.S. Federal Aviation Administration rules, no one suffering from psychosis, severe personality disorder, manic-depressive illness or substance dependence can be issued the medical clearance to fly an airliner. Captains are required to renew their clearance every six months and first officers every year. Hundreds of people are refused annually.

And while European airlines are not currently required to have two crew members in the cockpit at all times, some airlines have introduced the rule, following revelations that the co-pilot of the Germanwings flight had locked himself in the cockpit and did not allow the pilot to enter and take control of the aircraft. The German Aviation Association said Friday that German airlines would introduce the rule.

Because of the rarity of suicide by aircraft, the Royal College of Psychiatrists in London cautions against blanket judgments on depression. It makes the point that pilots with depression have flown safely for years.

“Clearly assessment of all pilots’ physical and mental health is entirely appropriate — but assumptions about risk shouldn’t be made across the board for people with depression, or any other illness," the college said. "There will be pilots with experience of depression who have flown safely for decades, and assessments should be made on a case by case basis.”