UK Probe into Mental Illness in Airline Pilots Leads to Hundreds Being Grounded

Just four months following an air disaster believed to have been caused by a mentally ill co-pilot, a Civil Aviation Authority review of UK pilots has led to 350 pilots being suspended after admitting to psychiatric problems.    The review was undertaken due to public concerns over the crash of  Germanwings Flight 9525  in the French Alps on March 24, 2015.   Over 140 passengers and six plane crew were killed with no survivors.   The crash occurred due to the actions of co-pilot Andreas Lubitz who deliberately downed the plane after locking the pilot out of the cockpit.   Prior to becoming a commercial pilot, Lovitz had previously been treated for suicidal tendencies and had been denied a U.S. pilot's license because of his psychiatric history. 

During the five years leading up to the deadly crash, Lovitz had seen numerous doctors for treatment and a later  investigation showed that he was taking psychiatric medication and had been declared unfit to fly by one of his doctors.  It was also learned that he had investigated methods for committing suicide online in  the days leading up to the crash.  Despite this however, Lovitz concealed his condition from his employer and reported for duty.   Under German law, employers do not have automatic access to employee medical records.

During the fatal flight itself, Lovittz managed to take control of the plane after the pilot left the cockpit for a washroom break.  Data from the plane's flight recorders show attempts by the other crew members to regain control of the plane but he successfully began a rapid descent that led to the plane crashing into a mountain at a speed of 700 kilometers per hour.     Rescue workers proceeded to the crash site and an investigation was launched to determine the cause of the crash.    The investigation found that Lovitz acted suspiciously on previous flights though no one suspected what he was planning. 

Within weeks of the Germanwings crash, Lufthansa changed its policy to require two crew members in the cockpit at all times.   Though other civil aeronautics agencies such as the U.S. Federal Aviation Authority already have this policy in place, Europe had been slow to follow suit.    There has also been calls to scrap laws protecting doctor-patient confidentiality when airline security is called into question.

As well, psychologist groups across Europe called for more stringent testing of airline pilots to weed out potentially suicidal candidates.   Regulatory bodies have also been conducting internal reviews of airline pilots to identify pilots suffering from mental disorders such as depression and ground them until they could be declared fit to fly.     It was during the  recent "unprecedented" Civil Aviation Authority review of UK 41,000 pilots that led to over three hundred pilots having their pilot licenses suspended though almost all of them have since been cleared for duty.   

As the review itself stated, "With the implementation of European regulations in 2012 it became possible for existing aircrew to regain a medical certificate following complete recovery from a depressive illness while still taking certain maintenance medication (which decrease the risk of relapse) if they follow a particular protocol.  “This has likely lead to more pilots declaring their condition in 2013/14 and receiving appropriate treatment whilst being suspended from flying.”  

A spokesperson for the British Airlines Pilots Association (BALPA) has raised concerned that the crackdown on pilots with mental problems could lead to many pilots deliberately concealing their conditions to avoid being grounded.  “Pilots take their responsibility towards passengers incredibly seriously and have a legal duty to declare any physical or mental reason they may not be able to fly," she  told British media.  “Avoiding stigma is best way to ensure pilots with depression and mental illnesses are not driven underground.  It is vital pilots feel able to freely report any illness and have access to support thereafter.”

Still, the CAA defends the tightened restrictions stressing that "safety is the number one priority of the CAA."    One spokesperson added that "all registered UK pilots are subject to regular and extensive medical assessments to ensure their fitness to fly and can only carry out flying duties after a specialist aviation medical practitioner has certified them as fit to do so.  "If a pilot has experienced a serious illness, they will only be provided with a medical certificate if a specialist medical professional is satisfied they have made a full recovery.   Working with our international partners, we continue to enhance aviation safety, including ensuring that the pilot medical assessment process is thorough and robust."

In the meantime, family members of the 146 people killed in the Germanwings crash continue to mourn their dead and commercial airline pilots are finding themselves being scrutinized more intensely than ever.





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