President’s Corner, 1Q15, Pilot Mental Health – Preventing Tragedies on the Ground and in the Air


Whenever there is an air tragedy, questions abound:  What exactly happened?  Could this have been prevented?  What do we do going forward?  The recent tragedy in the Swiss Alps is no different.  The exception here appears to be a single primary focus, the pilot and his medical history.  We will likely never know the full story behind this history or the events leading up to the final outcome.

For years, Aviation Medicine Advisory Service (AMAS) has built its reputation on providing pilots that one resource to provide direction to all questions surrounding a pilot’s FAA medical certification.  Our goal is always, first and foremost, to provide direction on what is best for one’s health and long term well-being.  Secondly we provide guidance in how those decisions will impact an airman’s ability in maintaining his/her FAA medical certification. These two goals ultimately result in protecting one’s aviation career and the overall safety of the airspace.

So much “misinformation” circulates among the aviation community when it comes to FAA reporting, FAA policy, and FAA processing.  AMAS’s board certified physicians and certified nurse case managers have decades of experience assisting individual pilots through this maze of uncertainty.  We have found that most concerns regarding potential loss of medical certification are unfounded…and with the proper direction are solvable.

The FAA and the Federal Air Surgeon’s office have made great strides in their policies for allowing airman to return to active flying careers following treatment for thousands of medical conditions.  Their overall goal is the protection of the public and the airspace.  However, they do so with the knowledge that an individuals’ ability to work or enjoy a life-long passion is also very important. Granted, this certification process appears to the individual as a daunting task and one that can seem to get bogged down in government bureaucracy at times.  The FAA works hard in trying to improve their process for the benefit of all concerned.

I had the privilege of moderating a panel on April 2nd with the FAA’s Federal Air Surgeon, Dr. Jim Fraser, and Transport Canada’s Medical Director of Civil Aviation, Dr. Dave Salisbury. During our extensive discussion of pilot mental health issues, it was clear that encouraging pilots to receive counseling for life’s issues (marital, family, eldercare, financial, illness, work, etc.) that affect our psychological well-being not only helps pilots and overall safety, but in most cases,  will not jeopardize their medical certification.  The US and Canada are two of three countries that allow pilots to hold medical certification when using certain antidepressant medication for more serious conditions.  This policy change was made to improve safety and pilot health.  It works well in North America.  Other countries may look to the US for how to implement a similar policy to safeguard both pilot health and privacy with adequate protection for operations safety.

All of our current clients and those individual pilots looking for answers and direction when seeking medical evaluations, reporting ongoing medical conditions, or simply finding out if a particular medication is allowed for use while flying, can turn to AMAS as their one confidential resources.  We have assisted thousands of pilots prior to and following treatment for heart disease, cancer, psychological and substance abuse treatment, neurological disorders, eye conditions, orthopedic surgeries, etc. maintain and regain their FAA medical certification.  Mental health counseling when life is difficult does not automatically mean a halt to flying.  With proper reporting to the FAA, most pilots may continue flying without interruption.  We encourage each of you and those you know to contact us whenever these questions or concerns arise.

Our hearts, thoughts, and prayers go out to all of those affected by the recent disaster.  We only hope that future tragedies such as this can be prevented.  AMAS is always available to provide answers to those questions for which pilots often believe “there is no answer”.  Hopefully by allowing AMAS to assist you whenever the need arises or just to answer a “simple” question,  there truly will be “Clear Skies Ahead”.