President’s Corner 2nd Issue 2023


Aviation Safety Strengthened by Mental Wellness Initiatives and AI? A Look to the Future

The pilot is the most likely component of the aviation safety chain to fail.  Unlike aircraft parts and equipment that generally cease to function properly in an obvious manner that is easily detected in “green light or red light” or quantitative modes, the human element is frequently compromised in a subtle fashion.  We are our own worst judges of fatigue, fitness and cognitive abilities.  Moreover, we are continually moving along a spectrum of abilities and fitness that can change not only day to day, but hour to hour and minute to minute.

Conscientious pilots use the tried and true pneumonic “I’M SAFE” to assess their prefight fitness to fly by a self-analysis of: 

  • I – Illness
  • M – medication
  • S – Stress
  • A – Alcohol
  • F – Fatigue
  • E – Eating/ Hydration

Still, these assessments are quite subjective, at least with our current technologies.  Equipment on an aircraft can easily be assessed using a quantitative or dichotomous analysis.  What if we could do the same for flight crew members using biomarkers?

Such technology may be possible in the not-too-distant future.  To a limited extent, it already has.  Cars and trucks are equipped with sensors that evaluate alertness using eyelid lag and eye motion.  If certain parameters are met, an alert is sounded to awaken the driver.  Cell phone applications analyze speech patterns and voice pattern modulation to forecast mood states. Wearable devices such as rings and watches can assess heart rate variability, galvanic skin responses and temperature as predictors of impending illness or quality of preparation and recovery for physical training.  Estimates of the amount and quality of sleep are available on nearly every smartwatch.

There is a proliferation of applications that assist with improving mental well-being, both using human interactions and artificial intelligence (AI).  In his fascinating book “Deep Medicine”, Dr. Eric Topol outlines studies that demonstrate the acceptability and effectiveness of AI-based counseling compared to traditional talk therapy with a mental health professional.  The results are surprisingly similar.  For pilots who fear adverse medical certification implications if they seek mental health treatment with a provider, using AI for personal counseling may reduce barriers to seeking healthcare.

The MITRE Corporation, a non-profit organization dedicated to solving nationwide challenges with objective, data-driven and creative solutions, is working with the FAA to improve safety by addressing mental health in aircrew.  The project includes risk analyses in a bowtie model of a safety management system coupled with seeking more objective methods of assessing mental and cognitive wellness in aviators with possible implementation of preventive and recovery barriers.  It is an exciting area filled with possibilities.

Perhaps a pilot’s checklist in the future will include an objective assessment of human fitness to fly using a combination of biomarkers and the ability to make a “Go – No Go” decision based on quantitative data using the pilot’s baseline data.  Additionally, AI-generated tools might be used to optimize a pilot’s mental wellness, cognitive abilities and fatigue mitigation interventions.  One can only dream!

While we await the future, be sure to use the I’M SAFE checklist for ALL crew members before EVERY FLIGHT, be objective and honest in your analysis and prepare mentally and physically for optimum performance.

Fly Safely, Be healthy,