Who Is Your Wingman?

A Wingman is defined by Webster’s Dictionary as “a pilot or airplane that flies behind and outside the leader of a group of airplanes in order to provide support or protection”, while Dictionary.com explains a Wingman is “a man who helps, protects, or guides a friend or associate”. The Urban Dictionary explains (although in a different context) “Learning and practicing the Wingman support system is an unbelievable asset if done right. Your wingman is an invaluable assistant for you so don’t underestimate the value of finding a Wingman that can work with you.”

The Germanwings flight 9525 murder-suicide in March 2015 generated a public call for enhanced mental health screening of professional pilots. Media reports still arise of calls for more psychological testing “to insure public safety.”  Perhaps most onerous are calls for mental health professionals to report visits by pilots for significant conditions to authorities or employers, despite few calls for any other public safety profession including doctors, to do the same.  This well-intentioned, but seriously misguided, approach to “protecting public safety” would have the opposite effect.  Pilots needing temporary help would loathe seeking professional assistance if they thought their employer or the FAA would find out about their personal concerns.

Fortunately, a well documented, very effective solution with a long track record of success addressing pilot mental health issues already exists. Peer Support Programs (PSP’s), both inside and outside of the aviation industry, have helped many people with most of life’s common problems. Best of all, they have destygmatized these problems, brought resiliency to individuals and moved people away from a medical disease model towards one of a trusted, understanding and empathetic voice to giving support in a safe haven.  Each of us will be affected by life’s stressors at some point.  Illness in work related stressors and personal health events are a few of these.  Experiencing concern about them does not make us a sick person; it makes us a normal person experiencing a time of abnormal external stressors.  PSP’s have an extensive history of helping pilots through these times.

PSP’s may have several forms. The most common is a casual PSP of friends or coworker just being available to share concerns, chat in the cockpit or over a dinner on the road. Clearly, there are minimal concerns about employers or the FAA entering into this relationship.  The other end of the help spectrum is a formal program of professionally trained peers operating under the guidance of a medical professional.  This may be done with the assistance of the employer such as EAP benefits or with union assistance employing outside professionals / peers to administer programs.  Although very beneficial, this can blur the lines of autonomy, superior-subordinate relations and reporting responsibilities.  Intermediate is an informal program of peer volunteers working independent of, but with the cooperation and support of the company, regulators and medical professionals.  Pilots maintain their autonomy and confidentiality while being able to share their concerns with a fellow pilot who fully understands the professional stressors in an empathetic, yet objective manner.  Medical research has shown this system is as effective in achieving positive mental health outcomes as more formal programs.

Challenges with informal PSP’s include maintaining boundaries of scope of help, listening skills, having adequate resources available for assistance, confidentiality limits, funding, volunteer burnout, data collection in a confidential environment and trust and support of the employer and regulators. Despite these challenges, numerous programs have helped tens of thousands of pilots and returned them to healthy, productive, safe flying.

The HIMS program in existence since 1974 follows a more formal model of PSP’s, run by fellow pilots, but with the cooperation and participation of the employer, the FAA and medical professionals. Over 5,500 pilots with substance use disorders have returned to flying with long-term sobriety and a remarkable new life for them and their families with a great return on investment for the employers.  This month, AMAS hosts the annual training for over 300 pilots, medical professionals and airline management representatives.  European regulators have recommended that similar programs be instituted on that continent, with the addition of drug and alcohol testing (not a PSP component).  Lufthansa and its subsidiaries have had the Mayday Foundation, originally set up to help with critical incident support, now addresses the full spectrum of mental health problems in a more formal PSP model.  Qantas Pilot Assistance Network has helped Australian pilots for 25 years using a blended program of informal and formal peer support.

The Air Line Pilots Association, International (ALPA) has a Pilot Assistance organization using the informal models for a host of common pilot issues including Professional Standards, Critical Incident Response Program (CIRP) and Aeromedical. Each airline pilot group has its own version of these national programs to meet its own pilots’ needs.  Several airlines pilot groups have set up their own programs to help pilots “get over the hump”.  Delta’s Pilot Assistance Network (PAN) has a 15 year history of helping with these everyday types of problems using a strictly confidential informal model, yet with the full support and trust of the airline and its management pilots.  American Airlines has a similar Project Wingman PSP and Fed Ex has its Pilot Assistance Telephone Hotline (PATH).  All of these are manned by volunteers working quietly with individual pilots over time to help them return to a normal happy life and give them permission to temporarily step away from flying when necessary for personal health and safety reasons.

The remarkable comment from many PSP volunteers is that participating in these programs is as therapeutic for them as it is for those who are reaching out for help. Alcoholics Anonymous has practiced this for years in the 12th Step of its program, giving help to others to help yourself even further.

With the clamor for more testing, more official review, more professional involvement for pilots with common mental health issues driving pilots with problems underground, the answer is already in front of us if our goal is improved pilot mental health and aviation safety. We should encourage the widest possible support and funding for pilot PSP’s, destygmatize mental health issues, remove barriers to seeking help, provide a safe have to come forward in and incorporate PSP’s into our overall Safety Management Systems.

If you need help, reach out for your Wingman. If you can help, be a Wingman and save a fellow pilot.

Fly Safely, Be Healthy,