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"We are the protagonists of our stories called life, and there is no limit to how high we can fly."

Type rated on A330, B747-400, B747, B757, B767, B737, B727. International Airline Pilot / Author / Speaker. Dedicated to giving the gift of wings to anyone following their dreams. Supporting Aviation Safety through training, writing, and inspiration.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Mental Health and the Pilot

What can we do? 

Over the previous week I have been asked numerous times if I was surprised that the first officer of a German Wings A320 flew that plane into the mountains.  My answer has been no. The reason I wrote a novel, Flight For Control, that themed this event four years earlier,  was to create awareness of a potential threat that could happen at any time. 

After I earned a masters in human services, having researched stress and psychology, my eyes opened wide to the human element.  The stress of the aviation industry, pension loss, layoffs, workrule changes, seniority loss, combined with the stress of home life, and take that into the airplane, the potential was there for problems to arise. Why? 

Because there are no support systems to help pilots with mental health issues, and pilots are human. 

I wanted to create awareness of a very serious issue that one day could arrive in the flightdeck, but nobody believed me, despite similar incidents having already occurred. Now everyone knows. The question is what will the industry do?

This month, our BIF team (Blogging In Formation) discusses responsible reporting. But what does that mean? And is speculation irresponsible? Or is brainstorming a good thing?

Ron Rapp cries: "Do Something", whereas CapnAux doesn't want to believe that this was a suicide until the facts are in, and hopes that it was hypoxia. And then there is Captain Mark L. Berry who lived depression after a horrific event, but could not self diagnose, and it took the Airline to make the decision to pull him from the flight line and force him into therapy. A riveting story at

What can we do?
  • Create programs that bring pilots together annually (like the old days) to discuss issues on the flight line, diffuse stress, and for education on mental health to teach pilots this is not a weakness, and there is hope beyond being grounded for a few months to get mentally fit.
  • Make sure that it's safe for a pilot to come forward without the stigma attached. Pilots with alcohol problems can self-report, get help, and return...Pilots dealing with stress and anxiety should too. 
  • If a pilot needs to be on drugs that they should not fly with, due to mental issues, the examiner should be required to notify the airline. The pilot will not do that themselves. No patient who is not of right mind should be expected to follow through on notification or doing the right thing, because they are mentally impaired.

The answer to this travesty should not be about assessment and regulation, but education and awareness.

The system had that first officer. The Dr.s knew that he was ill without regulation. The problem was what they did with that knowledge- Nothing! I am sure that everyone in hindsight is saying, "I wish I would have, because I thought..." I hope that everyone in the future will learn from this. Pilots are just people and they can and may break. We need to be there to make sure they have the help if that happens.

In Loving Memory of the Passengers

This incident goes beyond the 150 lives lost on this flight. It's the thousands of friends and family members that are connected to those people who are impacted. Those are the people that have to figure out how to move forward and live without their loved ones. It's the people left behind. I hope that when the time is right, they will reach out to Mark L Berry, as he has lived their pain through another inexcusable and death on an airplane.

Enjoy the Journey, 
And remember.... 

This is an isolated event from a very sick man. Not the reason to panic, fear, or not trust those pilots flying you to safety. This event has created awareness, and I hope the industry will create a support system to deal with the issue.

XO Karlene


  1. I'm so glad you're posting about this. Stigmatizing mental illness doesn't make it go away, it just sends it into hiding. People can't get help when they're afraid to acknowledge their mental illness. I hope this horrible tragedy will lead to some policy changes.

    1. Jennifer, isn't that the truth. It's definitely not a weakness, and hopefully we can get help to those who need it. Thanks for your comment.

  2. Not sure if my comment went through, so I'll try, again!


    I've noticed that the media has asked you for comment. :)

    You're RIGHT that, if a pilot feels that they can self-report
    without losing their career, than they are FAR MORE
    likely to "put out a fire" before it gets out of hand.

    In the case of the co-pilot, I've heard that, a few years
    ago, he was more open about his struggles. I'm
    wondering if BRAIN IMAGING would've helped.
    I've heard that the frontal lobe looks different, in a
    person who is suicidal.

    1. Paul, That's an interesting thought. I'm going to check into that. But the brain can change rapidly. I wonder when and who they would scan. I think odd behavior should be detected by family and friends... when we wonder if something is wrong, it might be. We'll figure something out. Maybe brain scanners by the body scanners in the TSA area.
      Thanks for your comment.

  3. You're on perfect point here, Karlene and I too am glad that you have opened the door on your blog. And of course, as likely a "Human Factors" related event, it is easily within your growing expertise. That said, I'm voting with Eric **for the moment** by urging everyone to keep much cooler heads at least until a lot more facts are known. Never have I seen an AV-related case so quickly tried by the press and accepted by so many. Ha! We already know the mass media's record for accurate reporting of aviation events! It is horrible.
    One the human side, pilots are no more and no less than employees employed for their professional skills. They are entitled to all standard employee physical and mental health protections enjoyed by most others. If a temporary grounding is indicated, do so, but in a non-punitive way, meaning continuance of income and benefits and certainly without a lasting blemish on their 'record.' Mental illness IS TREATABLE and complete recovery IF TREATED is the norm. A bone broken during are recreational event may ground a pilot for a couple of months. A mental disease is no different *If/when Treated*.
    IMO, the French and German authorities have screwed up, Big Time in releasing just a few personal details about the subject FO's history. Please folks, let's wait for the complete reports to be issued! I understand that the early evidence may be strong, but the investigators still have much ground to cover - **And The Early Reports Could Be Wrong!** If one is to judge by early reports, let's also recall that it looks like LH did a reasonably good job when clear this fellow to return to work. Too early to know? It is also too early to judge him guilty of a willful act! -Craig (of Cedarglen)

    1. Thank you so much for the comment Craig. Before the medical issues became known, I suspected this was intentional for one main reason. The plane had to be directed to descend. It could not leave altitude alone, unless it's engines failed and it fell. But it flew a trajectory. And having flown over that terrain, there is no way anyone would set 100 feet who planned on missing the mountains. And then as we learned the CA was out of the cockpit, and knowing how the doors operate, the CA should have been able to gain access, unless he was prevented from inside. If the FO were a victim and passed out, he could not have set a lower altitude, or denied access.

      Followed by the girlfriend sharing his nightmares of crashing, his stating he was going to make a name for himself, and then the medical records stating he was unfit to fly. I'm not thinking we are trying and convicting, but more just putting the pieces together in this puzzle to understand. We may never know anything more than we do now, and we must do something to make it okay for pilots to get help. Because, for all intensive purposes, this individual had mental health issues whether he did this on his own or not. He needed help and was not supposed to be in that plane.

      Just as you said, we can fix broken bones, and we can fix and help emotional issues too. I hope you read Mark's story. Very inspiring on how it is possible to get back into the flightdeck after we are better.

      Thank you so much for the comment!

  4. Karlene, good article. Sometimes the best thing to do in aviation is neutralize the controls and then analyze the situation before inputting controls. Let's hope regulators do the same. Unfortunately there is a long history of ineffective knee-jerk reactions.

    1. Leland, no kidding on the knee jerk reactions. And thus the reason I'm spending the next 5 years of my life and my paychecks to get a PhD in Aviation to help stop the reactions and find solutions to problems that are actually problems. I like the neutralize aspect. Thanks for your comment!

  5. Karlene,

    It's amazing you predicted a version of the German Wings disaster though your first novel: Life Imitates Art.

    Keep up your great work with aviation safety and your writing.

    Cheers, MLB

    1. Thanks for the comment Mark. I wish this were not the case. But, I am so glad that you are a living example of not being able to self-diagnose, proper intervention, and back to living the life of your choice. Your story should be read by all.


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