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

PHD. MBA. MHS. Type rated on A350, A330, B777, B747-400, B747-200, 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. Fighting for Aviation Safety and Airline Employee Advocacy. Safety Culture and SMS change agent.

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

FAA Safety Summit and Mental Health

"Question Conventional Wisdom"

On March 15, 2023 more than 200 "safety leaders from across the aviation industry" met in Virginia as a result of the multiple near misses in our industry. At the same time I was driving to California on a conference call with three congressional representatives from Nevada, an attorney, a pilot, and the mother who lost her son, Brian Wittke, to suicide and is trying to enact change. 

We were discussing another aspect of safety: Pilot Mental Health. Yet these two aspects of safety merge because humans make errors, cognition is at the center of every decision and event, and mental health is paramount. 

February 11, 2021

While the FAA purports more "airport" training may be a solution, the answer could also be found with more pilot training. Normalization of Deviance, a Threat to Aviation Safety, my doctoral research, speaks to the impact of training, lack of understanding, and the result of a negative safety culture. All of which relate to pilot performance. 

Years ago the FAA approved airlines to reduce pilot training, with the new requirement of "train to proficiency". But is "proficiency" enough to avoid hitting another aircraft or nearly impacting the ground when the pilot heads are down? Is proficiency enough to counteract the lack of understanding or fatigue? When the mind is task saturated due to new or novel information and lacks understanding to the condition, situation awareness reduces. Add a dose of fatigue, and all attention is taken from the external environment to focus on the task at hand. Distraction results. What about a distracted mind dealing with issues outside the flight deck? An accident waiting to happen. 

Change the Convention

What the FAA could do today, that would help in every aspect of aviation safety, is to remove the archaic requirement for a pilot to report on the 8500 document (Pilot medical form) if they are seeing a counselor or psychiatrist. When we posed this on the conference call, one of the legislative representatives stated, "I'm going to play devil's advocate. With all the near misses... won't that weaken the system?" 

Strengthen the System

Enabling pilots to get mental assistance without fear of retribution will strengthen the system not weaken it. Would you rather have your pilot needing help or getting help? I'm a proponent of getting help. 

Sometimes your fellow pilots can help. When pilots are paired, such that a venting pilot is speaking to someone who has empathy, understanding, and the ability to help, then those long nights across the ocean are valuable therapy sessions. When two pilots are paired together with similar issues, those long-night discussions exacerbate both their problems making them often bigger than before they started the conversation. I have spent years on the therapy session end of the equation and have observed the other. 

When flying as a flight engineer and earning my masters in human services I was reading a textbook. The first officer turned and asked me what I was studying. When I told him, he said, "Oh let me tell you what happened to me..." I heard things that I probably should not have known, and he definitely could have used professional help. I have also flown with a crew and observed how one pilot's attitude can take down another. 

An all night freighter, the Captain  non-stopped bitched about the contract and how bad everything was. He asserted that if someone did not engage in the discussion, they did not understand the problem. I slid my seat back to not engage, but I fully understood. Unfortunately he pulled the first officer into his negativity full force. The FO started the trip with a smile. The poor man aged 10-years over the 7 hour flight, and at the end of the trip he concurred how bad everything was.   

Fear of Reporting

We should not rely on airline crews for mental health counseling of their fellow crew members. I appreciate Dr. Susan Northrup's stance that getting help doesn't mean permanent disqualification. She's correct. But, the problem resides within the subjectiveness of the doctor, and the retaliatory behavior of the Airlines. Pilots should not have to gamble their careers because they are being proactive where safety is concerned.

For anyone who does not know how Airlines utilize mental health to remove pilots, read The Seattle Times article and watch the Maximus YouTube video for an eye-opening experience. The FAA knew what was happening. 

By Dominic Gates 

"Judge says FAA Chief Helped Delta Air Lines Retaliate Against Pilot Who Raised Pilot who raised safety Concerns."

By Maximus Aviation 

I interviewed a HIMS doctor who told me that "this is a dirty business" and "Doctors can be bought." Sadly the FAA knows this, too. The FAA knew about Dr. Altman and learned that Delta engaged him for $74,000 to give me a false diagnosis, yet they did nothing. That should have been an immediate SMS violation against the airline. There is a reason, however, that Dr. Michael Berry is no longer the Deputy Federal Flight Surgeon, and a reason Steve Dickson is no longer the FAA administrator. The question should be asked, "How did either of these men achieve those high-level FAA positions based upon what they had done?" 

Support Professional Help

An immediate solution to improve aviation safety is to open the door for pilots to get the mental health assistance they need before the issues become insurmountable problems. The FAA should remove the requirement for pilots to report that they are speaking to someone professionally. 

Former FAA administrator, and current board member for Delta, Michael Huerta determined that psychological testing was not a valid option, saving airlines millions. However, why not mandate all pilots get an hour of counseling each time they get their medical certificate renewed? 

This would reduce the stigma, improve mental health, and keep the entire workforce mentally fit. Granted a counsellor may note a problem and then can encourage the pilot to return on a regular basis, beyond the regulatory requirement, to help work through life issues, pending retirement, fear of reporting safety, distrust of management... whatever the issue may be. Your pilots will have a method of handling issues before they become problems. There is no downside. 

Please Help Protect Your Pilots
Fear of Retaliation is Real and
Impacts Aviation Safety! 

Enjoy the Journey!
OX Karlene 

Monday, March 13, 2023

Aviation Inspiration: Laura Savino

 A Life Lived Well!

Dreams Become Reality
When You Find Your Passion
and Live Fearlessly

Karlene and Laura Savino

Last month I interviewed with Liz Booker as part of her "Aviatrix Author Interviews" and subsequently found myself invited to connect with other aviation authors at an Aviatrix reading and reception in Long Beach California. I was inspired and in awe of all the authors I met, and look forward to reading each of their books. But today is about the Jet Boss.

At the reading event I had the opportunity to sit with Laura Savino, a retired United Captain. When she told me she recorded her memoir Jet Boss without a studio and read it herself, I immediately downloaded the book on audible and promised to let her know what I thought. The first word that comes to mind is:



Laura's memoir is absolutely worth the read for any pilot, any want-to-be pilot, anyone fearful of reaching their dreams, any woman, man, or someone who just loves a story of a well lived life. I also hope the mechanic that she almost killed, the passenger who told her of an issue as he ran out the cabin that she listened to, and the passenger she so eloquently told off in the first class cabin all read this too. Do not be mistaken that a well lived life is cotton candy and sugarplums. I found myself laughing out loud at one moment, and tears filling my eyes at another. Her recount of 911 and the pilot friends she'd lost along this journey were heartfelt. I cringed and wanted to tell this young aviator... "Don't do that! You're going to kill yourself! You're going to get violated! You'll never become an airline pilot!"

Spoiler Alert:

Clearly she lived, and was not violated (by the FAA at least) because she made it to United Airlines and found herself as a captain, responsible for hundreds of lives daily. Laura's life lessons, joys, sorrows, and a handsy captain on short final, was incredibly well written. There was no "poor me" and no "I'm the best pilot in the world"... there was authentic discussion on the stupid shit she did as a new pilot and the lessons she learned. 

"Teenage Captain"

Female Airline Pilot

Laura shares stories of being a woman in the cockpit. I smiled at one of her techniques dealing with cockpit pornography because I did the same thing at Evergreen. Her hindsight, wisdom and how she handled issues and what she would have done differently has a lesson to teach all pilots. What happened to her and a number of other female pilots must be read. Her courage when she found her voice might just surprise you as to what happened.

For those women who feel guilt, and struggle being a mother and pilot will find compassion in Laura's discussion on this subject. I found tears here to, because I felt exactly the same. Perhaps we all do. 

"Baby Einstein"

Aviator Extraordinair 

While Laura may not brag on herself in this book, and often shares her weaknesses and fears, her flying skills were evident. The icing event on her first captain flight in the A320 in a strong crosswind, and other flight stories throughout, were so well written you might as well have been in the cockpit with her. But more than that, the A320 is a challenging airplane in a crosswind for a new pilot. Laura is pure aviator. She took her job serious. She held herself accountable. She learned from everything she did. United Airlines was very lucky to have had Laura Savino representing their company and protecting their passengers. 


Laura's craft of the language is powerful. Her word choice, sentence structure, characters, and everything about the manner in which she told her story was amazing. As writers we are told to find "voice" and often that's confusing. Well, Laura found hers. Speaking of which, I am now going to circle back to the beginning, because I did not read her book, I listened to it on Audible, and am so glad I did! 

Laura's voice, emphasis, and ability to understand and correctly speak aviation terminology made this audible book so much fun to listen to. She told her own story and she did it impeccably. 

"Secret Flyer"


The entire book was an inspiration, but the ending was incredibly heartfelt. Yes, the fairy dust can fade for many different reasons but life goes on. Accidents happen. Health issues arise. But there is life after flying. Laura encourages all of us to follow our passion. Be fearless! So many lessons to be learned within. A must read! 

If you want a GREAT read
I highly recommend 
Jet Boss

You can find Laura at
On Twiter @LauraSavino747
and on LinkedIn: Laura Savino

Enjoy the Journey!
XOX Karlene 

Monday, March 6, 2023

Delta Pilot Suicides

When Dreams Die

Delta Pilot
Brian Wittke took his life
on June 14, 2022

This is a difficult post for me to write, but one that must be read. While Delta Air Lines was spending millions to get rid of me, paying a doctor for a false mental health diagnosis, other Delta pilots were killing themselves. 

It's difficult for those who are mentally okay to understand why anyone would kill him or herself. The thought as to why a Delta pilot would kill himself is unfathomable. To kill yourself with the prestige of a Delta pilot career with high pay and benefits makes no sense. Unfortunately, when the only option for a person is suicide it's apparent that they think there is no hope, no help, and no way out. 

I hold Delta, ALPA, and the FAA, in part, responsible for the multiple deaths of my fellow pilots. In my opinion, Brian's suicide and others may have been prevented. While Brian's death was last June, Delta's most recent pilot suicide was on February 15, 2023. There have been many more suicides that have preceded both of these. Until the families request that I share their stories, I will just assert they are happening. Delta, ALPA, and the FAA are all well aware of these suicides, yet remain silent. 

An ALPA Captain Representative told me in the fall of 2022, "I knew this pilot was going to kill himself. He kept calling my office. I knew it was going to happen. Then it did."  The suicide he spoke of was not one of those that I knew of because he was a New York representative. There are more than we can imagine, and there is something the industry could do. 

History:  Delta had asserted in court that they "had to" put me through a mental health evaluation because of the Germanwings Pilot who killed himself and a plane load of people on March 24, 2015. Delta believed that I was overly concerned for safety, emotional, and feared I would become the next Germanwings pilot because I had told them that I had a target on my back. Hmmm. 

Most interesting is that the FAA administrator at the time, Michael Huerta, had decided in June of 2016, two weeks "before" I was sent to a psychological evaluation, that pilots would not receive mental health evaluations. 

Huerta stated, "Psychological tests are ineffective because they reveal a pilot’s mental health for only a moment in time without providing insight into whether the pilot will suffer problems later."  

After FAA Administrator Michael Huerta's decision to not perform mental health evaluations, he retired from the FAA and stepped onto Delta's Board of Directors. I have often wondered if this testing requirement had come to fruition, if those pilots who had killed themselves would have received the help they needed. Probably. After I learned of so many pilot suicides, I suspected that Huerta had made the wrong decision. But he did save Delta and other airlines millions.

Mom Annie with Brian

After Delta decided to throw in the towel in my case, Dominic Gates wrote a front page article for the Seattle Times: "Delta ‘weaponized’ mental health rules against a pilot. She fought back". Annie Vargas, Brian Wittke's mother, read this article and reached out. One of her sons, Brian, had taken his life just months prior. His mother does not want her son's death to go unnoticed and she needs to ensure that no parent or family member will ever face the pain that she and her family have experienced.  

Annie told me that Brian had spent over $50,000 earning a Masters degree at the University of Utah, specifically to get a job with Delta---his dream job. Unfortunately the Delta job was, "Nothing like he thought it would be" and "There was so much disappointment in his life." His marriage was a "struggle", he was "a mess mentally and afraid to get help for fear he would lose the ability to take care of his family". This was not an overnight issue, it was years in the making and could have been addressed at the beginning had he been allowed to speak to a counselor or psychiatrist without FAA notification.

Brian was getting help from a Life Coach because, "he was afraid to see anyone who was a licensed counselor for fear that he would be reported to Delta." 

Annie stated, "Everything centered around losing his pilot income. I tried and tried to get him to let Delta know and see what they would do for him and he was adamant he would get grounded and lose his job." Annie also told me, "I truly believe that if he had thought Delta would support him, he would have reached out and asked for help. I was incredulous that he didn't feel comfortable reaching out to Delta."

Unfortunately during the years of Brian's struggle, Delta was weaponizing mental health against me. Of course Brian and others would not believe Delta would help them. Delta also knew of an instructor pilot who put a gun into his mouth on numerous occasions threatening suicide, but Delta refused to do anything. If this information came to light, it would be difficult to continue with their assertions against me in court. Therefore, pilots continued to kill themselves while Delta spent millions asserting they were afraid that I had a mental health issue instead of helping those in need. 

The Pilot Contract

On Christmas Eve, 2016, Delta's hired hitman, Dr. David Altman, sent me my disqualifying letter via FedEx. We later learned that Altman and Delta management had determined that I was bipolar in October 2016. Yet, they waited for two months to tell me my career was over. Permanently. A doctor should know better, and I cannot help but to think that Dr. Altman and Delta management were pushing for my suicide by the delayed timing of this letter, and providing it during Christmastime. 

Dr. Altman

What I learned at the time of Delta's abuse of power, utilizing mental health as a weapon against me, was that the Pilot Working Agreement (PWA) categorized someone with a mental health issue as an alcoholic regarding disability. Meaning, that those with mental health issues would be thrown onto the street after 2 years of half-pay, if they did not solve their problem. They would be without disability and without insurance. Of course nobody would come forward. 

I returned to flying in 2018, and I made it my mission to get that section in the contract changed. I wrote resolutions, gave speeches at multiple bases, and finally in 2019 two resolutions were unanimously passed by the pilots, one of which was that anyone who has a mental health issue will have disability insurance until date of retirement, not just 2 years. Despite this resolution being passed, ALPA and the company decided to wait until the contract was signed to enact it. That would not be for another 4 years.

Not until March 1 2023, was the Delta/ALPA contract ratified, that now enables pilots to remain on disability until retirement if they have a mental health issue. How many pilots would have made a different decision in their life versus death moment, had this been enacted years ago? 

Unfortunately, another resolution I fought for, also approved in 2019, included the mandate that Delta utilize the Mayo Clinic as the Company medical examiner, instead of allowing a provision for them to purchase a doctor with a bought-and-paid disqualifying diagnosis. I was told that change would also be in this contract. It was not.

ALPA did not include that provision, and to date the current contract allows Delta to retain the option to purchase a doctor of their choice, despite, a resolution being unanimously approved in 2019. Delta can still purchase a diagnosis of their choice, and have the ability to force pilots to see a compromised doctor. 

Positive Change Has Been Made

I often wonder if the millions Delta spent to give me a false mental health diagnosis and engage in a war of attrition to have me removed, created fear in these pilots to come forward who killed themselves. I'm saddened that Delta chooses to spend millions in marketing and millions more in efforts to keep the flight attendant union off the property, instead of providing support for the mental health of their pilots. Delta even refuses to allow pilots to stay home for a mental health day despite how much sick leave they may have. 


Brian had just been awarded a captain position. He had three beautiful children. He had everything to live for. At his funeral many captains stated that he was one of their "favorite" first officers to fly with. Sadly, two days before he took his life, he had reached out to Delta's Pilot Assistance Network (PAN) for help and nobody returned his call. Annie, Brian's mother, later reached out to Delta's CEO/Chairman of the Board, Ed Bastian, regarding Brian's death. Annie believes Ed's response was, "just something to make me go away." I read it and concur with her assumption. He did nothing.

Change Needed for Mental Health

We cannot control where airlines like Delta choose to allocate their resources to increase profit at the sacrifice of humanity, but perhaps we can change the regulatory requirements. Currently pilots fear seeing mental health professionals because of the FAA requirement to report such actions. Many pilots fear seeking marriage counseling for the same reason. Then the problems snowball. 

The FAA does not require pilots to report seeing a nutritionist or a personal trainer. Why must pilots report seeing someone for their mental health? Unless an injury or psychosis, a pilot who is fine today will not awaken suicidal tomorrow. If the FAA were to allow our pilots to seek the help they need before it's too late, without fear of job loss, and prior to the need for medication, pilots would seek help before they break. 

Please take time to contact the current FAA administrator, Phillip A. Washington, or Pete Buttigieg, the Secretary of Transportation and perhaps we can create the change we need. 

The Weaponization of Mental Health
against me by Delta management may have 
prevented Delta pilots from coming forward.
That is something I will have to live with.

I am asking all of you who read this post
to please help me fix this issue
by changing the Whistleblower Law 

Share this link with everyone you know. 

Someone's life might just depend upon it.
Enjoy the Journey!
XO Karlene 

Thursday, March 2, 2023

Sanity and Stress

Just Another Pilot Journey! 

Mayo Clinic Rochester

In February of 2016, I spent three days at the Mayo Clinic, fighting for my sanity. Not to be confused with the novel, Flight For Sanity, but my life mirrored the theme in that novel. However, the Rochester Mayo Clinic journey was actually indicative of my fight for truth. The resulting novel: Flight For Truth.

I waited in the lobby of the Mayo Clinic knowing that this visit could dictate the course of my life. I will never forget Dr. Steinkraus and his kindness as he walked into the lobby to get me, himself. He called my name. I stood and walked toward him as I introduced myself. 

He said, "It's very nice to meet you. You are quite an accomplished young lady." 

With an inquisitive look I said, "Thank you. But didn't you read Dr. Altman's 354 page report?"

He replied, "Yes, we all did. But we know a corporate political action when we see one. However, we are not here to get into a legal battle with your company, we're here to assess your mental health." And that is exactly what they did. 

For those who don't know the story, Delta paid a doctor $74,000 to give me a false mental health diagnosis for giving them a safety report. I scheduled an appointment with the Mayo Clinic in their Aviation Department, despite Dr. Riccitello from AMAS (ALPA's aeromedical department) advising me not to go to the Mayo because, "The FAA doesn't respect the Mayo Clinic like the do private practice doctors." Yes... ALPA was participatory in many ways. I never lost my medical, but I did not fly for two years. 

Mayo Clinic Scottsdale 

I never lost my first class medical during the process. At the end of the day (7 years later) Delta paid me what the judge ordered after they lost their appeal. I had believed that the seven year battle would be worth the effort for the change we would create to improve safety. Unfortunately, there was no change. 

All participants in this action are still employed, and many have been promoted. The reason no change was made, and the subsequent promotions is because the Whistleblower Law (titled AIR21) is broken. Delta has proven the ineffectiveness of this law to support employees coming forward, if the company determines to wage a war of attrition. 

After 7 years of hell, despite winning on every account, my health has suffered from the long-term ongoing stress. The month of March began with my visit to the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale and will finish with my presence here as well.  Hopefully the end of the month will be warmer than now. 


Delta management, don't get too excited. I beat you... I can beat this. But, what I want to ensure is that nobody will ever face what I faced. We need to protect employees who are making an effort to improve safety. We need to change the law. Please, sign the petition and help to improve safety. 

AIR21 Law Change



Enjoy the Journey!
XO Karlene