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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.

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 
YOU ARE MISSED! 

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 

40 comments:

  1. Thank you for speaking for my son. He was an amazing man with so much to offer had he just been able to get help. 🌺❤️😢

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    1. You are so welcome. He and others need a voice when they don't feel they have one of their own. I am so very sorry he's not with us. I'm hoping we can create the change needed so this never happens again.

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  2. Too sad and heartbreaking! My condolences to his loved ones. We are not created to die, so it is very hard to accept the loss of anyone specially thru suicide.

    One hope that gets me going everyday is the hope of resurrection. We will definitely see those we love some day in the near future. This is the the promise our Maker has gave(Issiah 26:19 / JW.ORG).

    In the meantime,there must done something to prevent tragedies such this.

    Thanks!

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    1. Thank you MH. We are here to live. Sometimes, we just need help to do that.

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  3. I am humbled by this report about our pilots and for our friend, Brian. He, indeed was one awesome person, whom shouldn’t of had to feel like this without help. Shame on Delta executives.

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    1. Thank you for your comments Debby. Shame on Delta executives for so many reasons. They failed him on every level. We can only pray that we can change this requirement and pilots will get help when they need it before it's too late.

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    2. My sweet sweet friend. Oh how I miss you. The military is also very much like this and they need to change as well. (Military family here) Brian was a beautiful man inside and out. 29 years of friendship and I'm truly shattered. Thank you for trying to help these situations. It was hard to read this, but also amazing. Miss you Bri!!

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  4. Yay! Brian was very special to me…and there is clearly an institutional problem. Thank you ❤️

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    1. Thank you. I suspect Brian was very special to many people. This is an institutional problem and I suspect you might help to create change where you can.

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  5. It's heartbreaking to read this. I feel it's like the managers in Delta don't understand the importance of mental health. They might understand the language of money, but not the language of the soul. I have been fortunate to work for companies who understand the importance of mental health and make great efforts to help people when they face problems in their life. I never needed this service, but it's always a security to know they are there for you if the need arises.

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    1. Thank you Magnar for the heartfelt comment. A former Delta employee emailed me and told me for 10 years he had suffered with burnout and an over-bearing manager. When he reported it, they put a bad report into his employee file. He finally walked away from Delta and save himself. Its been only months, but with a good company he is mentally healthy and happy. We just need to give people the courage to walk as the last resort. Security is a wonderful thing!

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  6. “Don't wait there's 988”

    I don't want anyone to suffer,
    for me it's way too late.
    Don't leave loved ones wondering,
    You can now call 988.

    If you think that you don't matter,
    well you are very wrong.
    I think my nephew thought that,
    now he's flippen gone.

    Don't give up on yourself,
    look towards the light.
    Reach out from the darkness,
    before you end your life.

    Broken hearted people,
    that you have left behind.
    Please talk to anyone,
    we hope you change you mind.

    My family is suffering,
    for us it's much too late.
    Don't leave loved ones wondering,
    You can now call 988.

    In loving memory of my nephew Brian Wittke
    Written by: Mark Wittke©️7/24/2022

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  7. “Pass Them On”

    Remembering that I’ll miss you,
    and now that you have gone.
    Fond memories that I have of you,
    I’ll be sure to pass them on

    I’m so tired of the sorrow,
    that comes with loss of life.
    It’s my memories of the good times,
    that get me through the night.

    I sometimes think of how,
    Gods plan for me has changed.
    Is the heartbreak that I feel,
    by chance or pre-ordained?

    I don’t have the answers,
    should’ve studied for the test.
    I’m grateful for the time we had,
    I know my life’s been blessed.

    Remembering that I’ll miss you,
    and now that you have gone.
    Fond memories that I have of you,
    I’ll be sure to pass them on.

    WRITTEN BY: MARK WITTKE © 2022

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  8. This needed to be said. The FAA aeromedical certification program actually harms the public because it forces pilots to hide medical concerns out of fear of being grounded and hence losing their income. And not just for mental health issues, but getting treatment for other medical conditions as well. The FAA or any other government organization should not even be in the business of medical certification in my opinion. Get rid of it.
    - Anonymous airline pilot.

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    1. Yes it does!! The challenge is worse when the airlines own or work with the FAA and there is no confidentiality.

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  9. The issue of medical privacy is a real issue with the FAA. It’s natural to link one’s identity to a career you have worked so hard to attain. Dr’s, Lawyers, Police, famously…US Marines, do it and are proud of it. The way the FAA looks at pilots, that’s always a risk. There needs to be the attitude that the FAA wants to help pilots vs limit their risk. I had a great FAA Dr, Susan Northrop, many are not as helpful. Pilots have long looked at Drs as “the enemy”, for just that reason.

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    1. I hope and pray that Dr. Northrop will understand there is a middle ground from needed to talk to someone versus the need for medication. We can improve mental health just by being free to speak to a professional, risk free and without consequence.

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  10. Annie Vargas,Brian’s momMarch 7, 2023 at 4:29 PM

    Sending love Mark. We all miss Brian so mich

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    1. We know you do Annie. Reading his poems identify how special he was.

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  11. This has been a problem forever. It needs to be addressed. A lot of the good programs (NWA) were hijacked, including Delta’s and American’s. I don’t know about other airlines like United.

    When I learned my daughter was abused (1986), I needed help. Not for suicide, but for anger and distress. For years. I always had to find counselors who would bill my sessions as marriage counseling. Of course HIPPA was in force, so no one ever knew your PRIVATE medical info.

    I’ve never seen a company as punitive as DAL. I witnessed Kar and Andrea’s situations firsthand, and kept expecting someone with a brain and heart to step in to stop it. Just because it didn’t happen to all the women (!) doesn’t mean it wasn’t real abuse. I do think Delta wanted to push you two into committing suicide.

    Kathy McCullough

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    1. Kathy, I have no doubt they did. Many pilots believe they cannot see a marriage counselor without it coming back to haunt them. Very sad!

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  12. My friend and fellow instructor here at FlightSafety International took his own life last week on March 1st…..

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    1. Howard, I am so sorry to hear that.Thank you for sharing!

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  13. My sweet sweet friend. Oh how I miss you. The military is also very much like this and they need to change as well. (Military family here) Brian was a beautiful man inside and out. 29 years of friendship and I'm truly shattered. Thank you for trying to help these situations. It was hard to read this, but also amazing. Miss you Bri!!

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    1. Heidi, Thank you for your heartfelt comment. Interesting, the airline of which we speak of is run like the military... so there is no reason the results would be any different for lack of support and assistance. We cannot bring your dear friend back, but hopefully he's watching all of us and guiding the future of change. My heart goes out to you and all his friends that must carry on without him.

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  14. Karlene, my best friend from flight school took his own life as well in January 2022…also a Delta pilot. His name was Joel. No one knew or thought he would do something like that. I never heard him say a negative thing in knowing him for 20+ years. Thanks for all you’ve done.

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    1. Oh My, I am so sorry! It's often impossible to truly know when someone is going to take their life. So sad they suffer in silence. If you know of any others, please have them reach out. If we have data as to how many, maybe we can enforce change. I'm sorry for your loss.

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  15. Karlene, first I have have you complement you for writing this excellent blog and for speaking up on behalf of airline employees and indirectly their families.
    I would say as an employer you have responsibility towards your employees, to keep them happy so they can perform good.
    Not presenting a culture of fear where personnel is afraid to loose their pay or jobs.
    What they put you through is incredible, terrible, horrible, what they put your fellow pilots and Brian through is irreversible.

    An Alons

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    1. Thank you so much An! We cannot overlook what the discourse that the environment has so much to do with this. We both know the truth behind the Delta culture, and this would create even more fear from coming forward.

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  16. Starting with, History:
    The article was very convoluted and confusing. Much of it made no sense! What did the Germanwings pilot have to do with your ramblings? Did Brian commit suicide because he got a Captain upgrade? Maybe you can fly but you sure can’t write coherent article!
    JoeBob

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    1. Well JoeBob, thank you for comment. Delta weaponized mental health using the Germanwings pilot, thus making pilots fearful to come forward with anything at Delta. The FAA forces pilots to disclose if they get help, therefore... they don't. The fear of retaliation is rampant at Delta, but mental health and the fear of getting help is universal in the aviation industry, and I'm told in the military and other industries as well. I am most certain he did not commit suicide because he got the captain upgrade, but contrary, he had everything to live for. I hope this helps with your comprehension.

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    2. Annie Vargas (Wittke)March 10, 2023 at 7:11 PM

      JoeBob......Of course Brian didn't take his life because he got his captain rating - no one could read this and surmise that! He was elated he was being upgraded. Karlene was pointing out that Brian had so much to live for..however, even good things cannot help a person who is going deeper and deeper into depression. He needed help way before it got to the point of suicide. But there was no resource for that - at least in his mind it would put his livelihood in peril. It seems you are just in the mood to criticize instead of empathize.

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    3. Annie, well said. Nowadays I just silently give a blessing in effort to help those who are confused to either understand the situation or understand how their comments are interpreted.

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  17. Thank you so much! I wish the company would do that. We'll see. I'll pass the information on to someone who might be able to make that happen. Thanks!

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  18. Hi Karlene. I heard about your story from some fellow coworkers at the same company. This article breaks my heart and infuriates me all the same. I work in InFlight and would love the opportunity to connect and speak further on this topic as to no surprise; this is a company wide issue (that has personally affected me).

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    1. Dear Inflight... yes, let's connect. I am so sorry this has personally affect you, but I do know this is a company wide issue. Email me at Karlene.Petitt@gmail,com.

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  19. What I find most amazing about your situation is that, to my knowledge, they never apologized. Even if we believe "our Dr just happened to be wrong" (which we do not) then they should at least say "Sorry that the Dr we sent you to made a false diagnosis and also made a sexist statement so ignorant as to be grounds for him never working for us even if his license was not surrendered in shame..."

    I mean that I never ever want to hear them virtue signal about social justice or any other value until they not only apologize for that which is indisputable, but atone for it, and then explain how any of it happened and how it will be prevented. AND that is just talking about the bad part that is indisputable. The other stuff that is highly likely they will never concede because it would warrant criminal prosecution!

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    1. No, there was never any apology. But they did this with intent. I wonder if they ever apologized to Dr. Altman for his losing his medical over this. Wait until you read my interview with one of the HIMS doctors who admitted that these doctors are bought. And ... Altman was his mentor.

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