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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 


  1. Hello I work for Delta and I am suspended from work for questioning a new policy. The department manager took my badge and sent me home paid... I have filed a charge with the EEOC because I believe this is all retaliation and discrimination for reporting SH and so much more. Please send me your email, I am looking for information and believe you could help me most.

    1. Sorry they did that. My email is In your email, tell me as specific as you can... what date, what you reported, to whom, and what SH is. Also, what department do you work. Thanks!!


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