What Happened on JetBlue 191?

Pilots and Mental Health

April 1, 2012

A MARCH, 2012 INCIDENT on board a JetBlue flight still has people talking.

According to reports and video, the plane’s captain, 49 year-old Clayton Osbon, apparently suffered some sort of mental breakdown.  He was locked out of the cockpit by the first officer, and eventually was subdued by passengers after embarking on a prolonged and agitated rant.  An off-duty captain took his position in the cockpit, and the jet landed safely.

This is not the first time an airline crewmember has suffered a breakdown while aloft. And it was, no doubt, a potentially serious incident.

The questions people are asking, however, aren’t necessarily the right ones.  Is there an unseen crisis?  How many pilots out there are ready to crack?  Is the mental health of pilots being evaluated properly by airlines and government regulators?

Yesterday I was asked if perhaps pilots ought to be randomly drug tested to weed out those who might be taking antidepressant medications on the sly.  That one got under my skin.  Is there really a precedent for such a thing?  Should we similarly test surgeons, policemen, and other professionals entrusted with our safety?

Instead, let’s calm down.

I’ll point out that airline pilots undergo medical evaluations twice yearly.  A First Class FAA medical certificate must be issued by an FAA-certified physician.  The checkup is not a psychological checkup per se, but the FAA doctor evaluates a pilot on numerous criteria, up to and including his or her mental health.  Pilots can be grounded for any of hundreds of reasons, from heart trouble or diabetes to, yes, depression and anxiety.  It can and does happen.  In addition, new-hire pilots at some airlines must undergo psychological examinations prior to being hired.  On top of that, we are subject to random testing for narcotics and alcohol.

I’m uncertain what more we should want or expect.  Pilots are human beings, and no profession is bulletproof against every human weakness.  All the medical testing in the world, meanwhile, isn’t going to preclude every potential breakdown. What happened on that airplane could have happened in a taxicab, in an operating room, or on the flight deck of a NASA Space Shuttle for that matter.

Again, this was not the first instance of a crewmember losing his composure — or worse.  In 1994, an off-duty FedEx pilot, riding along in a cockpit jumpseat, attacked the crew of a DC-10 freighter with a hammer and spear gun.  An Air Canada pilot was recently hospitalized following a meltdown of sorts, and, most notorious of all, a suicidal first officer  is believed to have brought  down EgyptAir flight 990 flying from New York to Cairo in 1999.  Cabin crewmembers, too, have earned their share of infamy.  An American Airlines flight attendant was recently taken to a hospital after seizing the plane’s public address system and frightening passengers with a rant about 9/11 and security.  And in 2010, JetBlue’s flight attendant Steven Slater made headlines after sliding off his job — literally, down the emergency escape chute on a JFK tarmac.

But does this reveal a pattern?  A pathology?  It’s doubtful.  Bear in mind that around the world each day, some two million passengers fly safely aboard tens of thousands of commercial flights.  Strange things occasionally happen, and not all of the safeguards in the world are going to ward off the occasional aberration. It’s also true that there are many more pilots and flight attendants in the air, aboard many more airplanes, than there used to be.  And the media, for its part, tends to seize on certain stories that, in years past, would have garnered less attention.

Are the stresses of airline life a factor?  Airline employees work in pressure-prone environments, and those pressures have increased in recent years, exacerbated by cuts in salaries and benefits, numerous airline bankruptcies, and so on.  And in the back of every airline employee’s mind is a permanent, gnawing uncertainty about job security and the industry’s future.  But while it’s tempting, I’m hesitant to make a connection — especially with respect to pilots, who are highly trained, highly skilled, and who almost always take immense pride in their jobs, and their ability to perform at a high level even when under great pressure.  At best, the effects of on-the-job stress are impossible to quantify.

Some in the media also have suggested that pilots are apt to conceal mental health problems out of fear of finding themselves grounded. This may have been true at one time, but things have come a long way. The FAA now permits pilots to fly while taking certain antidepressant medications (albeit after a waiting period and in accordance with strict guidelines), while airlines, for their part, have become more proactive and accommodating towards workers who admit to having problems.

As a point of comparison, consider the success of the HIMS program, a substance abuse intervention and treatment program put together several years ago by the FAA and the Air Line Pilots Association. HIMS has treated more than 4,000 pilots, with only 10-12 percent of participants suffering relapse. It has kept alcohol out of the cockpit, and has helped prevent the issue from being driven underground, where it’s more likely to be a safety issue.

Regardless of the cause, what happened the other day on JetBlue 191 should be seen for what it likely was: a serious incident, but an extraordinarily rare one that is not indicative of some underlying crisis or pathology among pilot ranks.

And difficult as it may be under the spell of a media frenzy that has mocked and vilified the poor man — i.e. “This is Your Captain Freaking” — let’s try as we can to feel sympathy for the unfortunate JetBlue airman. There’s no excuse for scaring the daylights out of passengers, but none of us knows for certain why he did what he did, or what he may have been dealing with. The possibilities include psychosis, a brain tumor, even poisoning.

Lastly, a technical note:

Would the media please stop referring to Captain Osbon as “the pilot” of JetBlue 191. There are always a minimum of two fully qualified pilots in the cockpit of any commercial jet: a captain and first officer. Osbon was the captain. He was one of the pilots. So, sure, this is semantic to some degree. But calling him “the pilot” implies that his colleague somehow wasn’t there, or wasn’t himself an actual pilot. Which is false.

The first officer is known colloquially as the copilot. But a copilot is not an apprentice. He or she is certified to operate the plane in all regimes of flight. Copilots perform just as many takeoffs and landings as captains do, and either individual can safely handle the aircraft should the other become for any reason incapacitated. That an off-duty captain was called to the cockpit to assist with the landing of flight 191 does not imply the passengers would have been in danger without him. It would have been foolish not to take advantage of his presence. But the copilot, had he been alone, would easily have gotten the aircraft on the ground.

The captain is technically in charge, of course, and has a larger paycheck to go with that responsibility. But the difference isn’t one of qualifications so much as one of company seniority. The captain is usually older and more experienced than the first officer, but not always. Thanks to the vagaries of airline seniority bidding, it’s not unheard of for the captain to be younger and less experienced than the copilot next to him.


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