FAA Has Pilot Mental Health Testing All Wrong

Germanwings Flight 9525 on March 24, 2015 from Barcelona, Spain to Dusseldorf, Germany seemed to be just another trip for many of the frequent flyer passengers who expected to have an uneventful trip to their destination. None of them, I suspect, knew that this was to be their last day on Earth. Who would have dreamed that the pilot of the plane had unresolved mental health problems and a suicidal plan for their demise? It was unthinkable and as the plane rose in the steep mountain peaks some must have been looking out the windows and marveling at the fact that they could fly over them.

But Flight 9525 never made it to Dusseldorf. Andreas Lubitz, a determined individual at the controls, would skillfully aim the plane at a robust mountainside and throw it full force into the face of that peak. All would perish and little would be left for the rescuers who scurried to aid the survivors of which there would

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Germanwings flight plan

be none. The improbable had occurred and the world would have to take notice of something they took for granted — airline safety. Pilots never deliberately crash planes into mountains, or do they?

Of course, Lubitz never told his company that he was being treated for a recurrence of severe depression and neither did his treating physician warn the company directly. This, in itself, presents a clear ethical problem for the physician who has an obligation to warn when an individual in such a position of life-and-death decisions may not be competent to handle his duties.

The intensive investigation after the crash had revealed some interesting facts about the co-pilot Andreas Günter Lubitz who had several bouts of severe depression for which he had sought treatment. Time had been taken off from his flight training for just such a depressive incident, but now he was at the control of a huge airliner and 150 people, including himself, turned their lives over to him. This time, their faith was misplaced.

Pilots are not immune from having problems, mental health or otherwise and they are often sleep deprived. Now, after this horrendous crash and the mysterious crashes of large-capacity planes in other parts of the world, it was time for the FAA in the U.S. to take another look. What recommendations would they see as most useful in terms of safety?

Oddly, the ruling has finally come down and it is not to administer any psychological testing for pilots. The reason? The FAA officials see that such testing would only be a snapshot of the pilot’s mental condition at the time of testing. Major league wrong move here. They will depend, instead, on observations made during routine physical exams, a major mistake in my opinion.

Allowing for a lack of adequate education, training and qualifications to make such a ruling leads us to surmise that there’s something amiss here. For those of you without training in psychological testing, such as the administrator of the FAA, allow me to provide a little background.

The assumption that psychological testing only provides a window into the pilot’s mental functioning at the time of testing is an instance of flawed or lack of knowledge of the area. The range of psychological testing is broad enough to have a huge book of tests devoted to their diversity. Burros Mental Measurements Yearbook contains all the current tests used today with all the

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Buros Mental Measurements Yearbook

relevant information on each, such as when they would be most useful. There isn’t one specifically for pilots but that’s not what interests me or you.

What tests might be useful to administer to pilots and would this just be a more than time-limited snapshot of mental functioning? How about personality tests instead of a test for depression? Personality is a stable and reliable look at the major traits that forge someone’s actions, regardless of the situation. Instability in this area is a red flag. Tests of depression might provide a momentary, fleeting look at current functioning and that would not be a test to recommend unless you suspected that the person was suffering from depression.

Personality tests run deeper and get at the core of someone’s being. There are also other tests that can gauge levels of anxiety in situations as well as the person’s usual day-to-day anxiety level. Here you are looking at state (the environmental factors that could precipitate high anxiety) as well as trait anxiety (that underlying level of anxiety).

Dismissing all psychological testing in such a cavalier fashion indicates to me that someone needs to do their homework or call in another expert or be willing to spend a bit more money on travelers’ safety.

Sorry FAA but you don’t get a pass on this one.

Written by

Dr. Farrell is a psychologist, WebMD consultant, SAG/AFTRA member, author, interested in film, writing & health. Website: http://t.co/VT8mvcAvRz

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