December 1997: Singapore Airlines Silk Air Flight 185 from Jakarta to Singapore enters an aggressive dive commanded by a pilot smashing the Boeing 737 aircraft into the Musi River in Indonesia in tiny pieces. No bodies were able to be identified. All 104 including Indians perished in the crash. A three-nation NTSB investigation revealed that a pilot stepped out of cockpit, the CVR (Voice Recorder Black Box) circuit-breaker is pulled out and five minutes later the aircraft is in a dive. The in-depth investigation ensued with simulations concluding with the U.S NTSB determining the cause of the crash as ‘suicide by pilot’. Singapore Courts vehemently trashed the mental-illness-suicide claim.
October 1999: Egypt Air Flight 990 enters into controlled dive by the co-pilot crashing into the Atlantic Ocean killing all on board. The US NTSB concluded that the dive was initiated by the co-pilot who was recently demoted by an Egypt Air executive. All 217 on board perished.
March 2014: Malaysia Airlines MH370 disappears off radars. En route, the aircraft deviates below radar airspace. Makes several turns to avoid radar by flying into close terrain. Recent investigation reveals that the pilot pre-planned the entire flight manoeuvre on his home flight simulator suggesting he planned his suicide.
November 2013: A LAM Mozam deliberately crashes into terrain (CFIT). The captain committed the aircraft into deliberate nose dive that killed all on board. He was depressed. His son recently died, his daughter was in the hospital for heart surgery, and his divorce had not yet been settled.
March 2015: a German Wings Airbus A320 aircraft is intentionally crashed into the Alps after the pilot locks out the captain from the cockpit. The co-pilot had a history of severe depression the airline wasn’t aware of. The pilot’s depression worsened after being diagnosed by forty doctors for degrading eyesight which would end his flying and leaving back thousands of euros in loans.
The list of crashes by pilot suicide goes on. My analysis indicates that we currently see one crash every two years due to pilot suicide. And we’re doing nothing about it.
Loads to Unpack
Its high time awareness is created for mental health among pilots and cabin crew as it does affect us. What to one might seem as a glamorous, macho, flamboyant, no mistakes, stylish, carefree, overpaid, celebrity, alcohol laden promiscuous life is a mere defence mechanism of an extremely dark, vicious, ruthless cycle that pushes human endurance, proficiency, and exploitation to unfathomable levels.
Let’s start with some facts. Did you know that it costs around Rs 2 crore to be an ‘acceptable’ worthwhile pilot with two thousand flight hours to even be considered by an airline today? Most pilots that don’t have that kind of money end up signing into a five-year minimum bond linked to around Rs 50 lakh to Rs 75 lakh as ‘training-costs’. And these bonds are signed up afresh when you start on a new type of aircraft. Which means that an average pilot starting is enslaved to an airline’s whims, fancies, salary cuts till the point of burnout. And we thought slavery ended. It doesn’t end there. Anything and everything connected with becoming a pilot is openly linked to corruption and kickbacks with everything around you including the airline wanting a piece of you. Getting a radio licence commands a kickback and airline executives, too, make a buck with a pilot interview through dubious ‘pilot-programmes’. Over that layer, add the struggle of getting a licence, passing medicals every year, being pushed to one’s flying limits in a simulator every 12 months an alcohol breathalyser test before every flight, and constant proficiency checks whenever you fly is enough to wreak havoc with your mind. If that wasn’t enough, add on family pressures, pilot-politics, industry instability and making day-to-day ends meet.
In my 29-year aviation career, I’ve managed pilots at four airlines I’ve worked for, and it’s not been easy. Dealing with pilots and cabin crew is painful like you’ve never seen before. I note that often anxiety, depression, and silent screams for help by pilots and cabin crew transform into aggression, and violent, vicious attacks on airline staff. Pilots and cabin crew don’t have homes because you can’t call a hotel you stay for 12 hours a ‘home’. You can’t talk to anyone because neither is there anyone to talk with or share your problems or issues too. You can’t call family because it’s past everyone’s bedtime when you get into your crew rest. Like the crew bag, you take your problems, challenges with you—zipped up. And it takes its toll. A Qatar Airways cabin crew killed herself in Doha by jumping off the balcony from her airline-provided accommodation. She was lonely. I’ve seen pilots reach the state of breaking with roaming naked in a hotel lobby right up to substance abuse, pornography addiction and severe, uncontrollable alcoholism dealing with broken marriages, kids gone astray, failed relationships and ongoing divorce settlements.
For me, this is personal. In 2015, I lost a dear American pilot friend who flew with me at RwandAir on the CRJ200 to self-harm and death by suicide during a layover. During his final moments, his ex-girlfriend and a few friends tried to step in with help. It was too late. RIP, Tailwinds Dave.
Trivialising Pilot ‘Fatigue’
From the outset, starting with World War II, the First and Second Gulf War and the Vietnam War, mental illnesses have been downplayed and dismissed as being superficial. Soldiers and officers who often went on a killing spree and/or killed themselves were termed under a condition called ‘battle-fatigue’. Britannica Dictionary’s definition of ‘battle fatigue’ is a mental illness that is caused by the negative (sic) experiences of fighting/work (sic) in a war and that causes extreme feelings of nervousness and depression.
Any second guesses on why we’re calling this ‘pilot fatigue’? We’re doing it again by marginalising and trivialising the problem, and it’s widely known now that airlines are seen to be intentionally downplaying this into insignificance.
This must be corrected. The world got a taste of reality biscuit after three pilots died while on duty, including one pilot collapsing of a heart attack in India. Airlines in India today note a sizeable amount of crew becoming medically unfit by the month and several by the dozens reporting sick and unable to operate flights. This right now is leading to increased duty hours on other rostered line pilots with some flying into minimum crew rest that includes the two-hour cab ride to the hotel or airport. Instead of looking at this rationally by means of basic human intervention, we’re leaving this to software to plan and decide what’s best through an algorithm.
Act Now! Stop an Air Disaster
“I saw him before his flight, he seemed fine”; “We flew the night before, he was ok”; “We had a layover last week, he was normal”. Articles, reports, YouTube videos and press reports written by psychologists repeatedly warn us that those with a mental illness don’t even know that they have one; those that know they have a mental illness, don’t want to admit; and those that admit they need help, are too scared to seek help.
India is the world’s largest aviation market by size and percentage of the travelling public. It’s high time we did something. India needs to wake up and acknowledge the fact that there are mental health issues with pilots and frontline airline staff that can impair their ability to work and perform their DGCA-mandated tasks. Today, pilot lives are being lost by the month and increasingly crew are becoming unfit while several more every month are unable to fly.
Airlines and employers aren’t the competent authorities to decide on this, let alone handle the matter. It is beyond human and moral ethics to decide the victim’s fate by the transgressor and offender. No court, let alone the penal code, accepts it.
Pilot mental issues are now serious and grave. Governments and the aviation and health ministry’s need to enact and set up an Emergency Independent Committee comprising the regulator, mental health practitioners, senior psychologists and psychiatrists to once and for all initiate action, decide on interventions, plan on screenings, and take strides with resolving crew stress, fatigue and work anxiety issues Immediately; or we risk witnessing another Singapore Airlines-Silk Air suicide air crash in India.
Airlines armchair ‘have-been’ safety experts and the government must stay away from this with their comments and involvement. It’s their misleading, over-involvement and lobbying with downplaying mental illness that has got us into this situation today.
We’re treading on extremely thin ice with crew stress and anxiety now; this is a very precarious and delicate matter and it’s time we did it right, and did it now.
Seek Help. Now!
The VIMHANS Psychologist Helpline in India is +91 9999 691 507; in Malaysia, the Anonymous Psychologist Healthline is 1 800 22 5757; in Thailand, call +66 02-113-6789 to speak with the Thailand Samaritans; in Hong Kong, call the Caritas Mental Health Support Hotline at 18288; in Australia, the SANE Hotline is Call 1800 187 263; and in Singapore, call Samaritans of Singapore hotline at 1-767.
Seek Help. It’s confidential. No one wants to know who you are, who you work with, what your pilot licence number is or your Aadhar card number. You are not alone in dealing with this.
Two Covid lockdowns were enough to batter and badger our minds. I am sure we’d all know someone who had it rough. Pilots, cabin crew, engineers, and airline staff aren’t demigods, and there are no exceptions.
Safety and SMS teaches us that the first step to finding a solution is admitting to the problem. Wishing all in aviation good mental health. Fly Safe and Happy Landings!