Friday, April 6, 2012


When Pilots Fall
Through the Cracks…

The highly publicized inflight meltdown of Jet Blue Airlines
Captain Clayton Osbon is an experience the passengers on Jet Blue flight 191
will never forget. Media reports and
crew depositions confirm that Capt Osbon appeared to have a psychiatric
breakdown during the flight from Kennedy Airport to Las Vegas. According to the First Officer ( co-pilot ),
the Captain began making incoherent statements on the flight deck at cruise
altitude well into the flight. Flight
attendants testified that the Captain had arrived late for flight check-in and
had missed participating in the pre-flight crew briefing. Inexplicably, during flight, after some
incoherent ranting, Capt Osbon suddenly unstrapped from his flight deck seat
and departed for the cabin area ignoring post -911 FAA operational rules for
keeping the flight deck secure from threatening intrusions.
The First Officer deserves a professional leadership award
for his analysis of the situation and taking the courageous emergency action of
locking Capt Osbon out of the flight deck but having the presence of mind to
have the lead flight attendant to get a dead-heading Jet Blue captain to join
him on the flight deck. That bold and quick thinking action reflected the highest
standards of pilot performance under potentially catastrophic circumstances.
Given the erratic meltdown behavior of Captain Osbon, it is frightening to
speculate on the outcome of their flight had the captain been allowed to
re-enter the cockpit.
Aside from the horrifying engagement by the passengers to
restrain the captain, by-passing FAA regulations mandating that passengers
remain seated with seat belts fastened for all take-offs and landings,
physically restraining the captain on the floor of the forward galley until
arriving at the arrival gate, this incident raises questions about the
viability and adequacy of current medical examinations and pre-employment
screening. This writer is confident that post-incident psychiatric and medical
evaluations will provide answers to what precipitated this near catastrophic
Since the early seventies, great strides have been made to
improve the medical qualification and monitoring of airline pilots. During FAA
physicals, which for captains occur bi-annually, pilots must indicate on flight
physical paperwork whether they have received any DUI’s since the last physical
and whether the citations were alcohol or drug related. The penalty for
falsifying information on an FAA flight physical is pilot certificate
revocation, a serious inducement to honesty on flight physicals. Pre-employment
human resources screening has advanced significantly since the sixties in
weeding out rogue personalities and mediocre pilots. Airline passengers can rest assured that the
pilots on the flight deck of today’s jet liners are well qualified medically
and psychologically. However, the flaw
in the current operating system is its inefficiency to detect and ameliorate
deleterious health and personal issues that arise subsequent to initial
employment that could impact passenger and crew safety.
Pilots tend to be distrustful, even paranoid of the FAA and
airline company programs that are advertised as systemic aides for pilots
experiencing alcohol, emotional or domestic challenges. In the early 1970’s the
Airline Pilots’ Association ( ALPA ) initiated the HIMS program ( Human
Intervention Motivation Study ) to detect and assist airline pilots struggling
with substance abuse issues. The program has assisted over 4,500 pilots in
returning to their careers after successful participation in the HIMS program,
according to the website statistics. Many pilots passed on
participating in HIMS. What we don’t know is how many pilots, out of the
100,000 plus airline pilots flying today, have issues that have gone
undetected. The current commercial aviation system has inadequate mechanisms
for detecting crew member psychological or health deteriorations before they
are manifested in dangerous on the job circumstances, as appears to be the case
with Jet Blue 191.
Many crewmembers battle insalubrious marriages, divorce,
familial, and emotional disintegrations that impact job performance. Few pilots
are going to voluntarily walk into a Chief Pilot’s office and ask to be
grounded until they get their personal lives under control. Most pilots with
alcohol or substance abuse problems would be unlikely to voluntarily draw supervisory
personnel attention to his or her issues. As a pilot, one always wants to
remain “below the radar” of management, never drawing attention to one’s self
and personal life. There was a common
saying among airline pilots that if the Chief Pilot never met you until your
Retirement, you had a successful career.
In the final analysis, the current system of airline crew
management is vulnerable to breakdowns as we witnessed with Jet Blue Captain
Osbon. Given ongoing crew reluctance to seek assistance from airline support
programs, the option of last resorts is for airlines to depend on the
conscientiousness of professional crewmembers to commit the odious act of
reporting crewmembers displaying behavioral patterns on duty that are lacking
in the highest standards of professional conduct. In the traditional
camaraderie that exists among most airline pilot and flight attendant crews,
flight personnel are reluctant to “dime out” their co-workers, but in the
current arena of airline operations, albeit distasteful, reporting questionable
conduct to management is the only option available to preclude pilots falling
through the cracks as was the case with our Jet Blue Captain.
The author, Brian H. Settles, is a retired Boeing 757 Captain
with over 20,000 hours of multi-engine jet flight hours, Mercer Adjunct faculty
member and author of No Reason for Dying: A Reluctant Combat
Pilot’s Confession of Hypocrisy, Infidelity and War.