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SA Pilots’ Warn of Mental Health ‘Time Bomb’

Bobby Jordan
pilots in a plan

South African pilots have warned of an aviation time bomb due to a lack of proper mental health regulations, saying it could result in a disaster similar to this week’s suicide crash in the French Alps.Alps crash pilot told ex ‘everyone will know my name': report Alps crash pilot told ex ‘everyone will know my name': report

They point to incidents of depressed pilots, tantrums in the cockpit and erratic behaviour as examples of problems caused by lax rules.

The pilots said that, once qualified, they did not have to undergo any mental health checks, leaving passengers at the mercy of those suffering from depression or dementia due to drug addiction or conditions such as HIV/Aids.

Although several problem pilots have already been boarded, there is mounting concern that others are slipping through the system. Concern has been heightened by the crash of the Germanwings aircraft, which appears to have been caused by the co-pilot’s depression.

The Sunday Times this week established that commercial pilots in South Africa do not require psychological evaluation as part of their compulsory physical check-ups, which are mostly done only once a year. There is currently not a single registered aviation psychologist to check on pilots’ mental health.

“We are at big risk,” said Thabani Nkwanyana, a medical examiner at South African Airways. “We face an aviation time-bomb with the lack of proper psychological assessment and regulations for aircrew.”

He said psychological assessments was paramount and was becoming a pressing issue. “If you look at the pilots who are currently grounded, the two common problems are neurological problems and psychological problems. We face a lot of depression and social ills.”

He said a serious “system flaw” was that some pilots did not disclose their mental problems for fear of losing their job.

A senior SAA pilot said he thought it was bizarre that health issues were not reportable for pilots. “Bottom line is: no, there aren’t sufficient systems in place to monitor the possibility of this type of accident happening.”

The pilot, who did not want to be named, said several of his colleagues at SAA were presently medically boarded for various conditions, including depression. “Fortunately they were all very responsible guys and declared their problem.”

Another pilot said that after a pilot was employed by an airline in South Africa, there were no further evaluations of their mental health.

“The only way that an airline would pick up any mental issues with a pilot would be if the pilot advises the airline that he or she is having issues or an illness, the main ones being depression or HIV.

“They may also receive reports from other pilots who notice a pilot displaying strange behaviour.” He said this had occurred at SAA, where at least five pilots had been boarded for psychological issues.

Despite international pressure to improve air safety standards across Africa, the South African Civil Aviation Authority shelved a plan to introduce mandatory neuropsychological tests as part of their medical check-up for all airline staff. The plan was considered too expensive.

The aviation authority is updating protocols for several physical ailments, including HIV/Aids, due to “gaps” in medical requirements.

A CAA document said the current requirements were outdated and did not meet requirements from the International Civil Aviation Organisation.

The CAA recently introduced a “mood disorder” protocol for airline staff aimed at minimising the risk of “suicidal ideation, suicide, chronic tiredness, insomnia/hypersomnia and general malaise”.

This is not aimed at identifying psychological problems, however, but the procedure to be followed when a pilot is judged to have a mental problem.

CAA spokesperson Phindiwe Gwebu said changes to medical protocols had been approved by the CAA’s Regulations Committee (CARCom) which included industry and state representatives. She would not be drawn on the possible implications of this week’s accident for mental health regulations.

International Civil Aviation Organisation spokesman Anthony Philbin said the organisation recommended that all airline pilots undergo a medical and physical assessment every six to 12 months, by a doctor trained in aviation medicine.

Local aviation experts said South Africa’s mental assessment consisted of no more than “one or two questions” during the physical check-up.

The stigma attached to these problems meant they sometimes went undetected – and therefore could not be treated.

SA Airlink CEO Rodger Foster said some South African airlines had systems to check “on multiple human behavioural anomalies”, but that generally psychometric assessment could be “tightened up”. “If it can happen in the Lufthansa system, it can happen anywhere,” he said.

Incidents

In recent times there have been at least two incidents involving the mental health of pilots in Southern Africa. In November 2013, a plane travelling between the Mozambican capital of Maputo and the Angolan capital, Luanda, crashed in northern Namibia, killing all 27 passengers and six crew. Accident reports suggested that the pilot intentionally crashed the plane.

And a former SAA pilot who was medically boarded due to HIV/Aids reportedly became delirious while travelling on an SAA flight, an SAA pilot claimed this week.

The Germanwings plane that crashed on Tuesday killing 150 people was owned by global aviation powerhouse Lufthansa. Flight recorders showed one of the pilots, 27-year-old Andreas Lubitz, locked his colleague out of the cockpit, then purposefully altered the plane’s course, causing the crash.

Lubitz had torn up a sick note signing him off work on the fatal day, and kept his illness a secret from the airline. He had undergone treatment at a hospital in Düsseldorf as recently as March 10, but had also concealed this from his employers.

Lubitz is thought to have taken time out from his pilot training after suffering from mental illness.

It also emerged that he had recently split from his girlfriend, and appeared to have made a desperate last attempt to win her back by buying her a new Audi only weeks ago.

A friend of Lubitz suggested he may have specifically chosen the spot where he crashed the Airbus some time in advance of the disaster because he was “obsessed” with the Alps, having flown gliders over the same area in 2009, shortly before his mental breakdown. – Additional reporting by The Daily Telegraph, London

Published 29 March, 2015. By Bobby Jordan
Copyright © 2014 Times Media Group

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