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Safety Experts Question Mental Screenings For Pilots


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. German authorities now say the co-pilot who investigators believe intentionally crashed a Germanwings plane this week concealed a mental illness from his employers. They say he may have been told he was not fit to fly. NPR's David Schaper reports the crash that killed 150 people is raising concerns about the mental health screening of pilots.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: At the travelers' aid desk at Washington's Reagan National Airport, volunteer Dorene Steadman says it's hard not to think about the circumstances of the Germanwings plane crash.

DORENE STEADMAN: I travel a lot to Europe and back. And of course we are going to be concerned about it, but, it's human nature.

SCHAPER: For Janice Greene, who is heading home to Tennessee, it's not a new concern.

JANICE GREENE: So, I'm always wanting to interview my pilot. You know, I want to know, hey, did he have a fight with his wife? You know, is his dog OK, are his kids doing fine in school? I'm always curious about the mental state of my pilot.

SCHAPER: But not so much for Herman White.

HERMAN WHITE: Now that you've asked me the question, I'll think about it a lot more on my way to my gate. (Laughter).

SCHAPER: The research scientist at Fermilab outside of Chicago says he thinks about these things in a reasoned and logical way.

WHITE: We have thousands of airplanes and thousands of flights per day, so the aberrations are extremely rare.

SCHAPER: In fact, most of the travelers we talked to say they have confidence in aviation regulators in the commercial airlines to keep flying safe, and experts agree.

LES WESTBROOKS: This kind of event is extremely rare.

SCHAPER: Les Westbrooks is a former American Airlines pilot now at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

WESTBROOKS: I'm not concerned about it at all. I would rather be sitting in the cabin of that U.S. airliner than be driving down the interstate.

SCHAPER: The Federal Aviation Authority requires pilots to undergo regular medical exams every six to 12 months, depending on their age, though some pilots acknowledge the mental health evaluation part can be quick, relying on pilots to self-report problems. Westbrook says many airlines have additional screening procedures that are most rigorous before hiring a pilot, and...

WESTBROOKS: Probably the best measure for identifying somebody that has some kind of an issue is going to be the time spent with the other crew member.

SCHAPER: Westbrook says pilots work very close to one another through very stressful situations and they also have time to try to get to know what's going on inside each other's heads.

WESTBROOKS: We're not psychologists. We're not psychiatrists. But we can kind of identify somebody's behavior as strange, possibly.

SCHAPER: The airlines and the pilots' unions have some counseling services in place. But Westbrook says they could develop better channels for reporting concerns about fellow crew members. And he and others acknowledge that pilots might not self-report mental health problems because it might jeopardize their job and their license to fly. A critical first vetting happens when student pilots get into the cockpit.

JOHN VOGES: We have to practice as the practical psychologists, as flight instructors.

SCHAPER: John Voges is the chief flight instructor in the aviation program at Southern Illinois University.

VOGES: Our role as educators is, if we do identify someone that has some kind of a psychological consideration, then I think what we need to do is we need to try to do everything we can do to help remediate that individual.

SCHAPER: And that can sometimes mean telling a student that becoming an airline pilot is not for them. David Schaper, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.