PBS Aviation Spot Delivers

Judy Woodruff interviews two men for this spot: Warren Silberman, MD, a former Manager of Aerospace Medical Certification for the FAA now in private practice, and William Hurt Sledge, MD, professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine, who has screened pilots for the US Air Force and airlines for years. It is worth noting that these men are very well informed and remain active in their careers. Also, they’re old – they’ve been around. It is much better to listen to men like this and not the usual pretty faces that decorate the sets of most news outlets. The drawback is that these men both are part of the medical establishment and might have a bias toward the status quo. Lastly, Woodruff is no dummy; she stays on point.

Woodruff opens with background information and introduces her two guests.
1:49 She asks: how do we screen pilots for mental health in the U.S.? Dr. Sledge’s answer is too detailed (he knows his subject) and avoids the gist of the question, which is how can we tell a pilot is a maniac? He only offers that there is a mental screening in a class 1 flight physical. He doesn’t say the words: “self disclose.”
2:44 Woodruff pings the question to Dr. Silberman, who interestingly contrasts the benefits of a long term relationship against the “problem” of examining a new or student pilot (Lubitz was a new pilot). In a previous base I used the same Aviation Medical Examiner for 5 years. He was always asking about the career, family, kids, and church. Looking back, I can now see that these were screening questions. Career questions are crucial for pilots during times of corporate downsizing as happened at my carrier while I was there. Dr. Silberman provides good detail about the four mental health screening questions on the class 1 medical: depression, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, and suicidal thoughts. The two middle questions are mental health screens by proxy (if a pilot is depressed but unwilling to disclose, he may be willing to disclose problem drinking). It’s interesting that the two substance abuse questions are sandwiched between the two formal mental health questions.
3:40 Woodruff, still on point, flat out asks what she wants to know and uses the words, “self reporting.” Dr. Hurt acknowledges that our system depends on this. He also refers to the utility of fellow employees policing aberrant behavior in their co-workers. This is directly an argument for two-person flight crews and indirectly for the two-person cockpit rule so tragically dismissed by Germanwings. It’s also indirectly an argument for the hiring of trustworthy pilots.
4:34 Woodruff asks the main question: are our regulations enough? Do they need “tightening”? Both doctors agree that our system needs no changes except more mental health education in the workplace. This will not satisfy the uninformed pitchfork carriers in the media and blogosphere.

 

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