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My Brother’s Keeper?

Earlier in my repertoire with this column, I wrote about the IMSAFE checklist for pilots to consider each day before showing up to go flying.


May 6, 2015
By Walter Heneghan

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Earlier in my repertoire with this column, I wrote about the IMSAFE checklist for pilots to consider each day before showing up to go flying. Remember? (Illness, Medications, Sleep, Alcohol, Fatigue, Eating). It serves as an every day, gentle reminder about looking inward – to ourselves, to ensure that we are fit for duty.

Simple? Maybe. I know there are still too many aircrews that go to work sick, self-medicate, and fly while tired or hungry. For those situations, all I can say is “smarten up!” Deficiencies in these areas reduce your ability to be sharp, decrease reaction time and unnecessarily add risk to your operations.

But I don’t want to harp on the IMSAFE mnemonic in this iteration of my column. Today, I want to address the other members of our teams – the AMEs, dispatchers or co-pilots. How do we manage their evaluation of the IMSAFE checklist? Is it even something we need to evaluate?

As I compose this column, I do so in the deep shadow of the recent Germanwings tragedy in France. The press coverage has been extensive and virtually everyday there are new revelations of the alleged actions of the copilot on that flight. It seems incomprehensible to me that apparently deliberate actions, with full malice of forethought, are to account for this horrific event.

Further, the ongoing discussions about the co-pilot’s mental health status, indeed his medical status in total, are an item of grave concern, and I have concerns, too. Clearly, there was no IMSAFE in effect with this pilot, as he appears to have set out to do evil on his final flight. But I wonder if there were markers that were picked up by co-workers or superiors? Given all that we have learned since this aircraft crash, was there nobody who had concerns? And what could have been done?

In the interim since the crash, there has also been lots of commentary on the role of the regulatory agencies, about pilot certification standards and medical evaluations, and the potential culpability of the airline. We have been exposed to instant experts of pilot health, on mental health and best paths forward. Every commercial pilot needs to pay attention to these discussions as it is probable that all major aviation authorities will introduce some form of reactive measure to combat “the evils of mental health.” My concern in this matter is that serious and sober second thought is required before enacting any change as the wrong move will not enhance but detract from safer operations.

And this is why there are two days of potential stress for every professional pilot – check ride day and the day of their aviation medical. On either of these days, a pilot can find themselves in jeopardy – potentially staring their livelihood between the eyeballs as a negative event on either of these days can end a pilot’s career. While it can be an easier, if unpleasant, path to undo the damage of a failed check ride, an unsuccessful trip to the medical examiner can lead to instant suspension of privileges, and the end of a career.

I know of many pilots who maintain relationships with their MOT doctor that are distinct and separate from their relationships with their personal or family doctor. “I have one of each, and may they never meet!” is the rallying cry, as aircrew segregate their lives and minimize the risk of losing their medical certificate. Pilots are aware of their fiduciary responsibilities regarding disclosure but many remain wary.

I also know of pilots who have lost medical validations either through the incompetence of the examiner or of odd quirks of the licensing system and have taken years to return to flight status. For many pilots, this loss of status, income and stature can be devastating – which is the overriding reason they treat the aviation medical as a jeopardy event.

If the regulators react to Germanwings instead of crafting a proper, measured response, there is a risk that aircrew with serious mental health or physical health concerns will go even further underground. Employers need to be measured as well – in fact, it may be a worthwhile exercise for airlines and operators to review their internal employee assistance programs to ensure that they truly are as open and confidential as advertised. Let’s look out for each other to ensure we are safe – and that our co-workers and passengers remain safe, too.


Walter Heneghan is the vice-president for Health, Safety and Environmental Protection with the Summit Air Group of Companies, Ledcor Resources and Transportation, based in Edmonton and throughout Western Canada.


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