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Is Your Co-Pilot Depressed?


Photo: NIMH

In light of the Germanwings Flight 9525 crash in which one of the pilots locked the other out of the cockpit and then intentionally flew an Airbus A320 into a mountain in the French Alps, killing all 150 people on board, the issue of mental health in pilots has resurfaced.

After the captain of the aircraft got up to use the restroom mid-flight, 27-year-old co-pilot Andrews Lubitz locked him out and refused to allow him back in. Then he reportedly programmed the autopilot to descend from an altitude of 38,000 feet down to 100 feet with the intention of crashing into the side of a mountain along the way.

Investigators reportedly found an anti-depressant medication in the apartment of Lubitz, along with other evidence that suggested the Germanwings first offficer was seeing a doctor for depression.

Lubitz had not informed the airline of this most recent bout with depression, but people who knew him have come forward to say that he was suicidal at one point. And, according to an ex-girlfriend, he had a temper. But how could anyone have known that this person could commit such a heinous act?

CNN reported that Lubitz passed an aviation medical exam in 2014, which a Lufthansa official said didn't test mental health. But even if the exam did covered mental health issues in depth, what pilot would admit to depression or mood disorders knowing that he'd lose his job? For many pilots, flying is a life-long dream - a career that they've worked hard for - and to know that depression, suicidal thoughts or a more severe mood disorder would essentially disable them from flying professionally and perhaps even as a hobby, would be a tough pill to swallow. Because they'd lose their jobs, careers, and for many, their livelihood, most pilots who have experienced depression or other symptoms of a mood disorder or mental health issue, will, sadly, fail to report them.

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) states that mental illness is common in the United States. In 2012, according to the NIMH website, about 18.6 percent of adults in the United States had some form of mental illness (not including those related to substance abuse.) Luckily for the traveling public, most of them are not suicidal.

We can probably assume that this statistic carries over to the pilot career profession, although statistics pertaining to pilots with a mental illness won't reflect this same trend due to the nature of the job. We rely on self-reporting procedures, and when a pilot's career is on the line, chances are good that he or she just won't report it.

Eighteen percent of adults in the United States have some sort of diagnosed mental illness. This could be anything from minor depression or social anxiety to bipolar disorder or suicidal behavior. To be more specific, the NIMH says that a Serious Mental Illness (SMI) occurs in about four percent of all adults. A serious mental illness is defined as one that interferes with normal life activities and results in "serious functional impairment."

So, according to these numbers, somewhere between four and 18 percent of people in general have some sort of mental illness. This means that if you're a pilot, up to one out of six pilots you fly with could be suffering from some sort of mental illness. Luckily, very few of these people are also suicidal, and flights continue to operate safely every day.

Germanwings Flight 9525 was, perhaps, a case that could have been prevented. But what's the fix for depression in pilots and the failure to self-report? Better mental health screening for pilots? Better working conditions? A mandate for two pilots in the cockpit at all times? (Most or all U.S. airlines already employ a strategy of this kind, by the way.) Take the human element out of the cockpit altogether?

While we need to do all we can to prevent another tragedy like this from occurring, how far will we go, or how far should we go, to save ourselves from… ourselves? "Better" mental health screening could lead to even less reporting by pilots. Two pilots in the cockpit will help, unless the second physically overtakes the first one. And can we really take the human element out of the equation altogether? Even RPAs - remotely piloted airplanes - are flown by humans on the ground. If one of these pilots were to be suicidal, they could still fly the airplane into a mountain.

Is there a solution to making certain that a suicide mission like Germanwings 9525 doesn't happen again? Or is there a certain element of risk - a low probability/high consequence risk like an aircraft suicide mission- that we must accept as human beings functioning in a world with other human beings? Or is there a happy medium? What are your thoughts?

What's an Airplane Cost? Common Aircraft Price Tags

Curious how much airplane you can get for your money? If you’re just starting your search for an airplane, you might be surprised to learn that aircraft prices vary widely, depending on the year, modifications done to the airplane and the relevancy of the avionics, among other things.. A Cessna 172, for example, might cost $40,000 or $400,000 dollars.

From light aircraft to business jets, the costs vary from large to small. Here are some examples of what you’ll pay for a few of the most commonly purchased airplanes:

The Cessna 172


1982 Cessna 172P: $39,000

1981 Cessna 172P: $72,000

2007 Cessna 172SP: Approximately $150,000-$250,000

2015 Cessna 172SP: Approximately $364,000

 

The Mooney M20

 

1977 Mooney M20J: $65,000

2009 Mooney M20TN Acclaim: $425,000

 

The Beechcraft Baron 58
1977 Baron 58P: $175,000

2005 Baron 58: $649,000

 

The Piper Meridian
2007 PA46-500TP: $1.2 million

2015 PA46-500TP: $2.3 million

 

The King Air
1981 King Air B200: $825,000

2004 King Air B200: $2.3 million

 

The Citation Sovereign
2007 Cessna Citation Sovereign 680: $6.9 million

2008 Citation Sovereign 680: $8.0 million

 

The Gulfstream G550
2006 Gulfstream G550: $25.0 million

2014 Gulfstream G550: $49.9 million

Pilots Bill of Rights 2: Medical Exemptions, Due Process & NOTAMs

Photo © Robert Couse-Baker/Flickr

In a move that is being applauded by the general aviation community, Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla.) last week introduced two new GA-friendly bills. The new laws– the General Aviation Pilot Protection Act and the Pilots Bill of Rights 2 (PBOR-2) - could have a significant impact on general aviation operations if they move through congress.

Sen. Inhofe successfully led the first Pilot’s Bill of Rights through Congress in 2012. PBOR-2 expands upon the pilot protections offered by the initial PBOR.

"The first Pilot’s Bill of Rights was a victory for the aviation community and made possible by the support of pilots and industry leaders across the nation,” Inhofe said. “Since being signed into law, more issues facing the general aviation (GA) community have surfaced. The Pilot’s Bill of Rights 2 addresses these concerns and builds on the success of my previous legislation.”

Twelve sponsors, including Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), House General Aviation Caucus co-chair Sam Graves (R-Mo.), and a variety of industry stakeholders, such as AOPA, EAA, and GAMA, supported Sen. Inhofe’s Pilot Bill of Rights.

Mark Barker, President of AOPA, released this statement: “The introduction of the Pilot’s Bill of Rights 2 is great news for the general aviation community and we are grateful to Sen. Inhofe for putting forward this legislation that would do so much to help grow and support general aviation activity. Pilots have already waited too long for medical reform, so we’re particularly pleased to see it included in this important measure. We will actively work with Congress to build support for this legislation that is so vital to the future of GA and the 1.1 million jobs that depend on it.”

The General Aviation Pilot Protection Act was first introduced in 2013. The 2015 version intends to expand the medical exemption requirement for pilots, and the PBOR-2 addresses the same medical exemption requirements, along with a handful of other issues.

According to Sen. Inhofe’s website, highlights of the new bill will include the following:

  • Medical Certificate Exemption:
    Allows more pilots to operate without obtaining an aviation medical certificate. Under the new law, private pilots would be able to fly VFR or IFR in aircraft under 6,000 pounds, below 14,000 feet MSL, and under 250 knots.
  • Due Process:
    PBOR-2 will maintain the rights set forth in the first PBOR from 2012, and will extend those rights to all FAA certificate holders instead of just pilots. This means that maintainers, dispatchers and other certificate holders will also be granted due process rights along with the right to appeal an FAA decision through a merit-based trial in Federal Court.
  • Violation Transparency:
    The new bill will require the FAA to notify pilots of any pending enforcement action, as well as provide specific documentation.
  • Flight Data Accessibility:
    Under the new bill, pilots will be able to access data from contractors, including flight service stations, contract controllers and controller training programs in order to defend themselves from enforcement action.
  • Protection for Volunteer Pilots:
    PBOR-2 will establish a Good Samaritan Law to protect volunteer pilots from liability.
  • Protection for individuals performing federal tasks:
    PBOR-2 will establish liability protections for individuals performing federal tasks, such as designated examiners, medical examiners and airworthiness inspectors.
  • NOTAMs:
    PBOR-2 will require the FAA to develop a better NOTAM (Notice to Airman) system, and maintains that the FAA will not be allowed to bring about enforcement action on pilots until they complete the NOTAM Improvement Program

The FAA has 180 days to weigh in on the regulations. If the organization doesn’t respond, the bills will automatically become laws.

Pilots: Are You Forgetting These Preflight Tasks?


One of the benefits for pilots in the general aviation world is the ability to just “pick up and go” on a moment’s notice. General aviation, including business aviation, is less regulated than charter or airline operations. As such, the preflight preparation involved in a general aviation flight can often be quick and dirty, and familiar flights might only include a brief check of the weather and a quick walk-around of the aircraft.

Pilots are required by federal aviation regulation, specifically FAR 91.103, to become familiar with certain elements of preflight planning. There’s even an acronym – NWKRAFT – meant to help pilots remember the required items they must become familiar with before flying. The required preflight knowledge, and the meaning of the letters in NWKRAFT, include:

  • NOTAMs
  • Weather
  • Known ATC Delays
  • Runway lengths
  • Alternates
  • Fuel Requirements
  • Takeoff/Landing Distances

It’s easy for pilots to become so familiar with their routes and aircraft that they feel that they don't need to perform anything more than these required items to conduct a safe flight. But in addition to the basic requirements, there are a few other preflight items to consider. If you aren’t already incorporating these items as part of your preflight planning and preparation, consider adding them. After all, FAR 91.103 also states that pilots must become familiar with all available information prior to the flight. And isn't it just better to be prepared?

Winds aloft:
Although this one can be coupled with the generic requirement for checking the weather before a flight, the winds aloft are particularly important for those operators who hope to save fuel. Choosing a cruise altitude based on winds aloft can help save fuel, and alternatively, a quick check of the winds can also prevent you from running into a fuel shortage situation.

GPS NOTAMs and RAIM:
If you’re using GPS as a primary navigation aid, then you should be sure to get GPS NOTAMs from flight service before your flight. Approaches go well as long as they’re predictable. Losing GPS would be a bad day for any pilot that relies on it. It probably won’t happen, but a quick check of the NOTAMs and RAIM availability will ensure that it’s even less likely.

Fuel
The regulations require pilots to have enough fuel reserves for safe operation. But while you’re planning, you’ll want to scope out your fuel options, including where to find the cheapest fuel along your route (try MaxTrax) or which FBOs will take your fuel card (look them up in our Airport Resource Center). It’ll make it easier on everyone if you know ahead of time which FBO you want to use and if the FBO will honor your fuel card.

Pilot/crew currency
Don’t forget to check for your own currency requirements. Obviously, you’ll want to make sure you’re IFR current before flying in IMC or on an IFR flight plan, but don’t forget about the other currency requirements, like the flight review, and day and night requirements for carrying passengers, when applicable.

Avionics currency requirements
Along with your own currency, you’ll want to make sure your avionics are up to date. Your GPS database should be current for IFR flight, and your altimeter, pitot-static system, and transponder should be inspected every 24 calendar months. And don’t forget your VOR – the VOR needs to be checked every 30 days for IFR flight.

Local ops:
Bird conditions, noise abatement procedures and local airport and runway information should not be ignored during the flight planning process. (Did you know you can check the bird strike risk for major airports and routes on the Avian Hazard Advisory System website?)

TFRs:
Always check temporary flight restrictions before you fly. If you haven’t been surprised by one yet, you will be at some point. You can check them in a variety of ways, but online and through flight service stations are the most common.

Weight & Balance
Pilots who only fly one airplane become adept at doing weight and balance calculations for that aircraft in their minds, but when the load is heavier than usual or the flight is going to operate with different passenger or baggage loads than normal, nothing substitutes for an actual weight and balance calculations. Make sure you know the aircraft limits, as well as how the aircraft will perform when heavy.

Airport/FBO Operating Hours
Sometimes it’s the simple things that escape us, like whether or not the airport or FBO will be open when our flight arrives. It might not matter at times, but if you need fuel, restrooms or something to eat when you get there, you might want to double check the operating hours. In addition, it never hurts to call ahead and make sure there is ramp space available. This is especially important for larger aircraft at small airports.

Have preflight planning tips of your own? Share them with us in the comments!

Should We Keep 121.5 Alive?


Photo: CC BY-SA 3.0

Pilots are trained to use the radio frequency 121.5 in the event of an emergency. Emergency locator transmitters (ELTs) broadcast over 121.5 to notify search and rescue of a downed aircraft. FAA radio facilities, Civil Air Patrol, and often pilots monitor 121.5 as a way to receive distress signals. So why does the FCC, and subsequently the FAA and NTSB, want to ban something simple that could potentially save lives?

The answer lies in the advancement of modern technology – the increased use of the more accurate satellite-based 406 MHz ELT, and the decision of major search and rescue company COSPAS-SARSAT to cease monitoring 121.5 in 2009. But does the introduction of a more reliable system mean that everyone should be required to use it? And should we go so far as to ban the use of an emergency frequency so commonly known to help pilots?

Since 1973, the FAA has required almost all aircraft to have an emergency locator transmitter (ELT) on board. ELTs are small transmitters that emit a signal and provide a way for search and rescue (SAR) to locate a downed airplane, increasing the survival odds for a pilot and passengers. They can transmit on either 121. MHz or 406.025 MHz. It’s commonly known that the 406 MHz ELTs are much more accurate, but a good portion of the general aviation fleet still uses 121.5 MHz ELTs.

121.5 ELTs
Many ELTs commonly used in aviation are designed to transmit an analog signal over the frequency 121.5 when activated, allowing anyone that is monitoring the frequency to hear the distress signal and notify appropriate search and rescue teams. These 121.5 ELTs are inexpensive and simple to use, but they aren’t without their problems.

If an ELT is in the ‘armed’ mode, it will become activated during a crash and transmit a noisy alarm over the frequency 121.5. But sometimes a hard landing will set it off, or it can be accidentally activated during ground operations. More often than not, ELTs are activated in non-emergency situations, and ATC and operators spend a lot of time tracking down false ELT signals. In addition, finding the signal requires homing in to the strength of the signal – a difficult and inaccurate task when the signal accuracy is only limited to about 10 miles.

406 MHz
A 406 MHz ELT transmit a digital signal, which allows for a code to be transmitted along with the distress signal. This code has details about the aircraft, including its registration number and a point of contact.

406 MHz ELTs are more accurate, pinpointing the location of a downed aircraft to within one to three miles, decreasing the potential search area drastically from the of a 121.5 transmitter. And false alerts are less of a problem with 406 MHz ELTs, too, meaning authorities can act immediately upon receipt of a distress signal, instead of spending their time trying to determine if it’s a fake signal or not.

Why Ban 121.5?
It’s easy to see why the 406 MHz ELT is better. What’s less obvious is why we should ban the use of 121.5

The NTSB thinks that the use or 406 MHz ELTs should be mandated. In a 2007 Safety Recommendation letter, the NTSB described the downfall of 121.5 emergency locator transmitters and recommended that the FAA mandate the installation and use of 406 MHz transmitters in all aircraft before major search and rescue organizations COSPAS-SARSAT ceased its monitoring. They NTSB believes that without a mandate, pilots will refuse to upgrade to the 406 MHz units, making it more difficult on search and rescue and possibly creating undue risk.

The FAA agrees, but finds it more difficult to mandate. The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association has stood strong against the 121.5 ban, saying that it’s too costly for the approximately 200,000 general aviation pilots to upgrade, and that the decision regarding which ELT to use should rest with the pilots themselves.

In the meantime, the FCC is also considering a ban on 121.5 ELTs. In 2013, they opened up a comment period regarding the banning of 121.5 ELTs, and again AOPA opposed in this letter, stating that the FCC needs to leave aviation safety matters to the FAA. It remains to be known if the ban will come into play, but pilots should expect it to happen eventually, and more importantly, for their own safety, pilots should probably just upgrade to the 406 MHz ELT of they haven’t already.

Could - or should - the ban of 121.5 ELTs mean the death of the 121.5 frequency altogether? After all, the frequency is used for more than just ELTs. It’s an emergency frequency in which a pilot can declare an emergency, and it’s still monitiored by FAA facilities, Flight service stations and the civil air patrol. And many pilots still monitor it, which can be helpful to other pilots and ATC if they do hear something on that frequency. And pilots are taught to switch to 121.5 if they’re intercepted for some reason, such as inadvertent flight through a prohibited area.

What do you think? Should we just accept that new technology is better than the old and move on? Or should we fight to keep 121.5 alive?