A French prosecutor announced Thursday that a Germanwings co-pilot deliberately crashed a jet in the French Alps after locking the pilot out of the cockpit. The prosecutor said there is no indication the crash was related to terrorism. The announcement has sparked questions about mental health evaluations for airline pilots, and why the co-pilot was able to prevent the pilot from gaining access to the cockpit. We discuss the issue with R. Eric Jones, assistant professor of aviation at Lewis University.
In order for someone to become a pilot, he or she must obtain a pilot’s license (certificate). The FAA’s rules for getting a pilot’s license differ depending on the type of aircraft a person flies. There are specific eligibility, training, experience, and testing requirements for each pilot certificate.
Pilots must obtain a medical certificate which is defined by the FAA as “acceptable evidence of physical fitness on a form prescribed by the Administrator." An individual that meets the FAA airmen medical standards based on a medical examination and evaluation of medical history is entitled to a medical certificate without restriction or limitation other than the prescribed limitation as to its duration. The duration of a medical certificate is dependent on the age of the pilot and type of medical certificate.
The FAA considers the following disqualifying medical conditions:
- Angina pectoris
- Bipolar disease
- Cardiac valve replacement
- Coronary heart disease that has been treated or, if untreated, that has been symptomatic or clinically significant
- Diabetes mellitus requiring hypoglycemic medications
- Disturbance of consciousness without satisfactory explanation of cause
- Heart replacement
- Myocardial infarction
- Permanent cardiac pacemaker
- Personality disorder that is severe enough to have repeatedly manifested itself by overt acts
- Substance abuse
- Substance dependence
- Transient loss of control of nervous system function(s) without satisfactory explanation of cause
In many cases, when the condition is adequately controlled, the FAA will issue a medical certification contingent on periodic reports.
Read the Federal Aviation Administration’s mental standards for a first-class, second-class, and third-class airmen medical certificate below:
“(a) No established medical history or clinical diagnosis of any of the following:
(1) A personality disorder that is severe enough to have repeatedly manifested itself by overt acts.
(2) A psychosis. As used in this section, “psychosis” refers to a mental disorder in which:
(i) The individual has manifested delusions, hallucinations, grossly bizarre or disorganized behavior, or other commonly accepted symptoms of this condition; or
(ii) The individual may reasonably be expected to manifest delusions, hallucinations, grossly bizarre or disorganized behavior, or other commonly accepted symptoms of this condition.
(3) A bipolar disorder.
(4) Substance dependence, except where there is established clinical evidence, satisfactory to the Federal Air Surgeon, of recovery, including sustained total abstinence from the substance(s) for not less than the preceding 2 years. As used in this section—
(i) “Substance” includes: Alcohol; other sedatives and hypnotics; anxiolytics; opioids; central nervous system stimulants such as cocaine, amphetamines, and similarly acting sympathomimetics; hallucinogens; phencyclidine or similarly acting arylcyclohexylamines; cannabis; inhalants; and other psychoactive drugs and chemicals; and
(ii) “Substance dependence” means a condition in which a person is dependent on a substance, other than tobacco or ordinary xanthine-containing (e.g., caffeine) beverages, as evidenced by—
(A) Increased tolerance;
(B) Manifestation of withdrawal symptoms;
(C) Impaired control of use; or
(D) Continued use despite damage to physical health or impairment of social, personal, or occupational functioning.
(b) No substance abuse within the preceding 2 years defined as:
(1) Use of a substance in a situation in which that use was physically hazardous, if there has been at any other time an instance of the use of a substance also in a situation in which that use was physically hazardous;
(2) A verified positive drug test result, an alcohol test result of 0.04 or greater alcohol concentration, or a refusal to submit to a drug or alcohol test required by the U.S. Department of Transportation or an agency of the U.S. Department of Transportation; or
(3) Misuse of a substance that the Federal Air Surgeon, based on case history and appropriate, qualified medical judgment relating to the substance involved, finds—
(i) Makes the person unable to safely perform the duties or exercise the privileges of the airman certificate applied for or held; or
(ii) May reasonably be expected, for the maximum duration of the airman medical certificate applied for or held, to make the person unable to perform those duties or exercise those privileges.
(c) No other personality disorder, neurosis, or other mental condition that the Federal Air Surgeon, based on the case history and appropriate, qualified medical judgment relating to the condition involved, finds—
(1) Makes the person unable to safely perform the duties or exercise the privileges of the airman certificate applied for or held; or
(2) May reasonably be expected, for the maximum duration of the airman medical certificate applied for or held, to make the person unable to perform those duties or exercise those privileges.”
Anyone who is denied a medical certificate may apply for reconsideration within 30 days after the denial.