The Germanwings disaster and the conversation on mental health in aviation

With the crash into the French Alps last week of an ill-fated Germanwings flight, it has emerged that co-pilot Andreas Lubitz had previously been treated for a mental illness.

The Airbus A320, carrying 150 people, went down in the southern-French Alps last Tuesday after Lubitz locked the pilot out of the cockpit.

While experts say the South African aviation industry is ahead in steps to regulate routine psychological checks on pilots, there are no formal plans. Speaking on 702's John Robbie Show, former SAA pilot, Karl Jensen outlined some of the pressures that pilots more than likely contend with:

This disaster here is a freak disaster - there is obviously a problem. Everybody is under more stress, young people are under more stress now than maybe I was when I was 25 years old. There are ways of getting around this - if the management would take cognisance of the other crew members' view of the person's behavioural patterns. The airlines are doing as much as they can.

Also on 702's John Robbie Show, the editor of SA Flyer Magazine, Guy Leitch notes:

Modern airliners haven't had flight engineers for over 20 years now, so they're very much stuck to a two-crew cockpit. In fact, there's been a strong move afoot towards heading to a single pilot cockpit. I think obviously this Germanwings crash will stop that move immediately and there are other aspects of the accident that need to be dealt with. South African Airways and many other airlines - Karl Jensen didn't mention this - have excellent support programs for when they get depressed for any reason. And a pilot, when they sign in, can choose to tick a box that declares he's fit to fly and go home, so they do have quite good systems and checks to prevent pilots who may be too depressed to fly. (On Germanwings pilot, Andreas Lubitz) I think the reason this particular Germanwings pilot got through the system is that system bent over along the way to accommodate him - he had a history of depression - and yet they kept on accommodating him.

File picture of the Germanwings crash into the French Alps: AFP

Speaking to Cape Talk's Kieno Kammies, Chief Executive Officer of SA Airlink, Rodger Foster says this incident also calls for industry-wide interventions:

It's early days, but this is the second similar event that happened; we had a similar event in November 2013 where the captain of a local regional airline left the cockpit and the co-pilot elected to do the same and bring the plane down and all souls on board were lost. This second similar event brings us to the recognition that this could happen any time and anywhere. All airlines do psychometric assessments and screenings - that's all standard procedure, but it's now also cause to go further than that, even in terms of the regulations; what will the regulations look like in future? I don't think any one of us have the answers but what we're all going to have to get together firstly as individual organisations and secondly as a collective industry to see what has to be done to prevent it from happening.


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