Navigating Second Generation Aviation: A Battle for Health and Legacy

"I will always be sure you are in the left seat,"

a phrase my father frequently uttered when discussing healthcare. It's a sentiment that highlights a grave issue within the aviation community, the aversion to seeking medical care. Allow me to share my personal journey, shedding light on this crisis.

I am the proud product of a lineage of aviators. Both my father and uncle possessed an unwavering passion for flight from a tender age. At only 14 years old, my father took to the skies with my uncle Andy, and their shared love for aviation ignited. After completing high school, my father's educational journey led him to the Spartan School of Aeronautics in Tulsa, OK. After graduating as a certified flight instructor, he embarked on his career with Piedmont Airlines in 1984, side by side with his big brother. As their careers soared, so did the airline, leading them to US Airways, which later merged with American Airlines. They dedicated over three decades of their lives to aviation.

The turning point arrived in the summer of 2016 when my father experienced chest pain during his routine run. Scheduled for a flight to Brussels, Belgium, the following day, he wisely chose to seek medical attention. This decision revealed a blockage in the left anterior descending artery (LAD) and a minor blockage in another part of his heart, which prompted collateral circulation. He was grounded and received a stent in the LAD.

This marked a dramatic shift in our lives, as we understood the finite nature of disability benefits and how important that medical really is. The doctors assured us that after the first stent placement, he would enjoy a long, healthy life, but there were no guarantees about regaining his coveted first-class medical status.

My father was an active man, an avid endurance runner whose free time was spent swimming in the Albemarle Sound, exploring the outdoors with my siblings and I, and imparting his aviation skills by teaching us to fly his J-3 Piper Cub. Yet, his lifestyle was overshadowed by the fear that his entire livelihood hinged on his first-class medical certification, a source of persistent stress every six months. Almost four decades as a pilot in one of the most demanding industries, with the pressures of managing time zones and providing for a family, had taken a toll on his health.

Three months post-surgery, we flew to Dallas, Texas, seeking assistance from a cardiovascular surgeon affiliated with the Civil Aviation Medical Association. This doctor, after reviewing my father's case, expressed confidence in helping him regain his first-class medical. His surgeon in North Carolina, however, strongly advised against the proposed procedure. In desperation, a 2.5mm stent was inserted, slightly larger than the artery's size, and shortly after, my father passed away during a run on June 30, 2017. Multiple specialists confirmed he could have enjoyed a long life post the initial stent placement.

Tragedy struck once more when, in May 2018, my uncle, the captain of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, took his own life. This was merely eleven months after my father's passing. It was a shock to discover that my seemingly invincible uncle was grappling with depression and suicidal thoughts. Despite recent advances in mental health support, such as the approval of four SSRIs and American Airlines' pilot assistance program, Project Wingman, my uncle remained apprehensive about the potential career repercussions of seeking help.

Though these men met different fates, a common theme binds their stories: the avoidance of healthcare due to the fear of jeopardizing their livelihoods. My father's worst fear became a tragic reality, leading to his untimely demise. The same fear gripped my uncle. These fears were ingrained in me throughout my childhood.

In middle school, I endured bullying by peers my age, which affected my mental well-being. I reached out to my father, expressing my anxieties, which only seemed to disconcert him. My mother, a strong advocate for counseling and therapy, recommended professional assistance to address my emotions. My father, however, instantly dismissed the idea. That's when I began to comprehend the immense challenge of maintaining a pilot's career.

My father made it abundantly clear that pilots must appear as superhuman to the FAA to safeguard their medical licenses. After three years of advocating, supporting, and conversing with pilots navigating the FAA's special issuance process, I now understand the veracity of his statement. There is no room for leniency.

In retrospect, I don't blame my father for his cautious stance. Had he not been, I might have faced the prospect of shelling out thousands of dollars to obtain a medical certificate due to my middle school bullying experiences, a hardship that many adolescents encounter and overcome.

Nearly six years have passed since my father's passing, and I find myself reluctant to seek therapy for grief, fearing it could jeopardize my connection to my father and uncle through flying. Obtaining my Private Pilot's license and instrument rating has allowed me to comprehend my father on a deeper level, and every time I fly, I feel as though I'm paying homage to their legacy.

The thought of potentially being denied this privilege due to the pain and sorrow stemming from my father and uncle's deaths is disheartening and unjust. Yet, it is a reality that thousands of pilots across America confront.

During my advocacy work, I've encountered numerous second-generation aviators who share a strikingly similar experience. They now harbor the same apprehensions about healthcare as their parents. For some, like me, we've witnessed the dire consequences of healthcare avoidance. Even student pilots with no familial ties to aviation quickly learn how the FAA views terms like anxiety and depression. Most people my age are incredibly open about mental health, which is undeniably positive. Seeking therapy to address one's struggles should not result in punishment, but it does.

What does this signify for the future of aviation? I fear that nearly half of my generation could currently be disqualified from obtaining their medical licenses. How can we address a pilot shortage when the cost of training is already exorbitant, compounded by the expense of obtaining a special issuance medical certificate? I leave you to draw your own conclusions.

As we stand at this crossroads, it's clear that the aviation industry must evolve. The fear of seeking healthcare should not haunt pilots and aspiring aviators. It's high time we reevaluate the strict, unforgiving standards that have stifled progress and perpetuated silence. For the sake of our past, present, and future aviators, we must advocate for change. Mental health should not be a roadblock but rather a bridge to understanding and support. The aviation community needs to come together to foster an environment where pilots can prioritize their well-being without jeopardizing their careers. 

To safeguard the future of aviation, we must dispel the stigma that surrounds mental health issues, and we must champion accessible, compassionate support systems. This starts with acknowledging that pilots are not invincible superheroes but dedicated professionals who deserve the same care and consideration as anyone else. As we move forward, let our actions reflect a commitment to a safer, more inclusive aviation industry, one where healthcare is not feared but embraced, and where aspiring aviators can chase their dreams without unnecessary barriers. Together, we can ensure that the legacy of the second generation in aviation is one of resilience, progress, and compassion. In memory of those we've lost, let us take flight toward a brighter and more compassionate future for aviation.


-Emma