During the Aviation Safety Summit on December 6, 2023, flight instructor Laila Stein delivered the following remarks:
Thank you to Chair Homendy and the rest of the board for the opportunity to speak with you all here today. Understanding this inherently complex system and its effects has been a growing concern for years now. And I am encouraged that this dialogue is happening here today.
Thank you to the Pilot Mental Health Campaign for inviting me here to share my story.
I am a certified flight instructor for Jeff Air Pilot Services in Indianapolis, Indiana, as well as an adjunct professor for high school dual credit private pilot ground school. Earlier this year, I graduated from Western Michigan University with a bachelor's degree in aviation flight science, and aviation management operations.
I'm here to represent my own experience and perspectives of the student pilots I went to school and work with. That is a privilege I do not take lightly. I grew up around stories of my grandfather, who flew for Northwest Airlines. He tragically passed away in a plane crash when my mother was young.
But the aviation bug didn't stop with him. I had not seriously considered aviation as a career until I learned that you can go to college and fly airplanes. Realizing that possibility felt like a breath of fresh air for a kid who felt lost about the future.
Finally, I could see myself being something doing, and becoming someone. It was so clear to me and my family that this was my purpose and passion in life. So I began my first year at Western Michigan University in the fall of 2019.
So yes, I'm one of that unlucky cohort whose college experience was derailed by the pandemic. During that pandemic, I was a community learning assistant and the aviation house, mentoring hundreds of freshmen who are pursuing careers in aviation. So I saw it firsthand when the unprecedented mental health crisis that we've talked about swept our campus.
That year, our lives were completely upended, and we all struggled. While therapists nationwide booked up completely with the overwhelming demand for help is a different story for us. The freshman aviation manager major told us have been diagnosed with ADHD in the third grade, even without medication means that he won't ever be allowed to fly. And the junior working to find internships told us how he did not know he had to put his therapy on his Med Express form, and after being deferred for a different reason, was told he wouldn't be able to apply for MediCal for a number of years.
We got the message loud and clear from all sides. If you want to fly, you can't admit anything is wrong. So we struggled through online school, flight restrictions, a lack of socialization, and uncertainty about our personal and professional features. We saw airline travel plummet, and we did it all alone. Meanwhile, I watched more than one of my classmates self medicate with alcohol because they cannot afford to stop school and deal with a deferred medical issue due to asking for help.
I tried to take action. I was among a group of students who partnered with the aviation student council to host two town halls focused on mental health access and policies. We included our dean, representatives from our counseling center and local aviation medical examiners to help us truly understand what can pilots do, what can they do and keep their medical? What is over that line?
Both town halls yielded unbelievable interest and engagement and a million and more questions. But the professionals didn't have good answers. They said there was no clear directive on what or wasn't allowed, and anything would have to be referred to the dreaded Oklahoma City. hours of footage from the first mental health and aviation symposium later, we're just as murky.
My peers and I tried to spread the message, get help. “Talk to someone. You're allowed to talk to someone and not risk your medical.” Our poster said all of that and more. But an AME who was visiting complained that we were spreading lies and false information. So to protect the university, our posters came down.
Then, in October of 2021, I saw a post on Instagram about an aviation student at the University of North Dakota, named John Houser. John was in a single pilot airplane crash, which we later learned was suicide.
When I read the news of his death, my heart was instantly ripped out of my chest. John and I lived parallel lives. He could have been me. I could have been him. He could have been my friend and my friends. Could have been him. He had the same drive to be a pilot and love the sky as every other aviation student I knew. I don't think I've ever cried as much as I did that night. I can only imagine he had been feeling the same way. So many of us had been or would be feeling. To say I was discouraged by the town halls would be a complete understatement. But I knew after John's crash, that shining a spotlight on this issue is life or death for so many pilots.
So I devoted my honors thesis to creating a starting point for understanding the damage of the FAS policies. I spent over a year developing, testing, running and analyzing mental health and aviation, a study of aviation students on their perceptions of the FAS rules governing mental health. Hundreds of Western students, faculty, staff and flight instructors participated across all majors and all demographics.
- Almost 90% of students reported that they were at least slightly familiar with the FAA’s regulations on mental health.
- Regarding obtaining or keeping an FAA medical most claimed that they were moderately or reasonably familiar with these regulations.
- Three out of four students surveyed said that the FAA’s rules on getting mental health health, while obtaining, or keeping, an FAA medical, are either restrictive or very restrictive.
- More than half of the students surveyed said that they would not believe so that they would not believe someone who told them, you can see a mental health professional and keep your FA medical even when they already trusted that person.
- Almost half of the students surveyed said that the FAS rules negatively affected their desire to seek professional mental health assistance.
This research was my attempt to capture how the FAS policies are affecting students’ mental health and hard numbers and understand how we might start to earn students’ trust around these issues. The snapshot of just one university, but it's a start.
To those who might say that study inclusion in young aviators is a niche issue, need I remind you that these are the people who are going to be fine 510 and 20 years from now, we were being forced to choose between doing what we love. And the place that feels like home to us. And our own health shouldn't be that way. I would rather have someone next to me in the flight deck who's getting mental health support than someone who has felt forced to hide it or not seek it in the first place.
Most pilots I know have a crash that sticks with them. For me, of course, it's always been my grandfather's. And now it's John's too. As a flight instructor, I teach students with the same dream, the dream of flight that John and many others had. They're more in touch with their mental health needs than any other generation before them. But every year that goes by represents more pilots who will never get the chance to fly, or who are forced to hide their care.
In the words of one of my high school students, when I told them why I would be missing class today, they said, “Well, that doesn't make any sense. Why would you want to stop people from seeking out the care they need?” A high schooler of 18 years of age by the way.
The evidence is clear. We must create a system that works not only for us, but for tomorrow's pilots as well. Thank you.