Skip navigation

CBS News: "Pilots are crying out for help"

Pilots tell CBS News Colorado the FAA's policies are causing pilots to lie about their conditions or avoid getting help.


CBS News: Pilots Are Crying Out For Help

They worry if the FAA's policies don't see serious changes soon, the growing pilot shortage is only going to get worse, and many pilots currently allowed in the cockpit are going to continue to suffer alone without the help they need. 

"The system discourages people from getting help," says Adam Lemons, an aircraft technician and pilot license applicant. "I feel like I'm being punished for being forthcoming and getting the help that I felt that I needed."

 Lemons served in the Army as a helicopter engineer, and was deployed to Afghanistan in 2006. He recalled various events during his time there that he said would later contribute to a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder diagnosis once he returned.

"They used to nickname it 'Rocket City,' I was right on the Pakistan border, where we were not allowed to fly, and that resulted in an awful lot of rocket attacks every night," Lemons said. "I was a part of a flight crew that was following a Chinook that was landing and dropping off a mortar team... The Chinook ended up clipping a tree and rolled down a mountain side, but because of the rugged terrain of Afghanistan, there wasn't anything we could do. We watched that Chinook roll down the mountain through night vision goggles, while passengers and crew were trying to get out of the helicopter and downhill from it, and then just getting rolled over by the helicopter."

Lemons says at first, his PTSD made it difficult for him to drive on busy city streets.

"For a while that was something that I just was not able to do," he said. "I would sooner fly into the city or take public transportation, the notion of driving myself into the city was a daunting idea."

He sought help, and by about eight years ago, he no longer needed anxiety medications.

With a love of flying, he applied for a pilot's license in 2016, with hopes to make it his next career move, but on his FAA application, he admitted to having a PTSD diagnosis, something he never guessed would compromise his ability to fly.

"At the time, I was already an active leader with a veteran led volunteer organization, so advocating for mental wellness with newly separated veterans was absolutely a priority," Lemons said.

He says since then, the FAA has subjected him to costly frequent drug tests, and doctor's visits with FAA-approved experts who don't accept insurance.

He says the FAA wouldn't accept other doctor's notes saying that he was perfectly fine to fly a plane.

"Over the last six years I think I've spent a little over $30,000 of my own dollars to determine my air safety," Lemons said.

At the Broomfield airport, Joseph LoRusso, director of aviation at Ramos Law, and a private plane pilot himself, represents hundreds of clients in similar situations as Lemons'.

"As a pilot, it's brutal. It's just absolutely brutal," he said. "You can't go see a therapist. You can't go see a counselor, you are constantly worried about not only losing the certificate in your pocket and the ability to feed your family, but I'll be very honest with you, you're going to lose your identity, and that fear is so strong that it just, it tears you apart."

He says the FAA's mental health policies are based off standards from the 1980s, and they're one of the biggest reasons for the growing pilot shortage.

"Really, the problem is not keeping who we have. It's getting these young people to come up into the industry," he said. "People are getting treatment at a young age and they're working through those problems, and because of all that work, they can't get into the pilot pool because they are medically disqualified."

This September, the FAA goes up for reauthorization in front of Congress, a process that happens every five years. LoRusso has been meeting with lawmakers to advocate for policy changes during that process.

"The medical application hasn't changed in a very long time. A big change in the medical application would be that pilots don't have to disclose a therapist or a counselor, but if that mental health progresses to the point where they need to bring in a psychiatrist, or they need to be treated with pharmaceuticals, that should be reported," LoRusso said. "A therapist and a counselor so that we're treating things initially and they don't compound to the point where we need to introduce pharmaceuticals and a psychiatrist, why is the pilot being judged on that?"

But he says he's not optimistic the FAA, or Congress, will consider any revisions.

"In the reauthorization bill that's coming up for discussion here in September, there's only one part of it that discusses medicals, and what it says is the FAA needs to put together a round table to discuss the modernization of the regulations. There is no time limit on it," LoRusso explains. "I would not be surprised if five years from now, we're sitting here talking about how they still have not yet formed that roundtable."

Last week, CBS News Colorado Investigator Brian Maass was the first to uncover this video of a United pilot attacking a parking gate with an ax.

The pilot told police he "just hit his breaking point."

United says it has an employee benefits package for pilots to have access to mental health resources, but LoRusso says it shouldn't be up to employers to offer assistance. He says the FAA needs to do its part to help pilots reaching their boiling points.

"Pilots are crying out for help. They want to do the best for the public. They want to do the best for the industry, and they're asking for just a little bit of give and take," LoRusso said. "Please change the regulations, please modernize them to this decade."

In the meantime, Lemons says he has received a special issuance to fly, but in order to maintain that, he must continue to shell out thousands of dollars of his own money into FAA-approved programs.

"I'm still doing the 15 random drug screens a year. I'm still seeing my aviation medical examiner twice a year. I'm still seeing a psychiatrist once a year and a psychologist once a year... this is my life now, forever, if I want to fly, and I can't afford to do both," Lemons said. "This does feel like discrimination against imperfect humans."

Regarding those out-of-pocket costs, the FAA says: "The FAA does not establish fees to be charged by Examiners for the medical examination of persons applying for airman medical certification. It is recommended that the fee be the usual and customary fee established by other physicians in the same general locality for similar services."

The FAA also issued this statement in full to CBS News Colorado about its mental health policies:

"Pilots must report certain mental health conditions to their aviation medical examiner (AME) during their regular medical exams. The FAA encourages pilots to seek help if they have a mental-health condition since most, if treated, do not disqualify a pilot from flying. During the last several years, the FAA has invested resources to eliminate the stigma around mental health in the aviation community so pilots seek treatment. This includes:
• Increasing mental health training for medical examiners
• Supporting industry-wide research and clinical studies on pilot mental health
• Hiring additional mental health professionals to expand in-house expertise and to decrease wait times for return-to-fly decisions
• Completed clinical research and amended policy to decrease the frequency of cognitive testing in pilots using antidepressant medications
The FAA can revoke a pilot's medical certificate if it becomes aware of significant mental health issues."

Lemons says those measures have not been sufficient.

"There's a lot a lot a lot of hurdles," he said. "A pilot is guilty until proven innocent." 

Continue Reading

Read More