Skip navigation

CNN: "NTSB chair warns ‘culture of silence’ around mental health is affecting safety'

"In aviation, you are in effect punished for following the rules around disclosure"

NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy speaks during an interview on December 5, 2023.

Ross Levitt, Pete Muntean and Gregory Wallace

The head of the National Transportation Safety Board warned that aviation workers who need to “think twice” before reporting their mental health issues to the federal government have created “a culture of silence that is affecting safety.”

“No one, no one, should have to think twice about their job before seeking help and yet here we are today because that’s not currently the case in aviation,” NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy said at the opening of a daylong summit exploring the issue, explaining that current Federal Aviation Administration rules cause people to either lie or not seek help.

“In aviation, you are in effect punished for following the rules around disclosure,” she said.

On Tuesday, the FAA announced a new rulemaking committee that could change the disclosure rules. Homendy said she was encouraged by recent conversations she had with FAA administrator Michael Whitaker.

Homendy said she and the board are fighting for people who struggle with mental health issues and said those who are speaking at Wednesday’s summit are “incredibly brave.”

One of the first to speak was former NTSB Vice Chairman Bruce Landsberg, who discussed his struggles following the death of his son who was in the military and died of PTSD.

Landsberg, who is also a pilot, said, “I understand this firsthand.”

Following his son’s death, he says he voluntarily grounded himself from flying.

“Did I report this to the FAA? No, I did not, but I voluntarily grounded myself. I waited about six weeks until I felt I was ready to be able to fly again and had processed some of the grief. It never leaves you entirely,” he said.

Landsberg said he then flew with an experienced pilot the first time to make sure he was OK.

Dr. Anne Suh, a physician from Chicago, spoke about her son, John Hauser, a student pilot who died by suicide in October 2021.

Reading from a letter he wrote before he died, she testified, “He wrote, ‘I want to seek help more than anything. I really do. I want to get better. I just know if I try, I will have to give up on aviation. And frankly, I’d rather not be here than to do that. So, here I am.’”

Suh said her son, who was away at college, texted her from the plane he was flying to essentially say goodbye. His plane was later found crashed in a field. She and her husband, who was also testifying, did not know John had been suffering from depression, she said.

Suh said they are planning to meet with members of Congress on Thursday and that the issue of pilot mental health has wider impacts. “Improving the system to enable pilots to get the help they need will make the skies safer for everyone,” she testified.

“‘If there’s anything you can do for me, get the FAA to change their rules on pilots seeking help with their mental health,” Suh said, reading another passage from her son’s letter. “I know it would change a lot of things for the better. It would help a lot of people out. Love you, John.’”

The issue of pilot mental health was thrust into the spotlight in October when off-duty pilot Joseph Emerson was charged with trying to crash an Alaska Airlines flight from inside the cockpit. Immediately following the incident, Emerson told police he had not slept in 40 hours, recently experimented with “magic mushrooms,” and had been depressed for months, if not years.

Emerson, a 44-year-old captain, was riding off-duty in the cockpit jump seat between Seattle and San Francisco when, according to court documents, Emerson said, “I’m not OK” and pulled both of the Embraer 175’s engine fire extinguisher handles, which — if not for the crew’s quick intervention — would have turned the 24-ton jet into an engineless glider.

Emerson last month told The New York Times he took the mushrooms two days before the flight during a weekend getaway to commemorate the death of his best friend.

On the day of the flight, which departed from Everett, Washington, his dreamlike state persisted aboard the plane, Emerson told the Times from a visitation room at the county jail in Portland, Oregon. He texted a friend who dropped him off at the airport he was “having a panic attack.”

Emerson was indicted on one count of endangering aircraft in the first degree and 83 counts of recklessly endangering another person – one for each person aboard the aircraft, the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office in Oregon said Tuesday. He is to be arraigned Friday.

In a statement, Emerson’s defense team, Levi Merrithew Horst PC, said their client “never intended to hurt another person or put anyone at risk – he just wanted to return home to his wife and children.”

“Captain Emerson had no criminal intent, and we look forward to being able to present a fulsome defense at trial and bring forth all the facts and circumstances to a jury,” the statement said.

Continue Reading

Read More