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Fox 7 Austin: "Pilots, lawmakers want FAA to reform how it handles mental health"

A local commercial pilot said he can no longer fly, as of now, because of how the FAA is addressing veterans and mental health. He said his story highlights a much broader dilemma.

Carissa Lehmkuhl

DRIPPING SPRINGS, Texas - After getting out of the military, Dripping Springs native Kevin Voorheis transitioned to flying commercial planes for a living. He spent a couple of years as a pilot until last summer. 

"I got a letter from the FAA, along with 4,800 other veterans, saying there are discrepancies between your VA medical and your FAA medical," he said.

The letter referred to events that took place over a decade prior.

"My transition out of the Navy into civilian life was difficult, as it is for a lot of veterans. So from 2010 to 2012, and for a short time in 2014, I decided to go get some counseling. And, during that time, I was diagnosed with depression, anxiety and insomnia," said Voorheis. "That counseling was successful. I haven't had any treatments, symptoms, anything since then."

The VA and FAA have been cross-checking medical records, noting some veterans working as pilots had received VA benefits for conditions they did not disclose to the FAA.

It's part of an overall push to address potential underlying mental health issues and, ultimately, passenger safety. 

In October, an off-duty Alaska Airlines pilot made headlines after he tried to shut down a plane engine mid-flight during what he said was a "nervous breakdown."

However, Voorheis believes the root issue is the current system, one that encourages a culture of secrecy or ignoring mental health care altogether, in order to protect livelihood. 

"It's well documented. There's a lot of people who have grounded themselves, and they go to counseling," said Voorheis. "They go through the proper avenues, report it to the FAA, and the FAA just goes into a black hole. And again, they're grounded."

Not to mention the time and money spent seeing FAA-approved specialists, said Voorheis.

The FAA has a list of 15 "disqualifying" conditions that include epilepsy, bipolar disorder and substance abuse, noting that "other conditions not specifically listed in the regulations are also disqualifying."

"Mental health is really what's in the headlines right now, but it's really the whole aeromedical system at the FAA currently," said Voorheis. 

The mental health in aviation conversation has really taken off in recent months.

A Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General report in July found that the FAA’s ability to "mitigate safety risks is limited by pilots’ reluctance to disclose mental health conditions."

On Feb. 7, a bipartisan group of lawmakers sent a letter encouraging the FAA to modernize its mental health protocols.

In December, FAA Administrator Michael Whitaker established the Mental Health and Aviation Medical Clearances Aviation Rulemaking Committee.

"It is a top priority," said Whitaker during a Feb. 6 Senate subcommittee hearing. "I think it’s long overdue to update the approach to mental health and just treat these as health issues and have a clearer path to treatment and get people back in the cockpit as quickly as possible."

In a 2022 study, about 56% of pilots reported a history of "healthcare avoidance" due to fear of losing their aeromedical certificate.

"They need to change the culture to encourage pilots to get mental health treatment," said Voorheis. "They need to make a system where, if you need to ground yourself for mental health issues and get counseling, getting back to the cockpit is a lot more efficient."

In the letter he received from the FAA, Voorheis was asked to pass a psych evaluation, provide complete VA medical records from 2008 to the present and provide rating decision letters after October 2017, within 60 days. Voorheis said he did that and is still grounded while trying to work things out with the FAA.

"There's a pilot shortage, and they're discouraging other pilots from even getting into the industry," said Voorheis, who will be attending the Pilot Mental Health Campaign’s "Congressional Advocacy Day" in Washington D.C. in March.

According to the FAA, out of the roughly 4,800 veteran pilots that were looked at, as of June, the agency had closed approximately 2,550 cases due to "incorrect information or other types of administrative errors" or because the pilots had already reported their conditions. 

"The FAA is doing its part to ensure that the information on file for Airman Medical Certificate holders is accurate and complete," an FAA spokesperson told FOX 7.

As of June, the FAA had grounded approximately 60 pilots so that staff could work with them to "reconcile their records." 


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