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Friday, 19 November, 1999, 16:48 GMT
Who watches the pilots?
You're in their hands: But pilot health rules are strict

By BBC News Online's Dominic Casciani

Next time you are in an aircraft, don't think about the drinks trolley.

Think about the fact that the crew in the cockpit are responsible for your life, hundreds of others, and they're flying you at hundreds of miles an hour, 30,000ft above the sea in a pressurised metal tube.

You're allowed that drink now.

The loss of flight 990
Since the loss of EgyptAir Flight 990, there has been speculation that one crewman may have deliberately caused the disaster in a spectacular suicide.

But while a handful of air crashes have been blamed on deliberate pilot action, standards vary enormously in how much psychological screening of pilots airlines conduct.

International agreements

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) draws up agreed minimum medical fitness standards and its 185 member states, including the UK, USA and Egypt, must ensure that commercial pilots undergo an extensive annual medical examination carried out by an aviation medicine specialist.

While this examination focuses on bodily health, ICAO's rules mean a pilot is rejected if there is any history of:

  • Psychosis
  • Alcoholism
  • Drug dependence
  • Personality disorder
  • Mental abnormality or neurosis
While ICAO does not require formal psychological testing, leading airlines regard it as essential, said Dr Ciaran O'Boyle, professor of psychology the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland.

Dr O'Boyle, a leading consultant to Europe's aviation industry, told BBC News Online that airlines use psychologists to screen five key areas of personality: ability to manage anxiety, conformity, leadership, assertiveness and team-working.

"We want to know how they deal with the on-going worries of a job which is pretty tough," he said.

"Psychologists want to see if a pilot can 'bind anxiety', their ability to control stress and the tests are designed to see whether anxiety will reach such a level that it interferes with their ability to perform."

But while pilots must be calm, they must also be able to fit into rigid behaviour patterns - a factor which rules out some former military pilots.

Dr O'Boyle said: "Commercial flight is about doing everything in a standard routine.

"There should be very little variation in each flight.

"Military pilots, especially jet pilots - the 'top guns' - do not often fit in because they were selected by their air force to be far more creative.

"Operators have had success in bringing in military pilots but, on occasion, it does not work because they don't take decisions the way you need them to."


Pilots must also show that they are able to challenge a senior captain - and accept criticism themselves.

"Airlines don't want what is known as a 'steep gradient' among the aircrew," said Dr O'Boyle, adding that fear of speaking up had been a factor in past accidents.

"All of the crew need to have command potential but modern flying requires that they must be able to work as a team."

Stress simulations

International agreements oblige carriers to put aircrews through regular inspection flights. Training captains at large airlines put staff through six-monthly "non-normal" simulations to test aptitude, character and behaviour.

BA: Large airlines conduct stress simulations
The industry also stresses that formal or confidential whistle-blowing is actively encouraged.

It's a system that regulators say they are happy with.

Jonathan Nicholson of the UK's Civil Aviation Authority said that only one pilot was disqualified last year on grounds of potential psychological problems.

"These [problems] are more likely to become apparent through other staff reporting them than through a one-off inspection by a doctor.

"We believe that we would be unlikely to spot a potential issue in a one-day medical examination.

"Furthermore, pilots are legally responsible to declare themselves unfit for duty in any circumstances in which they do not feel capable of flight."

But is there more that can be done?

"With most operators, formal psychological assessments are only ever carried out during recruitment," said Dr O'Boyle.

"There are also plenty of operators who do little more than put a pilot through an interview, technical test and simulator exercise before passing them as fit for the job.

"There is talk of bringing in recurrent psychological testing because of the kind of complex and demanding systems pilots now work with."

The human factor

However, modern aviation is designed around a "systems" approach which regards humans as the weakest link in a chain.

Experts say this approach creates "defence in depth" - the maximum possible reduction of human error by examining every possible factor, mechanical and environmental, that could affect decision-making or be affected by the pilot.

For instance, good airline operators regard outside personal stresses, often difficult to identify, as extremely serious. A difficult divorce is strong enough grounds to have a pilot removed from duty.

This pilot-focused approach is also seen in one model of accident investigation known as SHELL - "Software, Hardware, Environment, Livewire, Livewire" - livewire being jargon for humans.

SHELL seeks to examine every factor that could be affected by, or could affect a pilot's performance - everything from the way the flight was prepared, to staff morale in the airline.

here to see how psychologists use SHELL.

Irrespective of all the precautions and fears in the wake of the Flight 990 crash, the industry is very protective of its highly trained staff.

British Airways is just one of many airlines which uses psychological profiling. When BBC News Online asked about its training, the company stressed that that it was "extremely proud" of its pilots. Other airlines said the same.

A spokesman for the British Airline Pilot's Association also described the major airlines as offering excellent support to staff who were recruited because they were "resilient people used to certain amount of stress."

And Dr O'Boyle added: "It's quite easy to blame the pilot but that is rarely the full story.

"Human action may just be the final trigger in a complicated series of inter-locking factors.

"Accidents are never so simple as they seem at first sight."

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See also:
11 Nov 99 |  Americas
Flight 990: What happened and when?
17 Nov 99 |  Middle East
Conspiracy theories spread
17 Nov 99 |  Middle East
Pilots with years of experience

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