HealthMental Health


Push for FAA to review handling of pilot mental health

An October incident resulted in charges for a pilot and reignited the movement to get better mental health care for pilots.
Posted at 9:11 PM, Jan 04, 2024

High above Washington state, an Alaska Airlines flight with 84 people on board was making a routine trip from Everett, Washington, to San Francisco, when suddenly things went terrifyingly sideways. Joseph Emerson, an off-duty pilot riding in a cockpit jumpseat, attempted to shut off the airplane’s engines — at 31,000 feet. 

"At the time of the incident, Mr. Emerson did not and could not form the mental state to commit a crime," said Noah Horst, the attorney for Joseph Emerson. 

The October incident resulted in charges for the pilot and a lawsuit for the airline, and reignited the movement to get better mental health care for pilots. Jennifer Homendy is the chair of the National Transportation Safety Board.

"We tend to think of pilots and others who are on the front lines of aviation as superheroes, but they are no different than you and I," said Homendy. 

For months, she has loudly pushed the FAA to change its rules on what kind of mental health treatments pilots can receive. The FAA requires pilots to be medically fit to fly. Part of the screening that determines their fitness asks medical providers to note whether pilots have a history of "mental disorders of any sort: depression, anxiety, etc."

Any pilot receiving treatment for those common conditions must have special clearances, with a narrow list of drugs approved for treatment. 

Those clearances can take months to process. Some pilots told Scripps News it takes up to a year and a half. And in the meantime, they’re benched. 

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"You should be able to receive care and not be worried about punishment, which is losing your livelihood, losing your job," said Homendy. 

According to his lawyers, the pilot who attempted to shut down engines mid-flight in October, "was suffering from a combination of stress, fatigue, and dehydration, as well as untreated anxiety and depression. Knowing he would be grounded and could lose his medical clearance and his job if he sought traditional mental health treatment, Captain Emerson tried to manage his mental health with meditation and exercise. Two days before, he had taken a small amount of psilocybin."

"I'm saddened that this situation had to happen to my husband and to these people that it affected. But I know that this has created a movement and momentum to help thousands of other pilots," said Sarah Stretch, the wife of Joseph Emerson.

Many airlines' workforces are under strain, including in the cockpit, amid a serious pilot shortage and an infrastructure struggling to keep up with post-pandemic air travel.  

"We're seeing in some of our investigations, fatigue, distraction, stress, lack of training, people who are working overtime. That all has an impact," said Homendy. 

In lieu of changes to the rules, peer-to-peer support programs have cropped up at major airlines. Pilots Mike Doyle and Pete Gillespie volunteer for Project Wingman, American Airlines’ mental health support program for pilots. 

"My daughter who I was raising at the time became very sick, and it came as close as a parent can come to losing their child. And as I went through that, I received an inordinate amount of support from the pilots in my base at that time. There became a need for me to and a desire to pay it back," said Doyle.