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Crash of Germanwings flight 9525: (Aviation) psychologists clarifying what they can contribute to prevent accidents like this.

12 May 2015

The Preliminary Report of the French Accident Investigation authority BEA suggests that the crash of Germanwings flight 9525 was due to deliberate action of the co-pilot, who had suffered from depression. The European Federation of Psychologists’ Associations (EFPA) clarifies what psychologists can contribute to prevent accidents like this.

News - Crash of Germanwings flight 9525: (Aviation) psychologists clarifying what they can contribute to prevent accidents like this.

According to the Preliminary Report of the Accident investigation by the French authority BEA, released on May 6, 2015, initial information indicates that the copilot of flight 4U 9525 deliberately locked the captain out of the cockpit and “intentionally modified the autopilot instructions to order the aeroplane to descend until it collided with the terrain”. The copilot had suffered from depression during his training in 2009 and his license noted a limitation concerning future medical examinations. The further investigation will examine how and why a pilot can be in a cockpit “with the intention of causing the loss of the aircraft and its occupants, despite the existence of regulations setting mandatory medical criteria for flight crews, especially in the areas of psychiatry, psychology and behavioral problems; and recruitment policies, as well as the initial and recurrent training processes within airlines”.

Given that similar accidents have happened before (6 times since 1980) the question arises what can be done to prevent this from happening again. The European Federation of Psychologists Associations (EFPA) clarifies what psychologists can contribute to prevent these and other accidents.

1) Psychological testing of pilots

First is psychological testing of pilots. Pilots are psychologically tested before entering flight training and before being hired by an airline. More tests may follow before moving to another airline. If personality tests show depressive (but for example also psychopathic or aggressive) tendencies, the applicant does not pass. Tests are effective in screening applicants, but they cannot forecast what happens later in life and whether a pilot will become suicidal – as in the case of the co-pilot, several years later.  

2) Assessment of the pilot’s mental health condition

Second is an assessment of the pilot’s mental health condition. Regulations require that pilots need a valid medical certificate to fly. Therefore, they undergo a periodic medical examination, once per year, from the age of 40 every half-year. An assessment of the pilot’s mental health condition by a certified medical examiner is part of this examination. Depression or depression medication is a reason for withholding a medical certificate until some months after symptoms disappeared. In practice the mental health assessment may be rather cursory and miss depressive or other conditions. A weakness is that the pilots are expected to report problems themselves, which some don’t to avoid career difficulties. A pilot can also go and see another medical examiner, who has no insight in his medical history. Besides, medical staff often lacks the appropriate training for a mental health examination. A periodical examination by a clinical psychologist could help to fill the gap and better recognize whether pilots are suffering from stress, anxiety, depression etc., and how they cope with these. The mental health check could be made more effective if a cumulative record would be kept.  

3) Counseling or psychotherapy by clinical psychologists

Third, clinical psychologists can provide counseling or psychotherapy to pilots suffering from depression or other mental illnesses. In the US this is mandatory during the recovery phase. It helps the pilot to overcome remaining problems and prepare for resuming the work.

4) ‘Crew resource management’ training

Fourth, psychologists play a role in initial and recurrent training processes within airlines. One of the forms of training is “crew resource management” training, which aims to pilots to recognize and overcome problems in communication and teamwork in the cockpit. In all forms of training, personal issues may be signaled that need to be overcome to make pilots communicate and collaborate better.

5) Multidisciplinary research and development with aviation human factors specialists

Fifth, psychologists work as “aviation human factors” specialists, doing multidisciplinary research and development, together with engineers, medical and operational experts.

In this role they help develop new equipment, operating procedures, and training programs for cockpit crew, air traffic controllers, and cabin crew that make aviation safer and more effective.

6) Focus on human issues in accident investigations

Finally, psychologists play a role in accident investigations. They focus on human issues and help find solutions that may make the aviation system safer. Psychologists have been particularly instrumental in moving the focus of safety research from “human error” to “systems safety”. In this approach incidents and accidents are seen as the result of the simultaneous failure of a number of various defense layers, human, operational, technical and organizational. The global adoption of this approach has greatly contributed to the high level of aviation safety today. Psychologists are involved in the German task force created to review the full history of the 4U 9525 flight and make recommendations for further safety.

European Association for Aviation Psychology (EAAP)

Psychologists with specialist expertise in aviation psychology are organized in the ‘European Association for Aviation Psychology’ (EAAP), founded in 1956 and based in The Netherlands. This association bundles expertise in matters of selection, training, mental disorders, maintenance of mental health of pilots and air traffic controllers, fitness-to-fly evaluations, medical certification, human factors in aviation systems design and safety. EAAP, associated member of EFPA, is ready to provide expert advice to national and European authorities and organizations at all times.

For more information:

EFPA: Email: headoffice(at)efpa.eu .

EAAP: Email: president(at)eaap.net .

 

 

 

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