An airline pilot discusses mental illness and protecting passengers

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ST. LOUIS (KPLR) - Commercial airline pilots are among the most scrutinized professional in the world, yet a veteran pilot says the industry recognizes anyone can face depression.  Captain Robin Harris talked about what’s done to erase the stigma of mental illness while also protecting the public.

The suicide related crash of the recent Germanwings flight shook him for more than the obvious reasons.  He sometimes flies the same Airbus A320. He agreed to talk to us if we promised not to identify his airline.  Harris said, “I actually was surprised, their protocols were different than ours.”

He said two people must be in the cockpit on U.S. flights.  It`s a rule that could`ve prevented what happened with Germanwings, though Captain Harris says the rule was not set up for that reason.  Harris explained, “It is a security issue, so you can physically look and see who`s standing on the other side of the door. If you only have the single pilot sitting inside, then that`s not possible.”

Before take-off, Harris says a pilot must sign off that he finds everything about the flight acceptable, including his own wellbeing.

Every six months, pilots must by checked by an FAA Certified Aviation Medical Examiner.

Harris says pilots cannot fly while using most medications.  He added, “Even something as simple as cortisone, which most people wouldn`t consider as mood altering.  One of the warnings on the label is that it could make you aggressive.  So if you would take cortisone for allergies, that would ground you until you stopped taking it.”

Harris says there`s no shame in a pilot being honest about mental health challenges.  He said, “We have some very generous programs and a tremendous amount of resources to help someone who is struggling and there is no reason to hide it because you can go out on sick leave and then we have an extended program that can take you out I believe to about two years.”

If you`re afraid a pilot might just hide problems?  Captain Harris says that can make it worse for a pilot.  He explained, “The difference is if I acknowledge whatever medical condition I may have, then it gets treated and there is no issue.  We can move beyond it.  Were I to lie or any other pilot to lie about those medications, then you`re done and your career would end.”

Captain Harris says there's a culture among pilots that makes flying more than a job.  He said, “I firmly believe pilots feel a tremendous sense of responsibility to the people they transport and I will point to Sully Sullenberger.  Here's a man, I don`t know if you`ve been in extremely cold water, but the Hudson in the winter is very cold and as everyone had exited, he double checked.  He walked through the cabin, twice."