A damning report out today alleges that up to 5,000 pilots are either unfit for duty, defrauding the US government, liars, or all three.
Up To 5,000* Pilots Under Investigation, Big Claims
A report from the Washington Post today announced that nearly 5,000 (about 4,800) pilots are under investigation in the United States regarding conflicting medical claims. Some of those claims would uniformly disable the pilot’s ability to perform their duties and disqualify them from piloting an aircraft.
“FAA spokesman Matthew Lehner acknowledged in a statement that the agency has been investigating approximately 4,800 pilots “who might have submitted incorrect or false information as part of their medical applications.” The FAA has now closed about half of those cases, he said, and has ordered about 60 pilots — who Lehner said “posed a clear danger to aviation safety” — to cease flying on an emergency basis while their records are reviewed.” – Washington Post
Our first major caveat comes in the form of the numbers being investigated. The article’s title says 5,000, then reduces it to “nearly” and states it’s 4,800, and then we learn that half of those cases have been closed with just 60 pilots removed from eligibility. Just 600 of those under investigation are/were passenger commercial airline pilots.
“About 600 of the pilots under investigation are licensed to fly for passenger airlines, according to a senior U.S. official familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing case. Most of the rest hold commercial licenses that allow them to fly for hire, including with cargo firms, corporate clients or tour companies.” – MSN
The crux of the issue comes at the hands of a $3.6MM investigation whereby investigators cross-referenced Veteran’s Administration claims with current flight health records. The article then says this:
“Many veterans minimize their ailments to the FAA so they can keep flying but exaggerate them to VA to maximize their disability payments, physicians and former officials at the aviation agency say.” The article continues:
“There are people out there who I think are trying to play both sides of the game,” said Jerome Limoge, an aviation medical examiner in Colorado Springs who gives physicals to hundreds of pilots a year. “They’re being encouraged by VA to claim everything. Some of it is almost stolen valor.”
It’s a big claim to suggest that pilots are committing stolen valor by claiming benefits from the VA while self-reporting clean records to continue flying. Especially, when it’s the FAA’s own physicians who are suggesting the pilots should not disclose their VA claims.
“Aviation authorities also learned that some pilots did not disclose their VA disability benefits because FAA-contracted physicians advised them to withhold the information, officials said.”
The article on the one hand states that pilots are intentionally withholding information about concerning data to enrich themselves and defraud the US government while continuing to fly, and on the other hand claims that its FAA doctors who told them to omit information. It says that of the 4,800 half of the cases are already cleared resulting in just 60 who have lost their ability to fly. The article does not state just how many of those 60 were commercial passenger pilots for airlines.
Mental Health Concerns
There’s no doubt that mental health issues for a pilot are of considerable concern not just for themselves but for passengers and those on the ground. The article cites three cases: a China Eastern 737 crash (that was heretofore not yet classified as a pilot suicide), a Germanwings A320 confirmed pilot suicide in the Alps, and then takes the leap of determining the cause of MH370 to be a pilot suicide as well when that is just one of a number of possibilities none of which have ever been confirmed.
Generally speaking, mental health concerns are stigmatized particularly for males with men under-reporting mental health concerns comparatively to women, more likely to serve in the military (the article notes symptoms of PTSD as one of the common VA claims), and more likely to be pilots. In fact, just 4.6% of US pilots in 2021 were female:
However, not all of these claims are confirmed to be mental health-related. The report does cite that two of ten that were effectively prosecuted experienced a crash:
“Court records show at least 10 pilots have been prosecuted since 2018 on federal charges of lying to the FAA by hiding their veterans disability benefits and obscuring their health histories, including two whose cases were discovered only after they crashed aircraft.” – Washington Post
Despite some of the positioning of the lead article from the Post, it’s not clear just how many of those with VA claims are for mental health-related issues nor how many are a matter of following instructions from conflicting aviation-related sources.
This summer has been one of the busiest and this site has covered the pilot shortage well before the myriad pilot contract stories that have come out this summer. Piloting aircraft is complex, difficult, and stressful and the pilot shortage has not helped to ebb those issues.
But investigators allege that they believe this is a case of defrauding the US government for benefits rather than being compelled to fly by employers.
The flashy article that’s already seeing considerable coverage makes some lofty claims and conclusions. While there is no doubt some pilots that have concealed health concerns to overcome medical evaluations that determine whether they are fit for duty, and while some may have even acted nefariously to enrich themselves, the vast majority have been cleared of wrongdoing and continue to fly. Mental health concerns are stigmatized particularly in males, underreported, and of concern specifically in this field. If a pilot is experiencing any type of health concern that jeopardizes themselves, the flying public, or those on the ground, there should be a clear path for seeking and receiving the help they need that will not forever bar them from flying. However, this article overstates the number of pilots investigated especially when half have been cleared and only 10 in 4,800 to this point have been prosecuted.
What do you think?