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JetBlue incident raises questions of pilot mental health

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As you may have heard, a JetBlue Airways flight going from New York to Las Vegas was unexpectedly diverted to Amarillo, Texas yesterday when the captain piloting the flight, Clayton Osbon, exhibited erratic behavior, including shouting about al-Qaeda and bombs, after he was intentionally locked out of the cockpit by the co-pilot.

According to passengers, Osbon was shouting and attempting to re-enter the locked cockpit when several passengers physically restrained him until the flight landed. The pilot of twelve years was treated for what has been described as a “medical situation” and was taken into federal custody and charged with “interfering with crew-member instructions.”

JetBlue has suspended Osbon from flying pending further investigation. However, this incident raises questions about pilots' mental and physical fitness as well as passengers' safety when a captain and first officer are behind locked and protective cockpit doors.

"This is somewhat of a one-off," said John Cox, president of Safety Operation Systems. "Crew member incapacitation happens, usually its food poisoning or something like that, but the procedures that the crews use to deal with it were founded in this incapacitated crew member and crew resource management. So it shows the system worked the way it was intended to."

Cox goes on to say that in the post-9/11 world, airlines have realized the value of passengers to help thwart any confrontation that arises in mid-air. In this incident, passengers took action to restrain the upset pilot until the remaining pilot could safely ground the plane.

"Flight crews recognize that utilizing passengers as an additional asset to help subdue someone who may create a problem for the flight is an appropriate way to handle it," said Cox. "The best security we have on board the airplane are the passengers."

Still, even though this incident was undoubtedly terrifying for the passengers on the plane, it's an extremely rare occurrence for a pilot of be rendered incapacitated on a flight. "Your odds of this happening on a flight are less than your odds of winning a PowerBall on any given day," said Dave Funk, retired airline captain and aviation consultant.

Funk also says that the rigorous physical test pilots must pass to be hired by airlines plus the added self-regulation that occurs amongst fellow airline employees help flag possible issues that can arise.

"The entire process to become a pilot at an airline, you jump through a lot of hoops, you do the MMPI at almost every carrier, you go through a psychological evaluation," said Funk. "My initial hiring at Northwest Airlines in 1987, I had a 2-day-long physical. That's not something where you can hide what your overall state is."


If you were a passenger on a flight on which the pilot had a mental breakdown, how would you react? Does this incident make you less willing to fly?


John Cox, president, Safety Operation Systems

Dave Funk, retired Northwest Airlines captain; aviation consultant, Laird & Associates