features How pilots’ mental health can be assessed & supported

Assessing and supporting the mental health of frontline helicopter crews is key to successful operations in high-intensity sectors.
Avatar for Mario Pierobon By Mario Pierobon | March 5, 2021

Estimated reading time 12 minutes, 38 seconds.

Helicopter pilots operating in specialized critical domains such as law enforcement, military operations, firefighting and search-and-rescue (SAR) are often exposed to very demanding operating conditions. These require a high level of technical and non-technical performance. In the non-technical sphere of human performance, multiple organizational initiatives are beneficial to the wellbeing of pilots, including psychological assessments, psychiatric evaluations, an emphasis on emotional intelligence and pilot support programs.

There is no psychological assessment requirement for pilots and crews flying law enforcement, military, firefighting and search-and-rescue (SAR) operations in the U.S., though plots and crew are often exposed to very stressful, demanding operating conditions. U.S. Army Photo by Sgt. Sarah D. Sangster

Psychological assessment

From a regulatory point of view in the U.S., there are no psychological assessments for helicopter pilots because they are not required, said Kimberly Hutchings, owner and CEO of Volo Mission, a helicopter training company specializing in longline operations.  

“A company or government agency may require psychological assessments for their own hiring procedures, but a company is not required to provide one nor is a pilot required to take one,” Hutchings said. “Law enforcement and military are different compared to commercial operations. Those pilots more than likely receive some sort of psychological assessment or personality tests, but this is because of the hiring or recruitment process or promotion. It does not have as much to do with being a pilot.”

Applicants who wish to become a pilot for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) are medically assessed the same way as police officer applicants. The elements of this examination include vision evaluation (including color vision), hearing tests, laboratory tests, a medical examination and a psychological evaluation which includes psychometric testing against specific desired traits for this subgroup of members. 

All personal and professional attributes of potential pilot candidates are also assessed during the interview and post interview processes at RCMP. 

“Our pilots must also meet the medical and mental health requirements of their position, which includes some policing duties including the use of intervention equipment, such as a firearm,” said Robin Percival, an RCMP spokesperson. 

RCMP pilots meet the Transport Canada (TC) recommendations including any limitations and restrictions in their medical certificate. Assessments of pilots are also done throughout various skills training at the RCMP training academy, Percival said. Their physical and mental well-being is continuously monitored throughout police training and through physical training evaluations. 

RCMP pilots undergo a medical health assessment every three years, at which time a psychological assessment may also be performed, if deemed necessary based on the individual’s history, like a traumatic work event or mental health concerns, Percival said.

Psychiatric evaluations

While the psychological assessment of helicopter pilots is not required by law, in the 14 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) regulatory environment provisions are made for pilot psychiatric evaluations, and guidelines outlining the requirements for these evaluations are made available by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). 

Through an emotional intelligence assessment helicopter pilots may realize they were not quite the team player they thought they were or that they actually do not handle stress as well as they thought. Skip Robinson Photo

“Mental disorders, as well as the medications used for treatment, may produce symptoms or behavior that would make an airman unsafe to perform pilot duties,” according to the FAA.

According to 14 CFR rules, psychiatric evaluations are more appropriate for someone who has been diagnosed by a medical professional with a mental illness that would require medication to treat the illness. 

“The mental illness and medication would need to be reported to the FAA because either the illness and/or the medication could make the pilot unsafe to perform their duties,” Hutchings said. “A person may be required to do this psychiatric evaluation if perhaps the pilot is showing symptoms of mental illness or if the pilot had been diagnosed or treated for mental illness in the past.”

This medical exam by a psychiatrist is different from a personality test or an emotional intelligence assessment or any other work-related assessment checking for attributes like how one handles stress, how one works as a team member, or one’s decision-making skills. 

“The personality tests and assessments can be given by a psychologist or a person qualified to interpret the results of a certain assessment,” Hutchings said.

Emotional intelligence

An emotional intelligence assessment is a valuable alternative to a psychological assessment of helicopter pilots, according to Hutchings.

Emotional intelligences assessments can lead to coaching to help crews function more effectively in the air. Skip Robinson Photo

“Great leadership generally means having a higher and balanced level of emotional intelligence,” she said. “Not only is it important for leadership to have emotional intelligence, but a pilot should also. An emotional intelligence assessment provides awareness and an insight into the individual in aspects such as decision-making, stress management, how well one may work with others, or how well one expresses him or herself. The important thing is that once pilots have this awareness, they are given the ability to see where they can make improvements.”

Through an emotional intelligence assessment helicopter pilots may realize they were not quite the team players they thought they were, or that they actually do not handle stress as well as they thought, or that they may be more impulsive or stall out when it comes to complex problem solving. All these things are very important to be aware of, especially in high-risk helicopter operations.

Hutchings gives a short class on emotional intelligence to pilots attending Volo Mission’s longline courses. 

“There has been a positive reception to the information and knowledge that they are provided and many of them comment that they have never heard of this before,” she said. “It is something that makes sense to them, and not only can they see where emotional intelligence helps them, they can also see where a boss could use some more emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is something that we should be teaching to everyone.”

Emotional intelligence assessment is also a valuable tool for companies to use for their employees because it takes a lot of time and money to go through the hiring and training process, according to Hutchings. 

“The last thing one wants is to have to let an employee go after finding out that the person on the resume, and in the interview, is not quite the same person in the field,” she said. “A company can either use this assessment during their hiring process, or, if an issue comes up such as the employee not being a team player, an emotional intelligence assessment can be given and then the person can be coached to improve or balance their emotional intelligence.” 

“Perhaps one can take the assessment and realize that she or he is not as assertive as one would like, for example one who does not speak up,” Hutchings added. “There can be several reasons for this, including that one does not want to rock the boat, or that one may be afraid to do something that is incorrect, etc. The first step is the emotional intelligence assessment to gain awareness, the second step is to get some coaching if there are some areas that may need to be worked on. Developing an effective level of emotional intelligence can be extremely beneficial to one’s psychological well-being.”

Support for psychological well-being

Helicopter operators should offer support to ensure and preserve the psychological well-being of pilots, Hutchings said. 

“Some companies do a great job of this and need to be commended; some companies are on the other end of the spectrum,” she said. “Companies that do their best to keep the psychological well-being of, not only their pilots, but all employees, tend to have great leadership.”

RCMP offers multiple forms of support to helicopter pilots for their psychological well-being. These include, but are not limited to, critical incident debriefings following serious or traumatic incidents, a peer-to-peer system, employee assistance services, occupational health and safety services, conflict management practitioners and support for operational stress injuries, according to Percival.

The Covid-19 pandemic has created extra stress and challenges for many crewmembers over the past year. Adar Yahalom Photo

Ornge, Ontario’s provider of air ambulance and critical care transport services, operating 12 Leonardo AW139 helicopters as well as a fleet of planes and ambulances, also has multiple programs available to ensure its personnel’s health and wellness. They include an employee family and assistance program, operational pauses as required following traumatic transports, a peer support program and a “Human Factors Specialist” program. All these programs and initiatives are available 24 hours per day, seven days a week. All Ornge staff and their families also have access to an Employee Family & Assistance Program (EFAP). 

“This is a program . . . accessible via telephone and employees or family members can access EFAP for work or personal related issues including health and wellbeing, financial, counseling services and more,” Orange spokesman Joshua McNamara said via email. “The EFAP provider has an app available for mobile devices that can be accessed by staff. The app includes a number of resources, information and services available for support.”

The operational pauses program allows crew members to take a break from flying following particularly challenging calls, as when a patient dies or a mass-casualty event response. 

“This involves taking the crew offline temporarily for a check on their well-being,” McNamara said. “In these circumstances, a management representative will contact the crew (two paramedics and two pilots) directly to inquire about whether the crew requires a pause in operations and/or additional support.”

Crews can request an operational pause themselves. In most instances, the crews would resume operations during the shift when they feel it is appropriate. In some circumstances, the crew may be relieved for the remainder of their shift and additional support is offered,” McNamara said.

Ornge’s peer supporters are available around the clock for staff who may be in distress. Peer supporters are pilots, paramedics and communications officers who have received more than 75 hours of training from a human factors specialist and are able to support staff dealing with struggles in the workplace and at home, accessing further support and resources, fostering wellness and enhancing resiliency and maintaining mental health, McNamara said. 

“A new feature is being introduced to enhance the team’s ability to respond quickly,” McNamara said. “Our peer supporters will be accessible through a mobile device app. Pilots, paramedics and communications officers can request to speak to a peer supporter of their choice or reach out to all peer supporters for assistance. A peer supporter will connect with the employee directly to offer their support. Local resources, supports and general wellness information are available through the app should an employee not want to request assistance from a peer supporter.”

The Human Factors Specialist program is designed to ensure the health and wellness of all Ornge employees by giving them access to an accredited social worker who develops mental wellness programs and provides enhanced support directly to staff.

Ornge, Ontario’s provider of air ambulance and critical care transport services, operating 12 Leonardo AW139 helicopters as well as a fleet of planes and ambulances, also has multiple programs available to ensure its personnel’s health and wellness. Eric Dumigan Photo

“We are also looking to deliver training to new pilots during onboarding relating to compassion fatigue and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) mitigation,” McNamara said. “This will be developed by the human factors specialist and include information such as types of trauma, the impact of trauma on the body, how to mitigate compassion fatigue and PTSD.”

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