This is the question being asked today, two days removed from the episode on board a JetBlue flight when the captain's erratic behavior forced the co-pilot to lock him out of the cockpit: Is the process of hiring pilots sufficient to assure that they have the required mental stability for the job?
When the question was put to me this morning by Stephanie Abrams of The Weather Channel, I said, overall, yes. Look at the successes over the years. Millions of flights, thousands of passengers "actin' the fool" and getting booted, sometimes arrested for mental breakdowns or simple air rage. One can't expect all that misbehavior to remain in the back of the plane. Pilots are human too.
There have been exceptions of course; Auburn Calloway the Fed Ex flight engineer who took a hammer to his fellow flight officers in 1994, Gamil al-Batouti the first officer on EgyptAir Flight 990 thought to have brought the 767 down in an act of suicide in 1999. Then there is the silly -- leaning toward questionable -- antics of former American Eagle pilot Timothy Martins, who confined his misbehavior to off-plane instances of embellishing his personal history to a reporter from ALPA magazine.
All of which is to say that when Clayton Osbon lost it on JetBlue Flight 191 he was not the first pilot to break down, but this is far, far, far from being the air safety issue the news stories would suggest.
Most airlines take the selection of airline pilots very seriously. Who wants to spend all that money training them, let alone entrust a multi-million dollar airplane into the care of a crackpot? Still, as aviation booms and pilot supply diminishes, there could be pressure to hire flyers who otherwise might not make the cut. To airlines so inclined, the JetBlue event earlier this week should be a wake-up call.
But if anyone should be paying attention, it is the folks who, following the attacks of 9/11 thought it was a good idea to arm pilots. The U.S. Federal Flight Deck Officer program may have (and I equivocate because its never been officially confirmed) allowed into its ranks, the aforementioned Timothy Martins, about whom you can read more here.
The folks who approve pilots to pack heat on passenger carrying flights better be taking that job as seriously as death. Because while Capt. Osbon's case is a personal tragedy and a public drama, had a firearm been in the cockpit, that's almost certainly how it could have ended up.