‘Crazy’ Won’t Kill You

Image: dan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Visual Approximation of the Actual Number of Pilots Who've Had Psychotic Episodes in Flight

By now you probably know that veteran JetBlue pilot Capt. Clayton Osbon had some sort of a mental breakdown on a flight to Las Vegas this week. CNN yesterday posted an article related to the incident in which they questioned the relative lack of screening by doctors in accordance with FAA policy.  They seem to imply that some major change is needed.

Are they kidding?

First, what happened to Capt. Osbon is probably not from stress or pressure.  It will be interesting to see what the conclusion is, but in the meantime here’s a list of possible causes of a psychotic episode reported by Andrea Peterson in her Wall Street Journal blog:

…a brain tumor, head injury, thyroid condition, fever, infection, recreational drug use or a prescription-drug reaction

“Whatever”, you say.  Is flying more dangerous because of a lack of regulation?  Here’s a quick breakdown:

Number of Paid Takeoff Flights (10 years from 2001 to 2011) for Domestic Revenue Departures Performed (Dec. 2001 – Dec. 2011): 93,138,330

DATA SOURCE: Bureau of Transportation Statistics, T-100 Market and Segment

That’s over 93 million flights.  So there’s probability there due to the sheer number.  But is a pilot freaking out in flight really a cause for concern?  Obviously, if you’re a passenger on the one flight, then yes, it would be scary. In reality, pilot mental health (unless you’re the pilot’s mother) is less important than incidents which result.  So I’ve scoured the interwebs, and I can only find a few (four) cases in not just the past 10 years, but in the past 20 years, of pilots having mental issues in the cockpit.

AZcentral.com has a good article on it here.  These are the four primary documented incidents they found (and the only ones I could find as well) pertaining to major commercial airline carriers:

  • In 2008, an Air Canada co-pilot was forcibly removed from the cockpit and restrained after having a breakdown on a Toronto-to-London flight.
  • In 1999, U.S. investigators determined that the co-pilot of an Egypt Air plane deliberately crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, but said they couldn’t determine his motive. All 217 people on board were killed.
  • In 1996, a co-pilot of a passenger jet broke into a sweat on a flight from England to Italy and told the pilot he was afraid of heights, forcing the Maersk Airlines jet with 49 passengers on board to make an emergency landing.
  • In 1982, a Japan Airlines jet plunged into Tokyo Bay after the captain, who had once been grounded for mental illness, reversed some of the engines. The co-pilot and flight engineer struggled but couldn’t regain control of the plane. The crash killed 24 of the 174 people on board.

-Source: http://www.azcentral.com/arizonarepublic/business/articles/2012/03/28/20120328jetblue-pilots-rant-puts-focus-medical-exams.html

Note that of the above four instances, only two resulted in fatalities. And for the second incident, one may argue that the Egypt Air pilot was as crazy as the 9/11 hijackers… i.e. he was completely nuts, but not necessarily mentally ill.  They had a ridiculous, terrible, radical, nefarious purpose – but a purpose.  (Note: Maybe that is mentally ill?  I don’t know, I’m not an expert.  I’ll save that for another discussion.)

But in the U.S.?

So above, how many incidents occurred on domestic U.S. flights?  1.

Amended list:

  • In 2012, a JetBlue pilot was forcibly removed from the cockpit and restrained after having a breakdown on a flight from New York to Las Vegas.

 So lets look at the numbers…

Lots of Flights
Yes, that's millions of flights in 10 years






No, that's not millions, it's 1's. Actually it's 1.





So should there be concern that pilots have mental problems?  Sure.  Should we be up in arms about it or afraid?  No way. Unless you spend your days afraid of being hit on the head by an asteroid.  The chance of being on a flight where the pilot has a mental breakdown:







 Yes, I Rounded Up In the Title.

OK, so I’m guilty of exaggeration.  I rounded up to 0.0000011%, you caught me.


One incident out of 93 million flights does not a crisis make.  And zero documented fatalities in the U.S. from a ‘breakdown’ reduces the risk to basically zero (in the U.S.)  So my conclusion?  Move along folks, nothing to see here.



Nuts Photo: Image: dan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Visualizations: flyopia.com