Conversations renew about mental health in aviation after recent suicide by pilot attempt

On Wednesday, Alaska Airlines pilot Joseph Emerson's lawyer waived a bail hearing for now, on his 84 state of Oregon felony counts for trying to destroy an airliner he was flying in. On Thursday, Emerson will be arraigned in federal court on parallel charges.

Prosecutors want Emerson out-and-out punished; Federal Aviation Administration investigators want to know how to prevent it. Professionals define Emerson's actions as "suicide by pilot" a very rare event confirmed or suspected in a handful of airline crashes over the last eight decades.

Proving pilot suicide can be very difficult unless there is evidence of suicide notes, previous threatened or actual suicide attempts, or a documented history of mental illness. 

"It's a high-performance, high-pressure job," said Pilot Capt. Reyne O'Shaughnessy.

O'Shaughnessy was a commercial pilot for more than three decades and is the author of "This is Your Captain Speaking: What You Should Know About Your Pilot's Mental Health."

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Off-duty Alaska Airlines pilot facing attempted murder charges rode in plane's jump seat

"The system is set up to catch those pilots who might need help," said O'Shaughnessy.

Every six months, a commercial pilot must get a first-class medical and mental examination by an aviation-certified doctor. 

"But, mental help is very tricky. It's almost like invisible arrows stuck in you.  So it is very difficult to detect," she said.

The FAA says it encourages pilots to seek help if they have a mental health condition since most, if treated, do not disqualify a pilot from flying. 

"But, here's the catch. Who will want to self-report and endanger their livelihood? Not very many people," said O'Shaughnessy.

Essentially, self-reporting can be a career-ender. 

"It takes six years, in some cases, to get your medical back; that piece of paper that you need to operate a transport airplane," she said. 

She also says for pilots, having "the right stuff" to command an aircraft is a big part of their personal identities and psyches. 

"Pilots are very mission-oriented but yet, they are very bad at self-assessing, especially when it comes to anything that has to do with their flying skills and their identity, on and off the airplane," she continued.