APA Aeromedical: Focus on Pilot Mental Fitness

This update highlights the work of our Critical Incident Response Program, Sudden Grief Response Program, and Project Wingman. For information on APA Aeromedical’s other areas of focus, see last week’s update, “APA Aeromedical: A Force-Multiplier.

As American Airlines pilots, we do checklists every day. But one thing that often gets overlooked is one of the biggest: How’s my mental fitness? The APA Aeromedical Committee has subcommittees dedicated to providing pilots with the peer support and mental health resources you need.

The Critical Incident Response Program (CIRP) supports pilots post-incident. We all know that with flying, there is always a chance that we’ll have an emergency. We’ve all trained relentlessly for a range of scenarios, and so as the adrenaline spikes, our training takes over. But what happens after the plane is on the ground, the passengers and crew are taken care of, and the paperwork has been filed? “The Critical Incident Response Program deals with events that happen at work,” FO Jim Woodke, Deputy Chair-CIRP said, emphasizing that CIRP is designed “to help mitigate any reactions people are having to a critical incident’s stress. We want to mitigate those stress responses, so they don’t become a problem over time with your job, your career, your health, your family, and so on.

“We’ll call you three, maybe four times after an incident at work. We let people tell their stories in a safe way,” he said. “It’s all peer support, but talking through an incident with a peer can help move a pilot from an emotional state to a cognitive state. We just listen and let the pilots talk in a controlled, safe, confidential way. With an emergency, we’re proactive in approaching the pilots because we don’t know if, to them, the emergency was a big deal or not. But if it was a big deal to a pilot, they should know that it’s not that they’re broken, and it’s not a weakness by having a reaction. It’s a normal pilot having a normal reaction to an abnormal situation. And we always follow up. You could have delayed stress reactions. It doesn’t always hit right away.”

While CIRP covers the stress that pilots can incur from the job, Project Wingman steps up to help pilots deal with the stress that comes from home. “Wingman is, by design, a safety program. It’s a joint program between American and APA. The daily operation is fellow pilots helping fellow pilots,” said CA Pete Gillespie, Deputy Chair-Project Wingman. “We have 50-plus volunteers. They possess a unique skillset – not just in terms of life experience, but empathy skills that help pilots cope. We’re there to partner with a pilot through the good and the bad.

“Everyone takes care of their physical fitness, but mental fitness is often overlooked,” CA Gillespie said. “With post-pandemic schedules built around more time away from home and longer trip length, and with our limited schedule flexibility and certainty, our pilots’ work-life balance is under stress. We’re good at compartmentalizing to fly a plane with focus and precision, but the fact is, mental health matters.

“We’re here to support pilots, their spouses, children, everyone. We have two pilots manning the hotline 24/7, 365 days a year. We’ll always pick up the phone, no matter what. There’s no boundary to our support. That number, anytime, anywhere, there’s a pilot there. You call the hotline, you’ll speak to a pilot, and Wingman rolls up their sleeves and goes to work. The pilot life can be a lonely one, but we’re there to provide support.”

Aeromedical Committee Chair FO Rondeau Flynn said, “Project Wingman is the gold standard within the aviation industry when it comes to peer support and helping a pilot’s family.” And although Project Wingman is there to support our pilots through the good, the bad, and the downright awful, very few of us can imagine a day worse than the day you lose a loved one. But APA has help for that as well.

“The Sudden Grief Response Program is there to deal with sudden death. We act as the support structure should a pilot not have one,” said FO Vern Reaser, Deputy Chair-Sudden Grief Response Program. “Even if a pilot does have a support structure, we’re there to help. From initial notification of a family death, through the funeral and even after, we’re there.”

For those who need help, there’s a phone number: 1-848-APA-CREW. By calling that number, the Aeromedical services are all in one menu. Project Wingman is option one, but if it’s been a challenging day at work with a critical incident, or you’ve just lost a loved one, the options for Critical Incident Response and Sudden Grief Response are also in that phone menu. A pilot will be there to take your call. And it’s all confidential.

“Ultimately, when people are experiencing an extremely challenging event, we want them to know that APA is there to help them,” FO Flynn said.

For more information, we recommend reading these notes from Taryn Pemberton, a licensed professional counselor in private practice who has experience working with pilots.