This story is part of AIN's continuing coverage of the impact of the coronavirus on aviation.
Just as it had in virtually every other aspect of life, the Covid pandemic caused many changes and alterations in the aeromedical realm, according to Dr. Susan Northrup, the FAA's federal air surgeon. Speaking this week during the virtual Flight Safety Foundation/NBAA Business Aviation Safety Summit, she noted how the agency reacted to the initial spread of the virus and had to adapt after the first cluster of infections was reported in mid-March 2020 among air traffic controllers working the tower at Chicago Midway Airport.
As experts scrambled for solutions on how to protect the health of controllers, the situation was helped by a dramatic, almost immediate downturn in traffic, which allowed time to develop engineering and administrative procedures. The office of aerospace medicine worked closely with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to develop solutions to help minimize the spread of the disease, including shifting to a fixed crew schedule among controllers, limiting exposure, and easing contract tracing, which enabled it to keep towers operational.
During the worst period of the pandemic, the agency sought to protect healthy members of the aviation community, which meant deferrals on mandatory physical exams for pilots and ATC staff.
When the vaccines became available late last year, they were given only emergency-use authorization by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the FAA reacted swiftly, amending its policy of not allowing pilots to receive any vaccine that hadn’t been FDA approved for at least a year. Instead, a 48-hour no-fly period after vaccination was prescribed, with the knowledge that most of the vaccine side effects would manifest within that time frame.
In evaluating those pilots who had Covid for their physicals, aviation medical examiners can authorize certification with a note from their personal physician denoting complete recovery, unless they required intensive care hospitalization, in which case more documentation is required based on the severity of their symptoms. Long-haul Covid sufferers may require other evaluations such as pulmonary function tests or EKGs before certification.
In addition to physical effects, the pandemic-related stress has also spurred hundreds of thousands of mental health issues across the U.S., issues that can make their way in the flight deck. “Many pilots are frightened that this is the ‘death knell’ [for their careers],” said Northrup, who urged that anyone suspecting any mental problems seek the proper care that they need as soon as possible.
“I’ve heard that hundreds of times, but somebody that has recovered and has the right support network in place and the right tools that they may have been taught…is far safer in the air than somebody that is not addressing what is going on,” she said. Citing the recent advanced in mental illness treatments over the past two decades, Northrup added, “there’s no reason to suspect, unless there are really bad things going on, that we can’t ultimately get someone with depression or anxiety back into the air."
Likewise, the Covid crisis may have exacerbated substance abuse issues, with more than 10 percent of the U.S. population having some sort of problem. And as a subset of that general population, pilots are by no means exempt.
Northrup noted the “incredible success rate” of the HIMS Program (Human Intervention Motivation Study) that took hold in the early 1980s. “Prior to that, a pilot with a diagnosis of a substance abuse or addition was done,” noted Northrup. “They didn’t go back to flying.”
The intensive programs attempt to give pilots the tools they need to remain clean and sober and return to the cockpit including treatment, aftercare, and getting sponsors. Currently, there are approximately 3,000 individuals in the monitoring program, with 12,000 pilots who have been successfully treated and returned to flying under supervision. Primarily developed to treat commercial pilots, Northrup noted the programs have recently expanded to include general aviation as well.
Looking ahead, Northup said that one of her goals as federal air surgeon is to improve the ability of pilots to track the status of their physicals through the system, saying that if the technology exists to track the status of pizza deliveries, the FAA should be able to do this. As well, the FAA aeromedical office is also working to allow the direct upload of documentation rather than rely on physical shipment of paperwork.