Getting Back Into The Saddle Following An Accident

by Gus Hawkins
Published in Midwest Flyer – June/July 2017 issue

The days and weeks after an aircraft accident can be very stressful. Following my accident on May 2, 2009, involving of my experimental amphibious seaplane, I lost my medical, as well as much of my interest in flying. After a year, I had my medical back, but the self-doubts and sense of guilt lingered, even after I took my FAA checkride and passed an instrument proficiency check.

Many articles have been written about dealing with the aftermath of an aircraft accident. Some focus on how to deal with the owner’s insurance company. Some about regaining or demonstrating appropriate flying proficiencies, and others have focused on advice on how to deal with the FAA and other governmental agencies. However, few articles cover how the person should deal with the pilot in the mirror. How do we deal with our feelings? Our fears? Our doubts? Where do we turn for support?

After my accident, I found that there was no emotional or psychological support readily available to me as a general aviation pilot. Two different physicians advised me to keep my concerns about my stress level to myself, because the FAA might pull my medical if they thought that I was depressed. So, should we hide our feelings, just because we want to fly another day? Doing so would not be helpful to the pilot in either the short or long term.

While working to return to flying, I found that most people did not understand how seriously an accident could affect a pilot. Well-meaning folks would say, “it was just an accident,” but of course we pilots know differently. Accidents do not “just happen,” and are often the result of pilot error. We pilots take our responsibilities very seriously, and work very hard to prevent accident risks. We don’t want to bend the metal or tear the fabric, and definitely don’t want to get injured or injure others.

Even our fellow pilots may be at a loss as to how to help us. They can identify with the joy and self-satisfaction of flying, but do they know how to deal with someone who has had the unspeakable happen? Not very often.

I tried to find online resources without success. It doesn’t appear that the FAA offers any resources on this topic. I have talked to Aviation Medical Examiners (AMEs) at both EAA AirVenture Oshkosh and Sun‘n Fun. Neither were aware of any FAA resources. An email inquiry to the FAA’s staff psychologist also did not identify any available helpful information.

Airline pilots have had a program called the “Critical Incident Response Program” (CIRP) since 1994, and now, due to its success, it extends to the rest of the pilot world. It is one of the first resources offered to airline pilots after an incident. However, it has not been applied to General Aviation (GA) pilots.

The most prevalent label applied to what a pilot involved in an accident might go through is Post Traumatic Stress (PTS). Please note that there is no “D” at the end. Most authors and experts discussing this topic refer to this as a disorder. But as one author with a Master’s Degree in Social Work wrote, “PTS is a perfectly natural response to an insane set of circumstances.” He wanted to remove the stigma that the word “disorder” might imply. The concern was that people might avoid seeking help if they feared being labeled as having a disorder. Without a doubt, PTS can be an adverse factor in coping with the emotional and psychological aftermath of being involved in an aircraft accident.

This article is not intended to provide specific counseling or clinical diagnosis for several reasons. First, there are so many variables involved in coping with an accident, that there is not one solution that will apply to everybody. Second, I am not a medically trained professional.

I have studied Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) and felt that its concepts were applicable to pilots who have experienced an airplane accident.

Wikipedia provides a definition for CISM: “Critical incident stress management (CISM) is an adaptive, short-term psychological helping-process that focuses solely on an immediate and identifiable problem. It can include pre-incident preparedness to acute crisis management to post-crisis follow-up. Its purpose is to enable people to return to their daily routine more quickly and with less likelihood of experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).”

Some authors feel that CISM is more applicable to emergency responders than to primary victims of a critical incident. Even if that is accurate, many of the principles contained within the study of CISM can be applicable to helping a pilot.

One of the most important of these is the concept that people relate to a critical incident better within a peer group. As pilots, we all have peers within the aviation community. However, is this the same group we would relate to after an accident? Perhaps not. I found that my flying friends were great in dealing with me as friends, but they did not quite understand the sense of guilt, fear and self-doubt that can result from a serious crash. I felt that the potential benefits of CISM are so important that I became certified in CISM.

At EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2015, I met another pilot who had experienced a crash that resulted in serious injuries to both himself and his wife. His road to recovery took a long time, so he wrote a book describing his accident experience and his road back to flying.

I realized then, that in spite of the lack of resources dealing with this issue, I had found one pilot who clearly understood what it took to get back into the cockpit. Surely, there must be many others who have had similar experiences.

These impressions and beliefs led to the idea of creating a general aviation support group for aircraft accident survivors called “Back To The Cockpit” (BTTC). We are pilots supporting pilots.

We have developed resources for general aviators and offer guidance on reducing the impact of an accident and related stress reactions, helping pilots return to the cockpit. We are constantly looking for additional information, which could help a pilot who has experienced an accident or serious incident.

Back To The Cockpit was formed to be an open-access support group. Our website, www.BackToTheCockpit.org, provides an ever-increasing list of resources that may be useful to an individual pilot seeking to return to flying after an accident.

I hope that you will find the resources useful.  Please do not hesitate to contact us with questions, comments, or suggestions. Remember, you are not alone.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Gus Hawkins is an attorney in the Milwaukee, Wisconsin area. See Back To The Cockpit on Facebook at: facebook.com/groups/BackToTheCockpit. Gus Hawkins is the founder of the organization. Email BackToTheCockpit@gmail.com, or call 219-201-4150.

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