New Zealand pilots have been permanently grounded after
testing revealed concerns about their medical fitness to fly,
with some suspended because of depression, the aviation
regulator has confirmed.
Commercial pilots are subject to rigorous psychological tests
designed to weed out unstable individuals who pose a
potential risk to passenger safety.
The Civil Aviation Authority said some pilots' licences had
been suspended because of medical fitness - which can include
psychological health concerns - though such cases were rare.
The monitoring process has numerous checks and balances, but
an industry expert warns the system is not foolproof.
"Pilots like anyone else have problems in their life and that
can affect their performance," New Zealand Airline Pilots
Association technical officer Dave Reynolds said.
"People do go off the rails."
Authorities investigating the disappearance of Malaysia
Airlines Flight 370 are probing the psychological backgrounds
of pilots and crew.
A fellow pilot told the New Zealand Herald Captain Zaharie
Ahmad Shah was in no state to fly the day the flight
disappeared and could have taken the Boeing 777 for a "last
joyride" after separating from his wife.
Mr Reynolds said Kiwi pilots operating commercial aircraft
are regularly assessed for physical and mental health under a
three-tier monitoring regime involving the Civil Aviation
Authority, airlines and peer support.
Pilots are assessed at least once a year by specialist
aviation doctors and also undergo psychometric tests to
assess psychological fitness.
The doctors are legally bound to "flag up" any concerns to
the regulator and airline employer, and a pilot's licence can
be immediately revoked.
Pilots are also monitored in the cockpit by flight inspectors
and undergo high-stress exercise scenarios every six months
in flight simulators to test their ability - for instance
trying to safely land a badly disabled jet.
"All commercial aircraft pilots will go through some form of
psychological, psychometric testing. Internationally there
are standards that are required to be met."
Asked if the system was rigorous enough to prevent a mentally
unstable pilot taking control of an aircraft, Mr Reynolds
said: "You can never be 100 per cent sure because ... one
person can be perfectly fine one day and then go totally off
the rails the next.
"A guy may go home and his wife says, 'I've been seeing the
"[But] outside that, yes, there are checks and balances in
place to make sure, as reasonably as possible, that a pilot
doesn't get into an aircraft who is psychologically unfit to
Mr Reynolds did not believe Flight 370's disappearance was
Air New Zealand declined to provide details of the airline's
regime for monitoring pilots' psychological fitness,
referring queries to CAA.
Anyone applying for a commercial pilot's licence is subject
to a "fit and proper person" assessment by CAA.
It has powers to perform "total background" checks on pilots'
criminal histories and physical or mental health problems.
Authority spokesman Mike Richards said this process had
resulted in "adverse decisions", with some pilots' licences
suspended or revoked, meaning they could no longer fly
commercial aircraft. However, they could reapply at a later
"But if we're not satisfied we can literally suspend
someone's aviation documents almost on the spot and they just
can't get on a flight deck.
"It does happen. The Director [of Civil Aviation] has far
ranging administrative powers. We can pretty much prevent the
wrong types of behaviour if we get any hint of it."
CAA manager personnel and flight training, John McKinlay,
knew of pilots having their licences suspended because of
"It is a risk and the risk has to be mitigated."
Background checks gave a person's history "which can be a
reliable predictor of future behaviour."
"Our medical folk have got the ability to gain information
from various sources if there is an issue that's going to
affect flight safety."
- By Lane Nichols of APNZ