Aviation Followups: Prozac Pilots, Russian Airplanes

By James Fallows

I mentioned last week the (realistic and overdue) FAA ruling that people who take some kinds of prescription anti-depressants would no longer face an absolute, no-exceptions ban on serving as pilots, including as private pilots. (Technically, prescriptions for these drugs disqualify applicants from getting either a 1st, 2nd, or 3rd class FAA medical certificate, which in effect means they can't fly. You need both a pilot's certificate and a current, valid medical certificate to act as a pilot legally.) Instead they will be able to apply for case-by-case consideration, which would require detailed assessments by their doctors, at least 12 months of demonstrated freedom from side effects, and so on. More from Aviation Week here.

Yesterday I heard from a reader about the way the changed policy will affect him. He calls himself Prozac Pilot and is chronicling his experience at his site of that name. He also says that he has been interviewed on camera by CNN, and that when the segment runs it will reveal his identity and discuss his medical and flying background. He writes:

I read the article you did regarding pilots with depression and the recent policy changes of the FAA. I grounded myself two years ago when I went on antidepressants. During the last few months I have been posting a blog, www.prozacpilot.com.

When the FAA released its news CNN found my blog. I am "coming out of the hangar" on CNN this Friday. Hopefully, I will be able to let others in my position know they are not alone. I am looking for other media outlets to help reaching those who need treatment. I would like to let them know there is hope. 

Next, the aviation tragedy in Poland last week and the reflexive guessing in much of the media that "aging Russian aircraft" must somehow have been to blame. Below and after the jump, comments from a reader with a lot of experience with and in these planes. (Previously here and here.) The reader writes:

I also am sick of hearing negative comments about Russian planes!

I am an engineer with a great deal of experience with American and Russian aircraft.  I have worked 15 years in Russia and have flown many times with Tupelov 154 and 156, Ilushin 86 and  others.  I have found them to be sturdy and reliable aircraft.  In early days, as the only western passenger, I was invited into the cockpit several times and was impressed with the English communications capabilities of both the Russian ground controllers and the Russian pilots.
It is also a fact that the age of a plane is not counted in years but in the number of times that it has taken off and landed.  In addition, this plane had been recently completely refurbished.  I am tired of hearing about old Russian rust-buckets!  Aeroflot, thanks to wise investment of currency outside Russia, has been flying Boeing 737s for at least 20 years!

Previously I flew frequently with the Russian military and found them excellent in their flying capabilities, although former Mig pilots have a tendency to fly straight up and straight down.  Their maintenance was impressive and their engineers have retained the capability of making a part locally if it is not readily available.  I have used this creative capability in many of my Russian projects.

Finally, I have to agree that if the Russian controllers believed that it was too dangerous to land in the fog, THEN IT WAS TOO DANGEROUS TO LAND.  If the Polish politicos pressured the pilots, they have only themselves to blame!  If the pilots chose to take the risk, they made a decision that was impossibly foolish!  In a previous year flying with Air France's commuter from Paris to Le Havre, we arrived over Le Havre to find the airport totally invisible in fog.  I was sitting behind the pilots, watched them get out the manual and heard their discussion of the risk of landing or returning to Rennes.  Thankfully, we returned to Rennes and were met by a bus for Le Havre.  This decision impacted greatly our schedule of meetings at Le Havre, but at least we landed alive!

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2010/04/aviation-followups-prozac-pilots-russian-airplanes/38974/