Aviation Expert: Psych Evals Won't Stop Pilots Crashing Planes

Dr. Erin Bowen, an aviation psychology expert, appeared Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press to discuss the recent downing of the Germanwings flight and said a psychological evaluation would not have stopped the co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz, from crashing the plane.

Appearing with Bowen was NBC News aviation correspondent Tom Costello, who discussed the yearly physical pilots go through, but he said there is no regular psychological workup, only what is done before and during the hiring process.

As Bowen explained, this amounts to a primary care physician, not a trained psychiatrist or psychological expert, asking the pilot about their sleep patterns, any substance abuse, alcohol intake, personal life, and stress factors.

Host Chuck Todd wondered if this needs to change. Bowen answered firmly, "No." She explained:

Psychological assessments are not these magic diagnostic tools that would tell us that this is an individual with depression who is imminently going to crash a plane full of innocent passengers. They're just not that sophisticated.

Todd turned to Costello and recalled a time when pilots with any mental health condition weren't allowed to fly. But now that has changed, as Costello explained:

In 2010, the FAA changed the rules, essentially acknowledging that people are living with depression and certain mental health issues every single day and they do so very well in this country. They take meds, they get therapy. So in 2010, the FAA came out and said, listen, if you self-disclose, if you come to us and say, 'I'm dealing with some personal issues, I'm dealing with mental health and depression,' and what have you, 'I would like to seek help,' the FAA says OK, fine, that's all right. We'll take you out of the cockpit for a year. If you get that help you can then come back and be in the cockpit and even be on some antidepressants, for example, including Zoloft, then that's all right. If you function well -- if you're cleared by a doctor.

Costello said it must be done by self-report, otherwise, if any anti-depressant drugs show up in the yearly physical, the pilot would face suspension or fine.

Both aviation experts agreed that Lubitz would have never qualified to fly for an airline in the United States. The qualification in the U.S. to become a co-pilot is over 1,000 flight hours. Lubitz, hired for Germanwings via Lufthansa, clocked no more than 630 flight hours.