Superbowl Sunday was anything but super. Not only was the game a huge disappointment to anyone who enjoys competitive sports, but earlier in the day news broke that Philip Seymour Hoffman had been found dead in his Greenwich Village apartment.
Aviation shares something in common with sports and show business, whether we choose to believe it or not. Pilots, aircraft mechanics, air traffic controllers, even baggage handlers and line service workers are considered by their friends and neighbors to be different. The jobs we do are considered to be slightly cooler and more desirable.
After all, we deal in the sexy, glittery world of aviation. It is our mission in life to put hands on a machine that will launch into the sky, travel at considerably speed, and then land someplace far away, maybe even someplace exotic.
As a result, we’re held to a higher standard. We need to be above reproach, especially in this modern age when aviation is a factor in our quest for national security. We are envied and we are feared, because we do something oh so fascinating, and because our industry can kill not just participants, but innocent bystanders as well.
All this boils down to a profession and a lifestyle that includes an implied pressure to perform. Like a football player, or an actor, we aviation types are critiqued, studied, considered, evaluated, and judged on a regular basis.
Make a mistake and you’ll hear about it. Make a big enough mistake and you’ll see it in the newspaper and on the television. Heaven forbid you run off the end of the runway, land at the wrong airport, have an in-flight emergency, or put the aircraft down someplace other than an airport. Suddenly you’re an unwilling media target.
It’s at that moment an individual finds out just how bright the spotlight of public opinion can be, and how badly it can burn.
Most of us handle this perceived pressure well. Some of us don’t even recognize the challenges faced by aeronautical participants as pressure at all. But it’s there, and some of us feel the burden more than others. Some of us fret, and fuss, and worry, and stress over the day-to-day machinations of our pursuits.
But we don’t talk about those concerns publicly, because to admit to being worried is tantamount to admitting weakness. And there’s little in life humans work harder to cover up than a weakness. So we pretend everything is fine, even when it isn’t. A small number of us continue to pretend all is well even as our lives spin out of control, headed in a direction that is undeniably detrimental to us and potentially to others as well.
With luck, we find help. If not there is at least a chance we’ll be found out and lose our medical, or get fired, or be stopped from doing what we do by some other means. Some of us will continue with what we’re doing unchecked, however.
The darkness will continue to cloud our vision, adversely affecting our decision making. Because we aviation types are like football players who’ve just lost the big game, or actors who are struggling with self-doubt on a scale that would terrify most people, we aren’t about to admit we’re having trouble. Certainly not. To stand up tall and say out loud, “I’m having a difficult time emotionally. I need some help,” is perceived as being absolutely unacceptable in aviation. We’re tougher than that.
We’re wrong. And if we don’t change our ways, we may find that instead of toughening up and making the skies safer, we’ve merely established a system that breaks the individual and introduces an unnecessary risk to the system — all to avoid the embarrassment of admitting the obvious. We are human and sometimes we need a break. We need help.
Mental health is as critical to aviation hobbyists and professionals as it is to any other profession. Yet we may spend more time denying our susceptibility to the very human reactions to stress than any other profession or hobby.
We do this even with the knowledge that our peers self-medicate just like anyone else might under certain circumstances. We are not fundamentally different from our friends and neighbors. We can contract the virus that’s going around just as easily as they can. And we can suffer from mental stresses and illnesses just as easily, too.
Until we begin to address this reality, our industry will continue to be imperiled by our hubris. It is time for us to accept our humanity, our frailty, and allow the participants in this industry the freedom to address mental issues with the same open means we use to deal with physical maladies.
The Denver Broncos tanked in the big game on Sunday. Each member of that team is taking a beating this week from sportswriters and fans. They’re also beating themselves up for the performance they turned in.
Much as Philip Seymour Hoffman may have been beating himself up for his perceived failings.
And yes, right there is a pilot and a mechanic and an ATC professional who is struggling. Let’s give them the support they need to stop and get some help without risking their employment or their dignity.