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CIRP, First Aid for the Psyche

Air Line Pilot, April 2001, p.10 By Jan W. Steenblik, Technical Editor

On April 28, 1988, Aloha Airlines Flight 243, then one of the most used early-model Boeing 737s, suffered explosive decompression upon climbing to FL240. The aircraft lost a 20-foot section of its upper forward fuselage. A senior flight attendant was swept to her death, and all 89 passengers were injured. By a miraculous combination of skill and luck, Capt. Robert Schornstheimer and First Officer (now Capt.) Madeline "Mimi" Tompkins managed to land the severely crippled airplane (see "All I Could See Was Blue Sky," July 1988).

The near loss of Aloha 243, plus subsequent discoveries and revelations about the geriatric problems of aging airliners, heightened concerns about these issues internationally and led the FAA and the airline industry to develop a comprehensive program to deal with aging aircraft structures.

Similarly, the loss of TWA Flight 800 and all 230 passengers and crew members on July 17, 1996, off the coast of Long Island, N.Y., triggered an international reexamination of safety issues concerning the nonstructural systems, such as electrical wiring, of aging airliners.

Both aircraft were torn apart by pressures and stresses they were not built to withstand—in Aloha 243, normal cabin pressurization pushing against a spreading series of small fuselage cracks; in TWA 800, an explosion in the center wing fuel tank.

So much for the hardware. But what about the people—those who were intimately involved with the accidents and their aftermath? To what pressures beyond their design limits were they subjected?

As it turned out, both Aloha 243 and TWA 800 have played important roles in the creation and maturation, respectively, of one of ALPA’s newest efforts of pilots helping pilots—the Association’s Critical Incident Response Program (CIRP).

Roots of CIRP

Shortly after the Aloha 243 accident, F/O Tompkins said she learned from the 13-minute ordeal that "when we combine good training and crew coordination, we can handle any crisis thrown our way."

Her post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), rooted in the tragedy of Aloha 243, had not yet blossomed to cast its shadow on her soul.

At first, Capt. Schornstheimer and F/O Tompkins felt that their biggest problem after the accident was dealing with the ceaseless hounding of television crews and reporters, some of whom camped in front of Capt. Schornstheimer’s house. F/O Tompkins upgraded to captain, but flew as a copilot for a few more months while Aloha replaced other aging B-737s. As a new captain, she bid freighter trips for a while to escape from reporters who’d obtained her flight schedule and booked themselves on her flights to try to get an interview with her.

As the months passed, however, she suffered flashbacks, sometimes several per day; chronic fatigue from seldom sleeping more than 4 hours at a time; and other symptoms. While Capt. Schornstheimer had a family in Hawaii to provide vital emotional support, F/O Tompkins did not.

"I’m the kind of person who doesn’t like to admit something’s bothering me," she confesses. "I was sick a lot, and I missed a lot of work."

A year and a half after the accident, Capt. Tompkins contacted ALPA’s Aeromedical Advisor, Dr. Donald Hudson, a former U.S. Air Force flight surgeon and Southeast Asia veteran who is board-certified in both aerospace medicine and psychiatry. He played a key role in helping Capt. Tompkins recover from what had become a classic case of PTSD.

Profile of PTSD

After an incident, accident, or investigation, crew members may experience stress reactions. The individual’s perception of an event is the cause of the stress. Every person reacts differently, but the reactions may be categorized in four general areas: physical, emotional, cognitive, or behavioral. Sleep problems are the most common complaints of pilots calling the ALPA Aeromedical Office.

Dr. Hudson says the Office has seen 95 cases—all delayed-onset—since 1990. The referral sources for these cases have included the ALPA Legal Department, Human Performance Committee (Pilot Assistance, Professional Standards, Aeromedical, and CIRP Committees) members, chief pilots, training committees, and friends and family members.

Dr. Hudson notes that, without treatment, "82 percent of pilots with PTSD leave the airline industry, usually within three to four years, with collateral damage to friends, family, and others around them."

Half of the pilots with PTSD have been women, typically with gender violence in their past. The men in the group have been older pilots (median age 53), usually having more severe symptoms because they were diagnosed later; six committed suicide. The males also tended to have had combat experience in Southeast Asia and suffered from reactivation of a previous trauma. Dr. Hudson and his colleagues have also observed, after a major accident, a "daisy chain" effect of stress reactions on other pilots flying the same type of airplane and/or working for the same airline.

The "view from Denver," says Dr. Hudson, is that "early intervention is the key." Consistent followup of the pilot’s case is vitally necessary and must include attending to the pilot’s physical symptoms.

The ALPA Aeromedical Office’s evaluation protocol for PTSD includes an interview at the Office’s facility in Aurora, Colo., with the pilot’s spouse or "significant other" participating; a general physical exam; a neurological exam; and an exam by other specialists if appropriate.

Regarding PTSD, Dr. Garrett O’Connor, a California psychiatrist who has worked with pilots for more than 20 years, advises that if an acute stress reaction lasts longer than 1 month, the patient is suffering from PTSD. Dr. O’Connor characterizes PTSD as a situation in which "the severity of the trauma exceeds human design capacity." Continuing the analogy, he explains, "If you enter a thunderstorm cell, the first thing you’re supposed to do is slow to maneuvering speed so the airplane will stall before it can suffer structural failure. A critical incident stress debriefing is the psychological equivalent of slowing to maneuvering speed."

ALPA’s CIRP history

Capt. Tompkins, now ALPA’s International CIRP chairperson, first described her ordeal publicly at the 1991 ALPA Air Safety Forum, and again at a human factors workshop. Some members of ALPA’s pilot volunteer air safety structure decided they needed to do something to help other ALPA members in similar situations.

ALPA’s Human Performance (now Human Factors) Committee created a project team of Capts. Tompkins, Alan Campbell (Delta, now retired), and Robert Sumwalt (US Airways), with Dr. Hudson and ALPA attorney Jim Johnson serving as advisors. "We didn’t even know the term ‘critical incident response’ yet," Capt. Tompkins recalls.

The trio learned of Dr. Jeffrey Mitchell, Ph.D., founder of the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation (ICISF) and inventor of a process for critical incident response that was being used successfully with firefighters, paramedics, and others who dealt with trauma regularly.

The team also discovered that the Canadian Air Line Pilots Association had been addressing critical incidents involving their members through CALPA’s Pilot Assistance Committees for several years. In fact, AirBC was the first airline in North America to implement a CIRP.

The ALPA team drew up a proposal for a CIRP, and the Association’s Executive Board approved it in May 1994.

ALPA held its first CIRP training course in September 1994. Less than a month later, the pilots of Simmons Airlines (now American Eagle) who had taken the training became the first ALPA team to put it to use. Simmons Flight 4184, an ATR 72, crashed in a soybean field near Roselawn, Ind., killing all 68 people aboard.

Capt. Rick Bicknell, now a Northwest first officer and an ALPA Basic Safety School CIRP instructor, worked with the Simmons crewmembers’ families. He was helped by Carolyn Burns, a mental health professional and ICISF critical incident stress debriefing (CISD) trainer who at the time worked with the Northern Illinois CISD Team. Burns consulted with Capt. Bicknell and interacted with the accident investigators who might be affected by this terrible accident.

By the end of December 1994, Alaska, Delta, Northwest, and TWA began to implement CIRPs for their employees. Since 1994, ALPA has trained and had certified by the ICISF in the CISD model more than 250 pilot CIRP volunteers and more than 20 spouse/significant others.

These volunteers were put to the test in the TWA Flight 800 accident. This tragedy was a landmark event for several reasons, not the least being that it helped cement the ALPA CIRP volunteers into a truly national (now, with Canadian pilot participation, international) group.

TWA’s Special Health Services Director Johanna O’Flaherty, a former Pan Am employee who helped with the aftermath of the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, knew from experience that she would need outside help.

Volunteers from other airlines were asked to travel to JFK and STL. Trained CIRP pilots from seven different airlines responded within 24 hours to the CIRP Aspen (ALPA’s voice message service) network of Capt. Greg Arikian, TWA ALPA CIRP chairperson.

These volunteers worked for more than a week to provide support to the TWA employees who, despite their own trauma and grief over the loss of so many of their friends and family members, had to continue to function at their jobs.

In September 2000, some 6 years after holding its first basic CIRP course, ALPA held a 3-day advanced course in critical incident stress management (CISM) in Springfield, Mo. Attending were 34 experienced and trained ALPA pilot peers from 15 airlines plus pilots, flight attendants, and other guests from FedEx, American, Horizon, and Carnival Cruise Lines. O’Flaherty was the ICISF-approved aviation-specific course trainer.

How it works

The two most common types of psychological "first aid" or CISM interventions that CIRP volunteers can offer to help mitigate the effect of an incident, accident, or investigation are CISDs and defusings.

A defusing is a shortened version of the CISD that usually takes place immediately, or within 8 hours, after a traumatic event. A defusing may be conducted at any time after an incident or accident, but it is more effective immediately after the event.

Shorter than a formal CISD (about 1 hour compared to 2–3 hours), a defusing is more flexible. For non-fatal accidents, the defusing may be done one-on-one over the telephone due to delays in notifying the CIRP team about the incident or to problems getting crewmembers together once they have returned home. In fact, the great majority of CIRP volunteers’ work is defusings over the telephone.

The purpose of a defusing is to give the crewmember an opportunity to talk about what happened, including the effect of the event on him or her. Stress management education is the main component of this defusing. Also, the CIRP team member will decide if a CISD is necessary.

A debriefing, or CISD, is a group discussion involving a seven-step process in which the participants talk about a traumatic event or series of traumatic events. (It is not psychotherapy.)

Usually held 3 to 7 days after a critical event, a debriefing has several goals—to mitigate the stress effects on those involved in the event, to prevent PTSD in those involved, and to serve as psychological triage to help identify early those who will need the services of a mental health professional (MHP).

For ALPA, a debriefing always involves an MHP trained in this type of debriefing, plus at least one trained peer (for example, pilot or flight attendant) for each employee group represented in the CISD.

The seven steps of a debriefing are introduction, fact, thought, reaction, symptom, teaching about stress management, and re-entry. O’Flaherty, who still works closely with the TWA pilot group, emphasizes that the "facts" in these circumstances are "the facts as they [the debriefing participants] remember them." The "facts" of a CISD are not the technical procedural facts of the event, as in an operational debriefing.

Capt. Dennis Wheeler, FedEx Pilots Association CIRP chairman, says, "We listen not so much to the facts as through the facts to find out what they’re feeling, what they’re trying to work through."

Capt. Steve Pocock, United Airlines ALPA CIRP chairman and ALPA Basic Safety School CIRP instructor, notes, "One of the most important benefits of a debriefing is that it fleshes out the overall picture, expanding it beyond the tunnel vision of [one crewmember’s] own experience."

Capt. Constantine "Connie" Kleissas (US Airways), who served until last year as a member of his pilot group’s CIRP team and now, as a member of ALPA’s Accident Investigation Board, teaches CISM at the ALPA Basic Accident Investigation School, says that ALPA has come a long way in meeting the needs of pilots involved in accidents.

As a surviving crew member of a fatal accident himself, Capt. Kleissas fully appreciates the importance of having CIRP teams trained to respond to the worst-case scenarios.

"My accident," he explains, "occurred before ALPA had formalized its CIRP. I was fortunate enough to have the key elements of a good support system in place—but frankly, that was pure luck. Others might not be so fortunate. Since the time of my accident [1989], ALPA has done an excellent job of formalizing the successful elements needed for CIRP."

Not just for major disasters, CIRP is also for dealing with situations that stop short of causing death or serious injury. A CISD may be appropriate, for example, after running off the end of the runway, an engine fire, or an evacuation. An incident in a foreign country is particularly disturbing for crew members who are arrested and/or interrogated.

Converting skeptics

Pilot acceptance of CIRP may come slowly in some quarters. Capt. Chuck Brown (Air Nova) says that he has been referred to as the chairman of the "Feel-Good Committee." First Officer Jessica Hatfield (US Airways) believes that most pilots see CIRP as "that touchy-feely stuff."

Take it from Capt. Dick Duxbury (Northwest, Ret.), a converted skeptic who has seen the elements of CIRP work across a broad spectrum of situations: Capt. Duxbury, who received the 1995 ALPA Air Safety Award for his many years as an ALPA air safety volunteer (see "Capt. Dick Duxbury, ‘Accident Preventer,’" August 1996), admits that he doubted the value of CIRP—until he participated in the field investigation of a fatal airline accident at a small airline, providing the skills and experience he had acquired as the chief accident investigator for the Northwest pilot group.

"The pilot group was new to ALPA," he recalls. "They didn’t have any accident investigators yet. All the pilots knew each other, which is typical on a small airline. Some of their pilots volunteered to help with the accident investigation. They were there when we were putting the bodies in the body bags. These pilot volunteers were just brutalized by the accident.

"I realized we had to do something for them. I called Doc Hudson and said, ‘You have to come out here and help these guys.’ He came, and he helped them a lot. That was before we had a formal CIRP structure."

Capt. Duxbury has continued to serve in retirement as a trained ALPA CIRP volunteer. Recently, he defused a female copilot involved in an operational incident. "The vast majority of pilots who’ve been in this situation have been men, but she felt she had let down the entire female pilot community," Capt. Duxbury explains. "That was something I’d never have thought of."

Perhaps not, but as a pilot peer, he was able to listen to her story and help her realize that her reaction to the incident rang with the core truth of all such pilot experiences—they are, as Dr. Mitchell has often stressed, "the normal reactions of normal people to abnormal events."

Next month: Veteran ALPA CIRP volunteers share their experiences and lessons learned from the real world of CIRP on the line.


CIRP, First Aid for the Psyche, Part II

Air Line Pilot, May 2001, p.10 By Jan W. Steenblik, Technical Editor

Of the 49 pilot groups that ALPA represents, most already have a Critical Incident Response Program (CIRP) to help pilots recognize and deal with the normal stress reactions associated with being involved in an accident or critical incident. That’s pretty impressive, given that ALPA’s leaders approved the CIRP program only 7 years ago. Each pilot group with a CIRP has tailored critical incident response management to the unique needs and the particular culture of the group’s airline. For one thing, an airline management’s support for CIRP may range from complete to nonexistent.

Capt. Steve Pocock (United), the CIRP chairperson for his pilot group, believes that the extent of an airline management’s support for CIRP is directly related to whether that airline has suffered a serious accident in recent years. Airlines that have experienced tragedy, says Capt. Pocock, have learned the importance and necessity of CIRP.

Alaska Airlines

Capt. Mike Rinehart (Alaska) flies for one of those airlines. He has been a CIRP volunteer since 1994, when ALPA launched its CIRP. His experience typifies that of ALPA’s seasoned CIRP volunteers who saw the need even before the Association developed a formal CIRP.

"I’m a CRM [cockpit resource management] facilitator at Alaska Airlines," Capt. Rinehart explains. "I became involved in CIRP as a developer of a syllabus for classroom recurrent training.

"We had an inflight situation that turned out to be a critical incident for the crew; that led to analysis of the incident from the CIRP standpoint—i.e., its effects on the crew—in ground school."

That event was a B-737 crew’s narrow escape from disaster. During a night departure to the east from Juneau, a strong rotor behind a nearby mountain rolled them up on a wingtip with the stickshaker rattling. The pilots recovered at 250 feet above the airport and earned the ALPA Superior Airmanship Award (see "Air Safety Awards," October 1994).

"In recurrent training, it became obvious that the pilots really wanted and needed to tell their story," Capt. Rinehart recalls. "All of a sudden, it became evident that they came perilously close to a disaster.

"We developed a training video for flight crews and flight attendants. So it was kind of backwards—first we gave the line crews pre-incident education about CIRP and its role, then we trained the first cadre of peer support volunteers, then we formed the Alaska Employees Critical Incident Response Program.

"Pilots tend to be their own worst critics. The root of quite a few of the [defusing events] has been lack of communication among the crew members after the event. But in a lot of cases, with the pre-event education, the crews discuss it among themselves—for example, after a turbulence encounter, the pilots will say, ‘I thought that was a pretty rough ride.’

"What really legitimized our program at Alaska [Airlines]," Capt. Rinehart explains, "is this ‘pre-incident education.’ Very few airlines have provided awareness training to the line crews. Whether a carrier chooses to invest in its programs in this way is up to that carrier. We just feel that it turned out to be a large step for our program at Alaska.

"Now," he says, "we have about 30 pilots in the program, plus about six spouses trained." Alaska Airlines also offers training in critical incident stress management twice a year to airline employees.

The Alaska Airlines team was put to the test in the aftermath of the Jan. 31, 2000, fatal crash of Alaska Flight 261 off Point Mugu, Calif.

"The greatest testimony to the value of CIRP was the fact that our accident investigators accepted us from day one," Capt. Rinehart asserts. "The aftermath of [Flight 261] was like a continuous defusing. At every group meeting, every dinner, after every press conference, we had CIRP personnel available.

"Our accident investigators kept no secrets from the CIRP volunteers; we were recognized as an integral part of the team from the beginning. We didn’t have to legitimize our presence. The accident investigators understood our role from the beginning."

Capt. Bill Wolf, the Alaska pilots’ chief accident investigator, adds, "Four of us on the accident investigation team are trained in CIRP. We think it’s very important to have our accident investigators trained in CIRP so that we can take care of each other."

Capt. Rinehart continues, "The tremendous amount of support we received from other airline employee groups and from ALPA pilot groups—TWA, Delta, US Airways, America West, Hawaiian, Aloha, AirBC, United—astounded me. In some ways, their support was even more powerful because they weren’t from Alaska Airlines—people thought, ‘Well, of course people from Alaska will show up to help out’; they didn’t expect pilots and flight attendants to come from other airlines.

"We’ve had our personnel respond to some accidents of small airlines in Alaska. There are so many little airlines in the bush. Our company has been really supportive of our taking time off to help them out. There’s just such a strong sense of community [in Alaska]."

The ALPA CIRP chairperson for the Alaska Airlines pilot group is currently First Officer Jeff Schroeder, who’s worked for the airline only since October 1999. He came to Alaska Airlines, however, as a trained and experienced ALPA CIRP volunteer. Like some other CIRP volunteers, he came to this work after bearing witness to tragedy.

"Several years ago, when I was flying for a firefighting contractor, I saw an accident—one of our tankers crashed," F/O Schroeder recalls. "The contractor never called to see if I was O.K., but somebody from the state called. I thought, ‘That’s the kind of support we need.’"

At Mesa Airlines, where he flew Beech 1900s, F/O Schroeder felt the urge to be "involved with something that would help the pilot group." He and Capt. Andrew Turner, now the CIRP coordinator at Mesa, were the pilot group’s CIRP committee.

"We handled a couple of defusings for the things people run into on the line—witnessing ground accidents, that kind of thing," F/O Schroeder remembers. "In each case, it was pretty low-key—‘Hi, this is the union calling to see if you’re O.K.’ ALPA provided the training; it was pretty easy to become involved. The AirBC pilot group sponsored the training in Vancouver in December ’98." He also went to Toronto for training on the Pilot Assistance Program, a uniquely Canadian program (see "Pilot Assistance," June/July 1999).

"The Canadians are really the experts on this kind of human factors stuff," he declares. "They were doing it for years before we started doing it south of the border.

"You need to be involved to make the union work," F/O Schroeder asserts. "It’s not just something the staff back in Herndon do; it’s pilots working at different airlines."

Regarding pilots’ reactions to CIRP, he confides, "Some of the pilots who saw us in the crew lounges after the Flight 261 accident asked, ‘What are you guys doing here?’ But other pilots told us, ‘I read the CVR transcript—now I can’t sleep at night.’"

Emery Worldwide

Not three weeks after the Alaska accident, the Emery Worldwide pilot group lost three members in the crash of a DC-8 freighter shortly after takeoff from Mather Field in Sacramento, Calif., on Feb. 16, 2000. First Officer Michele Gaffney, who has been a CIRP volunteer for 3 years, was then the CIRP chairperson for the Emery pilots.

"In 1997, I was a member of the Central Air Safety Committee," she recalls. "The central air safety chairperson needed someone to fill the CIRP chairperson position. As the chairman of Council 110 remarked, ‘This is the committee we hope we never have to use; but if we do, we’ll be glad that it is there.’ I couldn’t agree with him more. This proved true the night we lost Emery [Flight] 17.

"Our main focus after the accident was the families of the lost crewmembers and the accident investigators. We were fortunate to have a CIRP peer support volunteer living in Sacramento, who went to the scene immediately after we were notified. I asked if we could send First Officer Wendy Albright (a trained member of the CIRP committee) to Mather on the company Learjet. Emery made room for her. Positioning a team immediately is crucial.

"The resources ALPA provided were invaluable," F/O Gaffney says. "With only two peer support volunteers on the scene initially, I put out the call for help, which we received from peers of Aloha, Alaska, DHL, United, US Airways, Comair, and many others. FedEx sent a team.

"In all," F/O Gaffney recalls, "we had six Emery peers involved and at least fifteen from other pilot groups. Many of these volunteers had been through serious accidents and incidents at their own companies and gave us insight into not only the present challenges, but also into what was lying ahead for us. You just learn to expect the unexpected," she says.

"Understandably, the young widows and children of our three lost crewmembers were grieving and in shock," F/O Gaffney says. Capt. Ed Tanza, the current Emery CIRP chairperson, traveled from New York City to work specifically with the family members of the deceased pilots. With the assistance of a mental health professional he and a NTSB representative assigned to the accident escorted the family members to the wreckage site and provided support for several days.

"After all is said and done," F/O Gaffney says, "the people who support family members in the days following the accident start to fade away. They can suddenly find themselves very alone. Offering them long-term support is important. We had several very generous CIRP-trained spouses, who contacted these families and offered their long-term support and friendship to them. We don’t want the families to think that we will ever forget them.

"We also experienced a ripple effect among the Emery crewmembers, company operations personnel, and their families," she recalls. "The crewmembers were devastated by the accident. Their families were upset and frightened. We received many calls from crewmembers and members of families asking how to best deal with the feelings that hit home in the aftermath of an accident.

"We are awaiting the final NTSB findings a little over a year since the accident. When the findings are published, we will all take another step toward closure in the loss of our friends. If anything can remotely be considered a silver lining, it will be that since the accident, Emery has sent several management and support personnel to CIRP training. Management understands, appreciates, and supports the importance of the CIRP concept. As we go forward as a company," F/O Gaffney says, "this training will be in place to support all the employees who work for Emery."

US Airways

F/O Rob Neighbour is the chairperson of the US Airways CIRP team. He’s been a volunteer for 5 years; like F/O Gaffney, he learned about CIRP from his central air safety chairman. F/O Neighbour took over the chairperson role from Capt. Constantine Kleissas, who built the pilot group’s first CIRP team. Capt. Kleissas, now a member of ALPA’s Accident Investigation Board, teaches the criticical incident stress management module to air safety investigators at ALPA’s Accident Investigation School. F/O Neighbour put on an ALPA CIRP basic training course in October 2000 and encourages team members to attend the company-provided course every April, alongside flight attendants, mechanics, gate personnel, and managers.

US Airways management supports the CIRP enthusiastically. A video outlining CIRP has been shown to every US Airways pilot during annual recurrent training. CIRP pilot volunteers are issued special IDs and have must-ride travel privileges in the event of a major accident.

"We have a management team of six people," F/O Neighbour explains, "and an ALPA team of eleven people, including our first fully trained pilot spouse." F/O Neighbour and his management counterpart, Capt. Randy Hass, both wear text-messaging pagers; the company’s Operations Control Center places both large and small events daily on the FlexAlert system—a software notification package sold to airlines—which sets the classification and severity of the event, then pages an appropriate list of responders as determined by the event.

"Management and union volunteers switch off in handling the CIRP cases," F/O Neighbour continues. "It works out quite well. We’ll get a page or two every day and cover an average of twelve events, or about eighteen to twenty-four pilots, per month, split between the management (check airmen) and union teams. We’ll cover medium-sized events that we think could have a negative effect on a pilot, which also keeps every peer volunteer both current and comfortable with cold-calling pilots. We’ve also lent our support to several other airlines in the past year, because we had the trained volunteers in the right place, available to help."

While being interviewed for this article, F/O Neighbour and Capt. Hass were "flexed" on a recent CIRP event—a US Airways flight crew holding in position on a runway in marginal weather saw another airliner land over the top of them onto the same runway because of an apparent error by a tower controller. The airplanes missed by as little as 40 feet. "If you don’t think that could shake you up, you’re kidding yourself," says F/O Neighbour.

He adds, "I think it takes a particular kind of personality to do peer support work. A lot of pilots think they can suck it up and press on when bad stuff happens; sometimes they can’t. That doesn’t make them lesser pilots—it just means that they’re human, experiencing a normal reaction to an abnormal event."

Delta Air Lines

Capt. Chris Hayes (Delta), the CIRP chairperson for his pilot group, agrees.

"A couple of years ago, a passenger in First Class died on my flight," he recalls. "We were at the gate, with the door closed, but we were still loading bags. I assisted in getting medical help on board. That was a traumatic event. I thought, ‘No reason we in the program shouldn’t use it ourselves,’ so I initiated a response on myself."

Capt. Hayes went through Delta’s CIRP training during the spring of 1997. He started out as a CIRP peer, then became a coordinator; in November 1999, he became chairperson of the Delta pilots’ CIRP Committee to ensure a smooth transition when Capt. Alan Campbell, one of the founding fathers of ALPA’s CIRP, retired in February 2000.

"Here at Delta, the company offers a four-day initial CIRP training course every spring," Capt. Hayes explains, "and a two-day advanced training course in October. The goal is to have someone working in the program for a year and a half before going to the advanced training. Delta trains 170 to 180 employees, plus another 20 to 30 trainees from other airlines, every year."

F/O Gaffney, chairperson of the Emery Worldwide CIRP Committee, received her initial CIRP training in the Delta basic course.

The Delta pilots operate and administer their own CIRP under the general guidelines of the company’s program. Approximately 40 pilots serve on the CIRP team, responding to about 50 events involving 120–130 pilots each year. In 2000, reports Capt. Hayes, the team handled 128 defusings and no debriefings.

Regarding the guidelines for response that the Delta CIRP team uses, Capt. Hayes explains, "Our responses are event-driven; we consider the effect the event might have on the person. We’re not into performance evaluation, we’re into stress reduction.

"If a passenger or crew member is injured or dies, we respond. If the situation involved an emergency or a serious abnormal event, we respond."

In one such case, a flight attendant fell ill and died in the lavatory while over the ocean on an international flight inbound to Atlanta.

"Because we had the time to respond, we had an excellent response," Capt. Hayes remembers. "CIRP volunteers and family members met the airplane."

In other cases, whether to respond requires a judgment call based on the unique perspective of a fellow line pilot. For example, says Capt. Hayes, consider two different inflight smoke scenarios: "If the flight crew reported a burning smell in the back of the airplane, turned off some lights, and made the smell go away, returned to the airport, didn’t declare an emergency or don smoke masks, and the mechanics cleared the airplane to return to service, I wouldn’t respond. But if the pilots declared an emergency, donned oxygen masks, and called for the fire trucks, I would respond."

Last year, the Delta pilots’ CIRP team responded to

  • 9 cases of smoke or fumes in the cockpit or cabin;
  • 9 minor ground collisions (usually with ground vehicles, and no fault of the flight crew—for example, a catering truck ran into an airplane);
  • 5 cases of TCAS resolution advisories or loss of required separation;
  • 4 runway incursions (usually, the flight crew is in danger of FAA enforcement action);
  • 3 turbulence encounters with injuries to passengers and/or flight attendants; and
  • 3 depressurizations.

"Most defusings take 15 to 30 minutes on the phone," Capt. Hayes explains. "We try to follow up about a week later, to make sure that the pilot’s reactions are diminishing in frequency and intensity. Some typical symptoms are sleep disturbance, suppressed appetite, and reduced ability to concentrate."

United Airlines

Though the CIRP pilot peers may be able to pick the time they make followup calls, they can’t pick the time the incoming call comes.

As chairperson of the United pilot group’s CIRP Committee, says Capt. Pocock, "I carry an ALPA beeper 24 hours per day; I’m actually a member of the United Go Team. My overnight bag is incredibly heavy, because I always have to be prepared to go directly to an accident scene at a moment’s notice."

At about 11 p.m. on a recent Sunday night, after Capt. Pocock and his wife had come home from dinner and a movie, one of United’s flight duty managers called him at home—a flight crew had experienced a significant event over the Pacific; no one was injured, but the situation had been most sobering. Capt. Pocock swung into action.

"First," he explains, "I assigned the case to a peer—a pilot based on the West Coast who used to be a captain on the airplane type involved. Second, I called my counterpart at the Association of Flight Attendants, because I knew the flight attendants might need some help."

Fundamental to the basic philosophy of CIRP is that the peer response occur within the first several hours after the critical incident. "All we need is access within the first six hours," Capt. Pocock points out. "It’s one reason I’m networking more with the Professional Standards Committee, HIMS [ALPA’s program for monitoring and helping pilots recovering from alcoholism], and other unions on the property."

He adds, regarding stress reactions, "If they get repressed, they’re going to be buried, but fester, and eventually come out. That’s the issue."

Capt. Pocock makes the point that firefighters, paramedics, police officers, and other nonairline employees usually work from a central base of operations to which they can return soon after the traumatic event and find peer support there. Pilots, on the other hand, may be off on their own on the other side of the world from a crew base. Thus, he argues, "the whole idea of using CIRP peers so far away is revolutionary."

One result of that typical geographic separation between flight crew member and CIRP peer, says Capt. Pocock, is that "most of our work as peers is done over the phone, which requires exquisite listening skills, because intonation replaces body language."

He adds, "When I assign a peer to a case, I ask about his or her schedule, so I know they’ll have all the time they need to support the pilots they call. You have to be completely there in the moment for them, for as long as they need. You must have no limitations on how long you can be on the phone, and no distractions."

As chairperson of his pilot group’s CIRP committee, Capt. Pocock has found that he must be "extremely generous in saying [to a pilot peer], ‘Okay, that’s fine that you can’t take the case,’ because the peer himself, or herself, must be up to it."

Capt. Pocock is another CIRP volunteer who took on the job because his Central Air safety Chairman asked for a volunteer. Now he oversees the United CIRP team of 14 peers, including two members of management who have been trained in CIRP techniques.

Today, he and F/O Rick Bicknell (Northwest), who was a Simmons Airlines captain and the ALPA CIRP coordinator during the 1994 Simmons Flight 4184 crash near Roselawn, Ind., teach the CIRP module at ALPA’s Basic Safety School for pilot safety volunteers.

One aspect of CIRP still gnaws at Capt. Pocock: "An inherent aspect of the program is that we can’t really show the positive results. A great deal of our stuff is anecdotal. It’s sort of like asking, ‘How many fires were you able to prevent?’ Having said all of that, intuitively, I believe the program definitely helps people."

One of those people is Capt. Pocock himself.

"My marriage has improved dramatically since I’ve learned to listen actively," he confides. Drawing an analogy with a tape recorder, he says, "Putting the ‘answer’ tape on the back and putting the blank tape, the one you’re using to record, on the front, is something you have to learn and practice."

That’s what ALPA’s trained CIRP peer volunteers practice: being there for their fellow pilots, lending an ear—and a helping hand—when bad stuff happens.

ALPA CIRP Chairpersons and Coordinators

ALPA U.S. Chairperson: Mimi Tompkins; Canada Chairperson: Tom O’Toole

If a pilot group does not list a CIRP Chairperson, the person listed is the Central Air Safety Chairman, who coordinates with CIRP in the event of an accident or incident. List is current as of April 16, 2001.

AirBC Tom O’Toole, CIRP Chairperson
Air Nova Chuck Brown, CIRP Chairperson
Alain Demers
Air Ontario Denis Costello, CIRP Chairperson
Bill Meredith
Air Wisconsin Ward Abbs, CIRP Chairperson
Deborah Giese
Alaska Airlines Jeff Schroeder, CIRP Chairperson
Allegheny Commuter Airlines Mark Miller, CIRP Chairperson
Dave Mast
Aloha Airlines Joe MacDonald, Jr., CIRP Chairperson
Mimi Tompkins
Aloha Island Air Stafka King
Blaine Kiyuna
America West Michael J. Tassielli, CIRP Chairperson
Jerry Johnson
American Eagle Jim Woodke, CIRP Chairperson
John Manly
ATA Mary Verry, CIRP Chairperson
Atlantic Coast Airlines Barry Luff
Atlantic Southeast Airlines Chuck White, CIRP Chairperson
Atlas Air Chuck Ogier
Tom Cook
Bearskin Airlines Derek Hale
Jennifer Nicholl
Calm Air Conrad Schnellert
Jerry Hilderman
Canada 3000 John Scott
Canadian Regional Airlines Gord Drysdale, CIRP Chairperson
CCAir Bernard King
Champion Air Jon Grubs
Comair Christopher D. Rhode, CIRP Chairperson
Delta Air Lines Chris Hayes, CIRP Chairperson
DHL Airways Phil Stotts, CIRP Chairperson
Emery Worldwide Airlines Ed Tanza, CIRP Chairperson
Express Airlines I Troy Caulkett, CIRP Chairperson
Hawaiian Airlines Lauri Peterson, CIRP Chairperson
Timothy Wheeler
Kelowna Flightcraft Michael Solomon, CIRP Chairperson
Mesa Airlines Andrew Turner, CIRP Chairperson
Mesaba Aviation Mike Teitelbaum, CIRP Chairperson
Midway Airlines Dave Gwinn
Midwest Express Karl Petersen
Northwest Jack Wortman, CIRP Chairperson
Pan American Airways Jari Hayrynen
Piedmont Airlines Bill Appleby, CIRP Chairperson
Polar Air Cargo Anthony Mola
PSA Airlines Jeffrey Yates
Ross Aviation Michael Loewen, CIRP Chairperson
Ryan International Airlines J.D. Hempsmyer
Skyway Airlines Mark Williams
Spirit Airlines Michael Ebaugh
Sun Country Airlines Matthew Schneider, CIRP Chairperson
Tower Air Bill Stowe
Trans States Airlines Jeff Morgan
TWA Greg Arikian, CIRP Chairperson
United Airlines Steve Pocock, CIRP Chairperson
US Airways Rob Neighbour, CIRP Chairperson
Lucy Young