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I’AM God (Institute for Aviation Medicine)

(IAM – Institute for Aviation Medicine.) Every now and then a subject comes up that, if discussed candidly in the aviation domain, is bound to disturb the bureaucratic karma. I was reminded of one recently that although contentious, is long overdue for a serious debate. Recently a friend of mine had his ATP license revoked – on the grounds that the medication he was taking was incompatible with his flying medical. The Institute for Aviation Medicine (IAM) cancelled his medical, and therefore his license forthwith. Incredibly it turned out that he’d been flying illegally for two months because they hadn’t bothered to process the paperwork promptly enough! When the disgruntled pilot tried to rectify the problem he was told by IAM that his case would be addressed at the next sitting of the medical board – some five weeks later! It transpired that at the board meeting – his case wasn’t even discussed! My friend happened to uncover this valuable gem of information and when he confronted the chief of IAM, was only asked indignantly how he’d come to know this fact! No apologies for their ineptitude – they only wanted to know who the snitch was!

To shorten the story – it took a visit to an advocate, (at the cost of more than four thousand rand) and the threat of legal action, before IAM hastily relented – promising to discuss it at a hurriedly reconvened sitting of the board – who then immediately returned him to flying status.

We won’t even go into the unwarranted stress this man and his family suffered, – the loss of income caused to the company and himself, or the disruption and consequent impact it caused his colleagues.

Now – gentlemen and ladies of the IAM – we all know that you wield great power over our profession. We are all well aware that your job is necessary and important – but surely that doesn’t give you the right to make decisions that you cannot fairly and rationally justify – and even then – take forever in doing it! This kind of behavior is tantamount to playing God with our lives.

Nor does it excuse you from incompetence. We all make mistakes, but it shouldn’t be necessary to call in the lawyers every time you can’t admit or won’t rectify an error. Had this been an isolated case, perhaps we could dismiss it as nothing more than an oversight. However, over the course of a number of years it is disquieting how many stories have surfaced involving our esteemed aviation medical authority. Indeed, as I write this, a colleague is embroiled in an issue that has taken IAM years to sort out.

Senior First Officer Billy Preston was medically grounded in the early nineties, but remained with SAA as a safety consultant until his medical was reinstated seven years later. His license contains the restriction that he may: “fly AS a co-pilot.” As his command is now due, and since he has been incident and medication free for more than ten years, he applied, (several months ago!) to have this restriction amended to allow him to: “fly WITH or as a co-pilot.”

Well, what a rumpus this has caused! You’d think this would be a fairly straightforward decision to make. The answer must surely be: YES or NO! Yet in spite of having all the supporting specialist reports, no-one seems to have the testicles to make a decision one way or the other! In the meantime Billy has had to forgo his command – at significant personal cost to salary and pension.

Now you may be forgiven for assuming that they’re just dithering on the safe side, but consider the fact that if a co-pilot is not up to flying the aircraft in the captain’s absence – he really shouldn’t be there at all! In fact, Billy, as a co-pilot on the A340 long haul, has been operating as a ‘cruise captain’ for many years already! He does so on every flight – when the captain is in the bunk! If IAM has deemed him safe enough to be left alone in command on the flight deck while the captain is asleep – then what logical reason could they have for not amending his restriction? (Sure glad I don’t have any of these folks on my flight deck when a critical decision needs to be made in a hurry!)

Any doctor will tell you that medicine is an inexact science, and passing a flight medical should not leave you under any illusion that there’s nothing wrong with you. Take Captain John Ritchie. He passed his flying medical and was dead a few months later from lung cancer. Then there was the BA 747 Captain who had a heart attack and died in the bunk during a flight a few years ago. Regrettably, most of the guys I fly with won’t disclose anything untoward to their aviation medical doctors – for fear of the consequences of being grounded unnecessarily. The perception is still that IAM is looking for an excuse to ground pilots – which obviously runs the risk of destroying a flying career. (How would they feel if their livelihood was threatened twice a year?) With these perceived threats so high, pilots are unlikely to be forthcoming in openly disclosing any of their human ills. Absurdly, it’s a case of “catch me if you can.” And unfortunately IAM’s lethargic intransigence has done nothing to allay these fears. By displaying a visible reluctance to make a decision, they do nothing to infuse confidence in the sector they serve.

Some time ago I was told confidentially by a doctor that a number of aviation practitioners view pilots as little more than captive cash cows, to be milked once or twice a year, according to their age. Pilot medicals are not terribly complicated, yet cost upwards of a grand if you’re due for a lung function, x-rays and an ECG. To some, if you’re walking, talking, and hearing, that’s good enough. Just don’t bash into the door on the way out to pay the secretary.
Maybe our aviation medical fraternity should be making more of an effort in changing our perceptions of them. After all – they’re here to serve us. Not the other way round.

These days I’ve taken to doing my bi-annual checkups at SAA’s medical centre – only because the locum doctors they retain are almost as wonderful as our nursing sisters. Even though it’s a serious and thorough checkup, (and I have my fair share of defects) I’ve never been given the impression that my career was in jeopardy. They’ve always helped rather than hindered me when I’ve had a problem.
It’s their attitude, empathy and plain common decency that makes the difference. Now if they can just pass those traits on to the bureaucrats at IAM. (Please folks – these are our lives you’re playing with. Kindly respect that. We’re not asking anything more than the same level of competence, efficiency and expedience our profession demands of us.)

In conclusion, a short anecdote in reminder of one of life’s great truths. There was once an airline doctor, who was notorious for making new pilot’s lives an absolute misery during the company recruitment medical. Many a new applicant was failed unnecessarily, only to be employed unhindered by another airline elsewhere. Of the pilots already in the airline, no-one ever went near him with any kind of ailment whatsoever! Perceived as a ‘hatchet-man,’ he became the airline pariah and eventually took voluntary early pension. He wasn’t replaced.
In failing to correct his attitude, and hence the flight crew’s perceptions, he ultimately succeeded in making himself redundant. The Big Wheel finally turned when company rules were rewritten to make a valid flying physical all that was medically required for employment. Last I heard, he was still unemployed.

The author is an A340 Training Captain with SAA and CEO of Flight Training College George.

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