Monday, March 30, 2015

We admire pilots; the mentally ill, less so

      "As I was at 5," Tolstoy wrote, "so I am today." Which I mention only to add a bit of literary heft to the following admission, which otherwise might seem humiliatingly juvenile.
     Airline pilots sometimes stay at the Holiday Inn in the Sun-Times Building (which sounds so much better than saying the Sun-Times is located under a Holiday Inn, though I suppose it's a matter of perspective).
     They're always getting out of town cars and buses, handsome in their sharp uniforms, toting their special pilot luggage. On my way into the office I see them and think, "Ooo, a pilot" with the same eagerness I did as a small boy flying Pan Am to New York City. I'd hurry up to one and ask for a pair of official pilot's wings, but he'd look at me strangely and, at 54, I've finally learned restraint.
     So I think well of pilots. Most people do We trust pilots, literally, with our lives.
      In a 2013 survey of the most trusted professions, pilots were No. 2, after firefighters, with 86 percent of the respondents expressing confidence in them (for comparison purposes, newspaper reporters scored 21 percent in a Gallup poll taken about the same time, but remember, when discussing journalism, experts insist there is a "multiple by 5" rule which means the public actually trusts reporters 105 percent).
     So in the wake of Andreas Lubitz, the Germanwings pilot who crashed Flight 9525 into the Alps last week, killing himself and 149 other people, nobody is going to react, "Fuckin' pilots! Always killing folk."
     Yet we need to understand this, or try to, though I sometimes suspect by "understanding" we mean find a convenient label to slap over the tragedy so we can more easily forget it. So we grasp at stuff.
     Islamic fundamentalism is the Type O universal donor to explain such situations. Happens enough that we accept it as a cause. A copy of the Qu'ran, a name with a lot of fricatives and we'd be home free. But that doesn't seem the case here. The "German" aspect is a possibility—"those Germans, they do like their mass murder...." Nope, his being a pilot draws him into the realm of BMW engineers in white coats. It's not like he was some skinhead from Bavaria.
     Lubitz being 27 has potential: these kids nowadays.... no, plenty of responsible 27-year-olds who don't slaughter those in their care.
     Which leaves mental illness, and there are indications, which the press latched onto, politely with the mainstream media, not so much with the tabloids.
      "WHY ON EARTH WAS HE ALLOWED TO FLY?" the Daily Mail howled, under "Suicide pilot had a long history of depression."
     Which I noticed when the depressed started passing it around Twitter.
     "I have a long history of depression," Londoner Juliette Burton wrote. "Should I not be allowed to drive? Work? Contribute?"
     She has a point. Though it took me a while to grasp it. Twitter encourages immediate reply, not careful thought. Others chimed in: "Glad the Germanwings coverage isn't descending into harmful, misleading hysteria," wrote GlobalNews' Anna Mehler Paperny.
     My gut reaction was: is it? The guy flew his plane into a mountain. "Why on earth was he allowed to fly?" seems a question well worth positing. I tweeted back that this is just the media trying to explain why this happened. Maybe I was being a low-esteem journalist defending his kind. Even as I did, I knew instantly where she was coming from: if Depression=Murder then we'd all be dead, in the same way that if Muslim=Terrorist, we'd all be dead.
     "Blaming depression isn't 'explaining.' It's irrelevant," another Canadian chimed in. "Did he also have a dog and like Cheerios at breakfast?"
     The best path is probably somewhere between the media blaming depression and sufferers leaping to dismiss it. By Sunday the press was discussing Lubitz's eye problems, and as someone who has worn glasses since he was 6, it bothered me not at all. If you look to the news for self-validation, you're already in trouble, no matter what the headlines say.


  1. Agreed. Pilots are popular fellows. Like firemen when I was growing up -- you wanted to be one, but knew you weren't. The prestige of airline safety though has suffered the most. Since we don't want to admit that there's absolutely nothing we can do if an airplane pilot decides to fly his plane into a mountain or for that matter if I decide I'm going to crash my car into the first large number of pedestrians I see, the powers that be will be making dreadful changes (similar to the taking off your shoes idiocy) that won't work. What if the captain had been able to get into the cockpit? Can you imagine the chaos of a wrestling match over the controls? Doubtful if the outcome would have been any different.

  2. It's not "Depression = Murder" in this case. It is, apparently -- from the reports I've read -- that this particular individual did have some medical issues that might have affected his judgment to the point he'd do what he reportedly did, and hid those conditions from his employer. Can anything be done about this sort of thing? That's a question I'm not sure can be answered.

  3. Not quite the same to say forgive pilots or don't fear them all as comparing to those calculating Islamic acts of terror. Stop trying to white wash them.

  4. I've had some unease about flying lately, and now this happens. What a tragic loss of lives due to one person's unthinkable action.

    The photo of the robin nesting at the top of today's blog is stunning.

    1. The problem I see is that the person's action was not at all "unthinkable" and now that it's been thought and done, it's even more "thinkable." And likely.


    2. take a tranquilizer or Dramamine, sandy

    3. Oh, and the Pan Am poster as well :)

  5. The NYT is reporting that Lubitz had been treated for suicidal tendencies before.

    But since he was German, why are we surprised, as mass murder is in their DNA!

  6. good comment in st reader feedback today in paper, if the ceo of starbucks is so concerned of race, have him build in bad neighborhoods and drop the price of coffee real low so anyonw can afford it, big talker he is

  7. Neil

    About the Indiana law and I'm not playing gotcha here I want an honest answer. What if some well behaved Nazis wanted to eat lunch at a kosher deli in Chicago? Assuming they didn't want any ruckus and just wanted to sit down and eat does the Jewish family have a right of refusal?

    1. I would think they could refuse because of the problems that would occur by them being there.

    2. No, of course not, and the truth is that they serve people whose values are not that far different from Nazis all the time. Although you're tarring yourself as an outsider, because there are no Kosher delis in Chicago, to my knowledge. I won't begin to try to point out that you're equating an innocent sexual orientation with Naziism. I'm sure in your mind they're comparable.

  8. Neil, I am not sure where you got your numbers. Nurses consistently rank at the top of the "most trustworthy" list, and 2013 was no exception. In fact, although Gallup's 2013 poll does report that your cited 21% of those surveyed ranked newspaper reporters "high" or "very high" in trustworthiness, neither firefighters nor airline pilots were included in that year's survey. Nurses have topped the list every year since 1999, with the exception of 2001.

    Scroll down past the piece about clergy for the 2013 list. I am surprised. You are usually at LEAST 21% trustworthy!

    ETA: I see that you got your info from Canadian Reader's Digest. Readers Digest?? Canada??!

    Give nurses their due.

  9. Nurses are indeed very trusted. But ... we're not talking about nurses here. We're talking about pilots. Here is the survey I used -- lots of surveys, and this one folds in Europe as well the United States. Guess European nurses pull down the average.

  10. that's cause socialized medicine isn't great


Comments are vetted and posted at the discretion of the proprietor.