Pilots with medical problems protest against a security system they say is failing.
It follows a big victory by a senior Cathay Pacific captain who sued the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) for pinning him down as a suicide threat to passengers.
Graham Lindsay, now retired and living in Coromandel, found himself at the center of charges in 2016 that he was at risk of homicide-suicide. It was a year after a co-pilot of a jet with 150 people on board deliberately crashed it in France, killing everyone.
An occupational health expert said Lindsay was involved in the CAA’s “archaic” aviation medical surveillance system.
“It’s dangerous for the flying public for all kinds of reasons,” said expert, Professor Emeritus of Medicine Des Gorman at the University of Auckland, who notes the system “maybe two, maybe three. “out of 10.
In Lindsay’s case, the district court judge lashed out at the CAA for bias and overzealousness – criticism the CAA said it accepted.
“Really tough race” to get a decision – Lindsay
âThey put me in the limelight in aviation and basically described me as a murder-suicide pilot, which is completely contrary to everything I’ve worked for,â Lindsay told RNZ.
“I have had 40 years of flawless flying, and my integrity as a commercial pilot has never been questioned.”
The court heard that he mentored other pilots and was a trained air accident investigator.
Lindsay said the CAA was right to be cautious – he retreated to his base in Hong Kong first – but then it went off the rails.
âIt started to dawn on me that it just wasn’t right,â he said.
âThe CAA, I believe, has not proven that they have a just culture.
“They weren’t diligent in extracting all the information. They seemed to attack me personally rather than going for something professional.”
It was “very emotional” to get a ruling that the medical assessors were wrong, he said.
âIt was a really tough race.
“My mother, who is 91 in Ryman [home] in Auckland, she makes me cry every day. So, you know, it took a heavy toll. “
Lindsay said he was lucky he could afford the $ 350,000 in legal fees (the court has yet to pay the costs).
“I don’t want to see people give up because they can’t afford it or they can’t mortgage the house so they can finance something.”
RNZ asked new CAA director Keith Manch if he had full confidence in his chief medical officer in the Lindsay case, but did not make himself available for comment.
Manch acknowledged the “obvious gaps” in authority in Lindsay’s case – but also says he has corrected himself since 2018.
Professor Gorman rejects this.
He played a central role in overhauling the surveillance system 20 years ago, but despite some legislative changes, it has largely stalled.
At the time, he discovered that doctors’ mistakes allowed too many dangerous pilots to fly, with more than half of their medical records flawed, such as no recording of poor eyesight or heart problems. .
Two decades later, the system “belongs to the dark age of (…) normative health surveillance practice,” Professor Gorman said.
âYes, there are people who fly who shouldn’t fly. There are also people who are prevented from stealing and who are quite able to fly.
“It’s inconsistent both ways.”
The system encouraged pilots to hide their medical problems, including mental health; he was inclined to “miss certain things … [and] overreact to certain things, âhe said.
Professor Gorman is working with the Air Line Pilots’ Association, trying to amend the Civil Aviation Bill before Parliament which aims to modernize a series of 30-year-old laws.
âIf I’m a pilot, I don’t want to be targeted for something that’s not serious,â he said.
“But if something is important, I want it to be managed quickly and openly and in a way that … I am fully involved in managing my risk.”
Professor Gorman is not optimistic. The CAA was a clumsy bureaucracy too captured by the medical and aviation industries to relocate, he said.
âIt really upset me about this matterâ – Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association
The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association echoed this. It was only recently successful after a decade-long struggle with the CAA to improve the way recreational pilots obtain medical clearance, President Stephen Brown said.
A general practitioner in Rangiora, Brown cites cases he knows personally, of a pilot on the ground after being prescribed antidepressants, although he was only slightly down, and the discovery of AAC, and another restricted after a blood alcohol test which Brown said was unfair.
He read the 55-page Lindsay court ruling on how the CAA’s medical advisers seemed “prepared to overreact” amid international discussions about the risks of homicide-suicide theft, although these these are very rare.
âThey talk a lot with other jurisdictions around the world and they haveâ¦ flags that they are looking for,â he said.
âBut the red flags were very small in this one, and if you talk to people enough, long enough, you’ll find red flags in everyone.
âSo it really rocked me this matterâ¦ how much it destroys a person’s life.
“Fortunately, Mr. Lindsay had a strong character, and (…)
“Robust” medical decisions
CAA defends its medical certification processes as “robust”.
He cites the fact that the âvast majorityâ of his decisions are upheld on appeal: in fact, only seven of the 180 pilot appeals over the past decade have been upheld by organizers that the CAA uses.
Brown reads this quite differently.
“The coordination process is, in my mind, fraught with pitfalls. It almost always sides with the CAA,” he said.
“I imagine they have a bias in favor of the regulator.”
His association, along with the Air Line Pilots’ Association and the Aviation New Zealand business group, are now pushing for an independent tribunal that pilots could appeal to, but the new civil aviation bill does not allow it.
Graham Lindsay had a stroke 18 months ago and is no longer flying. He was warned by some of his colleagues against engaging a ministry, but he could not give up, he said.
Civil Aviation had to start listening and learning. âAt the moment there is not a lot of confidence,â he said.