Key Points:

  • The FAA has been probing almost 5,000 pilots, primarily military veterans, for submitting possibly false or incorrect medical information. The investigation was triggered by inconsistencies found through cross-referencing federal databases.

  • The FAA states that about half of these cases are now closed and around 60 pilots have been ordered to stop flying immediately due to posing a "clear danger to aviation safety."

  • Experts suggest that the investigation highlights severe shortcomings in the FAA's existing system for medical evaluation of pilots, which relies significantly on self-reporting from the pilots.

FAA Orders Emergency Suspension of 60 Pilots Amid Safety Concerns

WASHINGTON D.C. — According to a report by Washington Post, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been rigorously investigating about 4,800 pilots suspected of providing misleading or false medical information. Matthew Lehner, a spokesperson for the FAA, confirmed that nearly half of these investigations have concluded, with approximately 60 pilots ordered to halt flying operations on an emergency basis due to their posing significant safety risks.

The investigation initially kicked off when Veterans Affairs investigators found discrepancies more than two years ago. The investigators identified these inconsistencies by combing through federal databases. Despite the severity of the issue, the FAA has maintained a degree of secrecy, withholding many case details from the public.

A significant number of those under investigation, about 600 pilots, hold licenses to operate passenger airlines, revealed a senior U.S. official, who requested anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the ongoing investigation. The remainder predominantly have commercial licenses, which allow them to work for cargo companies, corporate clients, or tour operators.

“The FAA used a risk-based approach to focus on veterans whose medical profiles posed the most substantial risk to aviation safety,” Lehner explained. He further elaborated that most pilots under scrutiny could continue flying until the completion of the investigation, which aims at reconciling these cases.

Experts have pointed out that the extent of the investigation reveals deep-rooted flaws in the FAA’s system for medically screening pilots. Current protocols often rely on cursory examinations and depend heavily on pilots to self-disclose conditions like depression or post-traumatic stress, conditions difficult to detect otherwise, said medical professionals involved in these exams.

Jerome Limoge, an aviation medical examiner, commented that some pilots seem to be "playing both sides of the game," minimizing their ailments to the FAA to maintain their flying status while amplifying them to the Veterans Affairs to maximize disability benefits. "Some of it is almost stolen valor," Limoge added.

To address the potential risks, federal contracting records show that the FAA's Office of Aerospace Medicine allocated $3.6 million last year for hiring medical experts and staff to reexamine the certification records of these pilots.

Senior FAA officials declined to comment on the ongoing investigation, maintaining their reticence on this sensitive issue, Washington Post reports.

In the ongoing FAA investigation, various actions have been taken concerning the pilots under scrutiny. According to FAA spokesperson Matthew Lehner, as well as pilots and their attorneys, some of the pilots have been temporarily grounded, while others were directed to amend their records and undergo new medical evaluations. Moreover, officials indicated that some pilots may have been advised by FAA-contracted physicians to not disclose their VA disability benefits.

Concurrently, the VA inspector general's office is assessing whether any of the investigated pilots should face criminal charges for defrauding the benefits system. This process has been corroborated by two senior U.S. officials who wished to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of the ongoing probe.

Federal court records disclose that at least 10 pilots have been charged since 2018 for misleading the FAA about their disability benefits and medical conditions. Notably, two such cases came to light only following aircraft crashes. For years, aviation safety experts and past audits have warned that numerous pilots could be operating with undisclosed serious medical conditions. However, despite this, the FAA had been hesitant to broaden background checks by coordinating with other federal and state agencies maintaining medical disability databases.

The probe, which began in 2019, was initiated by the VA Inspector General's office. Concerned that pilots might be either hiding disqualifying medical conditions or unscrupulously receiving disability benefits, they cross-referenced VA disability benefit records with an FAA database of veterans who held civilian pilot licenses. Inspector General Michael Missal emphasized the necessity of this action due to the grave safety implications and proper utilization of taxpayer funds.

High-level briefings on the investigation have been provided to Deputy Transportation Secretary Polly Trottenberg, VA Secretary Denis McDonough, and congressional oversight committees. In a recent development, the influential Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association called on the FAA to grant amnesty to the pilots swept up in the review, attributing errors on medical certification forms to their complexity.

However, not everyone agrees with the FAA's approach. Rick Mangini, a former Army pilot now grounded, argues that the focus on veterans is tantamount to harassment. U.S. passenger airlines have maintained a strong safety record, with no fatal crashes since 2009. Nonetheless, there have been a few global incidents where pilots’ mental states were questioned.

Current FAA regulations do not outright ban pilots diagnosed with mental health issues but mandate stringent monitoring. The ongoing investigations have also spotlighted vulnerabilities within the VA system, which has expanded its disability benefits access while also becoming more susceptible to fraudulent claims.

Louis Celli, a former American Legion executive director, suggested that many pilots under scrutiny are either unfit to fly, exaggerating their disabilities, or defrauding the system altogether. The FAA's medical screening process has had identifiable gaps since at least 2005, as revealed by an operation that found over 3,000 pilots in Northern California were receiving Social Security disability benefits while claiming to be fit to fly. This led to a number of prosecutions, but efforts to fortify the screening system through inter-agency data-sharing have languished due to financial and staffing constraints.

Lawmakers have expressed increasing frustration with the FAA's lax approach to safety regulations, particularly concerning pilots' medical conditions. Despite warnings and recommendations from various agencies and the occurrence of accidents due to medical issues, the FAA has been slow to act.

After a tragic crash in Europe involving a co-pilot with undisclosed mental health issues, the FAA finally began sharing medical records with VA investigators in 2018 and 2019. Despite this, the FAA's efforts to scrutinize pilot records met resistance from pilots unions and industry groups who opposed any actions that could ground their members.

Legal cases have revealed disturbing instances of pilots failing to disclose critical information. For example, a 72-year-old veteran was convicted for lying to the FAA about his criminal history and medical condition, while a 35-year-old veteran pleaded guilty to fraud charges after a fatal crash in Tennessee. Both had undisclosed medical issues.

Lawyers and experts criticized the FAA for not having a more efficient system to verify information. Many claim that most pilots lie on their medical forms due to fear of losing their licenses and lengthy approval processes for medical waivers. Some pilots who faced legal consequences argue that the FAA and VA standards for disability and flight certification are not aligned.

The FAA has tried to improve its procedures and has warned medical examiners not to advise pilots to hide their VA disabilities. Nevertheless, critics argue that the FAA's reliance on self-reporting is problematic and endangers public safety.

Increasing numbers of veterans are receiving disability benefits for mental health issues, which has created a complex situation where pilots want to maximize their VA benefits but also continue flying. The FAA's handling of this issue is under ongoing review.