On 24 March 2015 a Germanwings Airbus crashed 100 kilometres northwest of Nice in the French Alps after a constant descent that began one minute after the last routine contact with air traffic control. All 144 passengers and six aircrew members were killed.
The crash, tragic as it was, attracted significant media attention and it was not long before attention turned to co-pilot Andreas Lubitz. German prosecutors said that they found indications that Lubitz had concealed an illness from his employer, hiding a sick note on the day of the crash. Whilst some media coverage looked to Lubitz’s history of depression, others investigated ‘burnout’. Der Spiegel reporter Matthias Gebauer tweeted in March that Lubitz was suffering with ‘burnout-syndrome’ when he took time out of pilot training in 2009.
The term ‘burnout’ was coined by Herbert Freudenberger in 1974 and is still widely used in Germany (and to a lesser extent, the UK and America) today. Symptoms include long-term exhaustion and diminished interest in work, which is often assumed to be the result of chronic occupational stress.
The recent media discussion of burnout among pilots as a result of the Germanwings crash has brought the issue of pilot health into sharp relief. Several countries have implemented new cockpit regulations and there has been significant discussion of how pilots (and the airlines that employ them) should best deal with stress, personal problems, and exhaustion. These issues have their historical antecedent in late-twentieth century discussions of ‘pilot fatigue’.
It is widely acknowledged today that commercial airline pilots are employed in one of the most stressful occupations of the modern age. Before the Second World War this issue was rarely discussed outside academic circles. Traditionally conceived by the public as heroic and superhuman, early pilots were held up as paragons of masculine strength and vigour, able to manage great responsibilities with little (if any) impact on their physical or mental health.
Although fatigue was first recognised as a potential problem in the 1950s, it was not until the 1960s that the relationship between flying, fatigue, and the health of pilots was first discussed in the mainstream media. A number of newspaper articles highlighted the stressful nature of the pilot’s job and (from the early 1970s) a number of alarmist articles reported incidents of pilots falling asleep at their controls. In one report a pilot flying over Japan was said to have “nodded off” and then woken to find the rest of his flight crew asleep:
‘In the report… the BOAC captain said that when he felt himself dozing he shook himself, looked around the flight deck and found his two co-pilots and flight engineer asleep. “I immediately called for black coffee to bring everyone round” [he said]’.
The increased media interest in ‘pilot fatigue’ coincided with a period of industrial strife amongst pilots who were experiencing radical changes not only in the type of aircraft they were asked to fly, but also in terms of management and working conditions. These issues came to the fore in 1961 when airline BEA released their summer flying schedules. The proposed schedules were intensive and many BEA pilots questioned the implications for safety. Long duty periods and inadequate rest breaks would, it was argued, cause dangerous fatigue that may increase the likelihood of accidents.
BEA relented and allowed an investigation of ‘pilot fatigue’. Carried out by physician of aeronautics H. P. Ruffell Smith, the investigation used a system of points for measuring flight time limitations, replacing the traditional hours system. The subsequent report suggested that BEA pilots should not fly more than 18 points per day, and extra points were awarded for especially stressful or fatiguing operations, such as take-off and landing. Ruffell-Smith’s report was never published and BEA did not enforce his recommendations. The problem of ‘pilot fatigue’ was not solved.
In the years that followed a number of high profile air disasters occurred, many of which were later attributed to ‘pilot fatigue’. In 1966 a Britannia plane crashed in Ljubljana, Yugoslavia, killing 98 people. One year later another plane crashed, this time in Stockport, killing 72 people. Then, in 1972 a BEA Trident plane crashed in Staines, killing 118 people. The Trident crash, in particular, caught media attention as the pilot in charge of the plane, Stanley Key, had made ‘numerous complaints’ about the length of the working day prior to his death.
As a result of this, in 1972 pilots’ union BALPA revived its campaign to reduce working hours, shifting their focus to the dangers ‘pilot fatigue’ posed to passengers. By emphasising the potential dangers of fatigue, BALPA was able to convince airlines to carry out a further investigation into flight time limitations and pilot workload. Based on the results of the investigation, in 1975 the Civil Aviation Authority published strict regulations on flight times with the aim of avoiding ‘excessive fatigue’.
Whilst the problem of ‘pilot fatigue’ did not come to a neat conclusion in 1975 (BALPA continues to campaign on the issue to this day) the working conditions of pilots were drastically improved by the introduction of strict flight time limitations. Such drastic changes would not, arguably, have taken place without the support of the British media. The alarmist nature of newspaper reports on the subject of ‘pilot fatigue’ forced airlines to take the health of pilots seriously, for fear of further frightening (and consequently losing) customers.
One would hope that the British media could play a similarly positive role today, following the Germanwings tragedy, by encouraging a re-evaluation of mental health policy by airlines (as well as by employers more generally). Although many initial newspaper reports about Lubitz were (sadly) insensitive and stigmatising, several recent articles have used a of discussion the Germanwings crash as a platform for encouraging greater awareness and understanding of mental health. The tragedy may yet engender a re-evaluation of mental health and stress in the workplace, as the Trident crash did for ‘pilot fatigue’ in 1972.
 Gebauer is quoted in this news report: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/germanwings-crash-copilot-andreas-lubitz-who-crashed-plane-suffered-burnout-says-friend-10137076.html [last accessed 23/06/15]
 The Times, Dec 13 1972, page 1.
 The Times, Nov 29 1972, page 4.
 The Avoidance of Excessive Fatigue in Aircrews: Requirements Document, (London, 1975), p. 1.
 For more information on BALPA’s current ‘Focus on Fatigue’ campaign see: http://www.balpa.org/Campaigns/Focus-on-Fatigue.aspx [last accessed 23/06/15].
 Alastair Campbell (‘Time to Change’ ambassador) on the stigma and taboo surrounding mental health: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/alastair-campbell/andreas-lubitz-would-we-be-blaming-cancer_b_6961386.html [last accessed 23/06/15].