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Originally published March 28, 2012 at 8:03 PM | Page modified March 29, 2012 at 7:55 AM

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Fracas aboard JetBlue flight shows gap in screening pilots

Pilots are required to have annual medical checkups. But these exams, performed by general medical practitioners, are not always thorough, some pilots say, and do not typically include psychological evaluations.

The New York Times

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Airplane cockpits are meant to be the last line of defense from outside aggressors. But what if the threat comes from the cockpit itself?

On Tuesday, a JetBlue pilot who was behaving erratically was physically restrained by passengers after his co-pilot locked him out of the cockpit. With chaos in the cabin, the plane — flying from New York to Las Vegas — was forced to make an emergency landing in Amarillo, Texas.

While the airline has said only that the pilot, Clayton Osbon, was suffering from a "medical condition," the incident highlighted the delicate subject of how airlines screen pilots for fitness to fly.

Pilots are required to have annual medical checkups. But these exams, performed by general medical practitioners, are not always thorough, some pilots say, and do not typically include psychological evaluations.

The airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration rely on pilots to voluntarily disclose any physical or mental-health problems they may have or medication they are taking. Osbon has been employed by JetBlue since June 2000. David Barger, the company's chief executive and president, took to the airwaves Wednesday, declaring that Osbon was a "consummate professional" with no earlier problems. He also was a senior pilot who taught and evaluated standard operating procedures on the Airbus A320, the airline said.

Osbon, 49, was charged by federal authorities Wednesday with interfering with a flight crew. Under federal law, a conviction could carry a maximum sentence of 20 years. Osbon remained under medical evaluation.

An FBI affidavit filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in northern Texas said that Osbon had told the plane's first officer that "we're not going to Vegas."

The co-pilot "became really worried when Osbon said, 'We need to take a leap of faith,' " the court document said. It described a chaotic situation on the plane, with Osbon acting erratically, running in the cabin, banging loudly on the cockpit door after being locked out by the co-pilot and shouting jumbled comments about "Jesus, September 11th, Iraq, Iran and terrorists."

The issue of pilot health, which can also include fatigue, is longstanding. Pilots are screened for medical or psychological problems before being hired, and are randomly tested afterward for drug and alcohol use. They must undergo medical examinations once or twice a year, depending on their age, to keep their certification with the FAA.

Two years ago, the FAA relaxed its longstanding ban on psychiatric medications for pilots, saying that new drugs for depression had fewer side effects than older drugs. The agency now grants waivers allowing pilots to fly while taking Prozac, Zoloft, Celexa or Lexapro, and their generic equivalents.

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