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Remarks to the Air Line Pilots Association, International Pilots Assistance Forum, Denver, CO
Robert L. Sumwalt
Denver, CO

“Pilot Assistance: Do we even need it today?”

It is absolutely great to be here with a group of dedicated people who devote their time to help others in the profession.

When I received the ALPA Air Safety Award, I said something that I believed then, and something that I believe now – ALPA work is important, it does make a difference, it does matter and it does save lives.

Jeff, I applaud your efforts to organize this event, which by all measures, appears to be a huge success. I know pulling it together has been a lot of work for many people, especially the ALPA staff.

If you are like me, you probably find tremendous value networking and having sidebar conversations in the hallways.

ALPA’s Administrative Manual says that the ALPA Pilot Assistance Committee “will provide guidance and assistance to any pilot having difficulty in any aspect of their professional or personal life which may affect their ability to safely operate an airplane.”

Well, just to be provocative, I have titled this presentation: “Pilot Assistance: Do we even need it today?” The answer to that rhetorical question is…, well, I’ll answer that in a few minutes.

In attempting to answer that question, let’s briefly discuss each of the disciplines of ALPA’s Pilot Assistance Committee.

Critical Incident Response Program

First, CIRP. I first met Mimi Tompkins at the ALPA air safety forum in 1991. She and Dr. Don Hudson had a panel where Mimi stood up in front of about 350 strangers and told of the trauma that she experienced following her 1988 accident. As I listened to her I turned to the person next to me and said, “We must never allow this to happen to another of our members.” And, as Mimi stepped off the stage, I introduced myself and told her that I wanted to help her develop a program to help prevent the very trauma that she endured.

We had a slow start, but we had great support and encouragement from former Professional Standards Chairmen Captain Jim McIntyre and Bob Lynch and from Dr. Don Hudson.

I knew that we needed to do something, but couldn’t quite figure out what we needed. It was sometime later that Mimi and I learned that Captain Alan Campbell of Delta was developing such a program for the Delta pilot group.

For the next several months, the three of us worked to develop a program and in May 1994 the ALPA Executive Board unanimously passed a resolution to form the ALPA Critical Incident Response Program.

As Jan Steenblik wrote a few years ago in Air Line Pilot, ALPA’s CIRP is about “being there for fellow pilots, lending an ear - and a helping hand – when bad stuff happens.”

What became very evident through the process of building this program was the need for this type of program.

Dr. Hudson told us that of those ALPA crew members who contacted the ALPA Aeromedical Office following a critical incident/accident, approximately 70 percent of those who received proper treatment continued their aviation careers, but of those who did not receive treatment, approximately 60 to 70 percent left their aviation careers within two years of the critical incident.

Some committed suicide.

Simply put, CIRP helps save lives.

Professional Standards

I had barely 100 hours in my logbook in October 1974, when the NTSB wrote a recommendation letter to the FAA. This letter was following a CFIT accident a year earlier where a Texas International Airlines Convair 600 crashed into the Black Fork Mountain in Arkansas. The crew deviated some 80 miles off course for thunderstorms and were trying to do it on a VFR flight plan.

About 12 minutes before impact, the crew initiated a descent from 3000 feet. The First Officer stated, “I sure wish I know where… we were.”

A few minutes later he said, “Paining ridges and everything else, boss, and I’m not familiar with the terrain.”

When the captain made the decision to descend to 2000 feet msl, the First Officer continued to express his doubts about terrain clearance. “Man, I wish I knew where we were so we’d have some idea of the general terrain around this place.”

The First Office then located their approximate position on a chart. The CVR ended on an ominous note with the FO stating, “the minimum enroute altitude here is forty-four hun…”

The aircraft struck terrain about 600 feet below the ridgeline.

Although the Safety Board’s October 1974 recommendation letter was in response to this accident, it also referenced other accidents where the Safety Board cited “serious lapses in expected professional conduct” of pilots. 

The letter said: “History has proved that neither increased flight checks nor new regulations, alone, will improve safety; nor will these actions ensure professional performance. Yet, professionalism is fundamental to safe operations in civil aviation.”

The Safety Board went on to state: “The high standards of professionalism possessed by most pilots must be instilled in all pilots. Professional standards committees should be able to assist substantially in this regard.”

With that, in 1974 the Safety Board recommended that pilot associations form new, and regenerate old, professional standards committees to promote crew discipline and professionalism.

Through the years, ALPA’s professional standards program has had many successes. That said, those of us who consider ourselves professionals were quite disappointed as details emerged concerning October 2004 Pinnacle Airlines flight 3701.

In January of this year the Safety Board determined probable cause of that accident to be, in part, “the pilots’ unprofessional behavior, deviation from standard operating procedures and poor airmanship, which resulted in an in-flight emergency from which they were unable to recover…”

For the record, I voted, along with my four colleagues on the Board, to adopt that language. To be clear, my obligation as a Board Member if to call it the way I see it, even when I don’t like what I see.

Not unlike 1974 recommendation letter, our recommendation letter for the Pinnacle accident referenced six fairly recent accidents in which the board cited the “lack of cockpit discipline and adherence to standard operating procedures.”

The report said that it is clear that “most pilots conduct flight operations with a high degree of professionalism. Nevertheless, a problem still exists in the aviation industry with some pilots acting unprofessionally and not adhering to standard operating procedures, as demonstrated by recent accidents…”

Here is the part of the Safety Recommendation that applies directly to you: “Because pilot unions have expertise in safety, training, and operations and have a vested interest in advancing professional standards among the pilots they represent, these groups are well positioned to take a leadership role to establish new educations approaches for reinforcing professionalism in the aviation industry.”

The Safety Board issued Recommendation A-07-8, which called for the FAA to “work with pilot associations to develop a specific program of education for air carrier pilots that addresses professional standards and their role in ensuring safety of flight. This program should include associated guidance information and references to recent accidents involving pilots acting unprofessionally or not following standard operating procedures.”

So, yes, it appears that in spite of a very successful professional standards program over the years, they are still vitally needed.

The ALPA administrative manual says that ALPA supports the highest standards of professional conduct among its members and I urge you to continue your efforts here.

People die when professionalism is left at the gate.


The ALPA Code of Ethics and Cannons state that an airline pilot “will realize that nothing more certainly fosters prejudices against and deprives the profession of its high public esteem and confidence than do breaches in the use of alcohol.”

As I was preparing this speech I read an article that mentioned an airline pilot – in this case a pilot who was flying for a very large non-ALPA airline – who had been arrested in uniform, going through security, on his way to his 777. His BAC was reportedly 6 times the legal limit.

The entire profession cringes when we hear stories like this. The piloting community is the brunt of jokes on Letterman and Leno. But, unfortunately, it is not a joke. It is a serious problem that must be addressed.

ALPA has not put its head in the sand on this issue. For over 30 years, with the cooperation of the FAA and almost all the airlines in North America, thousands of airline pilots have been successfully treated for alcoholism and able to return to their flying careers through the HIMS program.

It is a success story that must continue. I suspect that with increased pressures brought on by airline financial difficulties, we have increased the potential for emotional difficulties with employees. And, of course, some turn to alcohol to treat their problems.

So, HIMS is important. And it, too, saves lives.


When I was an active ALPA member, I thought the ALPA Aeromedical Office was a great benefit. The primary benefit, of course, is that pilots can discuss health matters, in complete confidence, with a physician who knows and understands the professional aviator’s work environment and FAA regulations and policies. Their ultimate goal is to preserve both the pilot’s health and FAA medical certificate.

They receive over 300 calls each day.

A few years ago I received a phone call from “Tom,” a pilot for a corporate flight department. Tom was a good friend of mine and he confided in me that he and others suspected that one of their pilots was suicidal. Tom was calling to ask if I had any idea how to deal with this situation. Even though their company was not involved with ALPA, I knew that the physicians in the ALPA Aeromedical Office had knowledge in how to deal with such a situation. So, I suggested that Tom contact the experts here in Denver. He did and his suspicions were confirmed – the symptoms displayed by this pilot were indeed, consistent with someone contemplating suicide.

With that confirmation, that company was able to outline a plan to get the pilot help that was desperately needed. I think these actions literally saved his life.

Canadian Pilot Assistance

This program has been working well for a long time. When Alan, Mimi and I were working to form the ALPA CIRP, it was before the ALPA/CALPA merger. We turned to our brethren north of the border – those who at the time were active with CALPA’s Pilot Assistance Program – and asked for their assistance and counsel in developing our program. They were a big help to us.

So, this program, too, saves lives.


When I received the ALPA Air Safety Award in 2005 I cited words that are chiseled into the tombstone of Arthur Schindler. If you have seen the movie Schindler’s List or done any reading about the atrocities of the Nazi holocaust, you will recognize that Schindler was one who literally saved thousands from the death camps.

“And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”

As I went through each of the above-mentioned disciplines, I noted that they save lives. CIRP, Professional Standards, HIMS,  Aeromedical and Pilot Assistance – they all have potential to save lives.
The work you are doing – it does save lives, and if you have saved just one life, it is as if you have saved an entire world.

So, yes, as I said at the beginning: ALPA work is important. It does matter, it does make a difference, and yes, it does save lives.

Now, back to that question - Pilot Assistance – Do We Even Need It Today? In case you haven’t figured it out by now, yes, we need it more now than ever.

ALPA is fortunate to have dedicated volunteers, staff and friends who are devoted to fulfilling this mission.

You are, as the slogan of this meeting says, “Meeting the challenge.”

Congratulations. Keep up the great work!