CIRP, First Aid for the Psyche, Part II

Air Line Pilot, May 2001, p.10
By Jan W. Steenblik, Technical Editor

Of the 49 pilot groups that ALPA represents, most already have a Critical Incident Response Program (CIRP) to help pilots recognize and deal with the normal stress reactions associated with being involved in an accident or critical incident. That’s pretty impressive, given that ALPA’s leaders approved the CIRP program only 7 years ago. Each pilot group with a CIRP has tailored critical incident response management to the unique needs and the particular culture of the group’s airline. For one thing, an airline management’s support for CIRP may range from complete to nonexistent.

Capt. Steve Pocock (United), the CIRP chairperson for his pilot group, believes that the extent of an airline management’s support for CIRP is directly related to whether that airline has suffered a serious accident in recent years. Airlines that have experienced tragedy, says Capt. Pocock, have learned the importance and necessity of CIRP.

Alaska Airlines

Capt. Mike Rinehart (Alaska) flies for one of those airlines. He has been a CIRP volunteer since 1994, when ALPA launched its CIRP. His experience typifies that of ALPA’s seasoned CIRP volunteers who saw the need even before the Association developed a formal CIRP.

"I’m a CRM [cockpit resource management] facilitator at Alaska Airlines," Capt. Rinehart explains. "I became involved in CIRP as a developer of a syllabus for classroom recurrent training.

"We had an inflight situation that turned out to be a critical incident for the crew; that led to analysis of the incident from the CIRP standpoint—i.e., its effects on the crew—in ground school."

That event was a B-737 crew’s narrow escape from disaster. During a night departure to the east from Juneau, a strong rotor behind a nearby mountain rolled them up on a wingtip with the stickshaker rattling. The pilots recovered at 250 feet above the airport and earned the ALPA Superior Airmanship Award (see "Air Safety Awards," October 1994).

"In recurrent training, it became obvious that the pilots really wanted and needed to tell their story," Capt. Rinehart recalls. "All of a sudden, it became evident that they came perilously close to a disaster.

"We developed a training video for flight crews and flight attendants. So it was kind of backwards—first we gave the line crews pre-incident education about CIRP and its role, then we trained the first cadre of peer support volunteers, then we formed the Alaska Employees Critical Incident Response Program.

"Pilots tend to be their own worst critics. The root of quite a few of the [defusing events] has been lack of communication among the crew members after the event. But in a lot of cases, with the pre-event education, the crews discuss it among themselves—for example, after a turbulence encounter, the pilots will say, ‘I thought that was a pretty rough ride.’

"What really legitimized our program at Alaska [Airlines]," Capt. Rinehart explains, "is this ‘pre-incident education.’ Very few airlines have provided awareness training to the line crews. Whether a carrier chooses to invest in its programs in this way is up to that carrier. We just feel that it turned out to be a large step for our program at Alaska.

"Now," he says, "we have about 30 pilots in the program, plus about six spouses trained." Alaska Airlines also offers training in critical incident stress management twice a year to airline employees.

The Alaska Airlines team was put to the test in the aftermath of the Jan. 31, 2000, fatal crash of Alaska Flight 261 off Point Mugu, Calif.

"The greatest testimony to the value of CIRP was the fact that our accident investigators accepted us from day one," Capt. Rinehart asserts. "The aftermath of [Flight 261] was like a continuous defusing. At every group meeting, every dinner, after every press conference, we had CIRP personnel available.

"Our accident investigators kept no secrets from the CIRP volunteers; we were recognized as an integral part of the team from the beginning. We didn’t have to legitimize our presence. The accident investigators understood our role from the beginning."

Capt. Bill Wolf, the Alaska pilots’ chief accident investigator, adds, "Four of us on the accident investigation team are trained in CIRP. We think it’s very important to have our accident investigators trained in CIRP so that we can take care of each other."

Capt. Rinehart continues, "The tremendous amount of support we received from other airline employee groups and from ALPA pilot groups—TWA, Delta, US Airways, America West, Hawaiian, Aloha, AirBC, United—astounded me. In some ways, their support was even more powerful because they weren’t from Alaska Airlines—people thought, ‘Well, of course people from Alaska will show up to help out’; they didn’t expect pilots and flight attendants to come from other airlines.

"We’ve had our personnel respond to some accidents of small airlines in Alaska. There are so many little airlines in the bush. Our company has been really supportive of our taking time off to help them out. There’s just such a strong sense of community [in Alaska]."

The ALPA CIRP chairperson for the Alaska Airlines pilot group is currently First Officer Jeff Schroeder, who’s worked for the airline only since October 1999. He came to Alaska Airlines, however, as a trained and experienced ALPA CIRP volunteer. Like some other CIRP volunteers, he came to this work after bearing witness to tragedy.

"Several years ago, when I was flying for a firefighting contractor, I saw an accident—one of our tankers crashed," F/O Schroeder recalls. "The contractor never called to see if I was O.K., but somebody from the state called. I thought, ‘That’s the kind of support we need.’"

At Mesa Airlines, where he flew Beech 1900s, F/O Schroeder felt the urge to be "involved with something that would help the pilot group." He and Capt. Andrew Turner, now the CIRP coordinator at Mesa, were the pilot group’s CIRP committee.

"We handled a couple of defusings for the things people run into on the line—witnessing ground accidents, that kind of thing," F/O Schroeder remembers. "In each case, it was pretty low-key—‘Hi, this is the union calling to see if you’re O.K.’ ALPA provided the training; it was pretty easy to become involved. The AirBC pilot group sponsored the training in Vancouver in December ’98." He also went to Toronto for training on the Pilot Assistance Program, a uniquely Canadian program (see "Pilot Assistance," June/July 1999).

"The Canadians are really the experts on this kind of human factors stuff," he declares. "They were doing it for years before we started doing it south of the border.

"You need to be involved to make the union work," F/O Schroeder asserts. "It’s not just something the staff back in Herndon do; it’s pilots working at different airlines."

Regarding pilots’ reactions to CIRP, he confides, "Some of the pilots who saw us in the crew lounges after the Flight 261 accident asked, ‘What are you guys doing here?’ But other pilots told us, ‘I read the CVR transcript—now I can’t sleep at night.’"

Emery Worldwide

Not three weeks after the Alaska accident, the Emery Worldwide pilot group lost three members in the crash of a DC-8 freighter shortly after takeoff from Mather Field in Sacramento, Calif., on Feb. 16, 2000. First Officer Michele Gaffney, who has been a CIRP volunteer for 3 years, was then the CIRP chairperson for the Emery pilots.

"In 1997, I was a member of the Central Air Safety Committee," she recalls. "The central air safety chairperson needed someone to fill the CIRP chairperson position. As the chairman of Council 110 remarked, ‘This is the committee we hope we never have to use; but if we do, we’ll be glad that it is there.’ I couldn’t agree with him more. This proved true the night we lost Emery [Flight] 17.

"Our main focus after the accident was the families of the lost crewmembers and the accident investigators. We were fortunate to have a CIRP peer support volunteer living in Sacramento, who went to the scene immediately after we were notified. I asked if we could send First Officer Wendy Albright (a trained member of the CIRP committee) to Mather on the company Learjet. Emery made room for her. Positioning a team immediately is crucial.

"The resources ALPA provided were invaluable," F/O Gaffney says. "With only two peer support volunteers on the scene initially, I put out the call for help, which we received from peers of Aloha, Alaska, DHL, United, US Airways, Comair, and many others. FedEx sent a team.

"In all," F/O Gaffney recalls, "we had six Emery peers involved and at least fifteen from other pilot groups. Many of these volunteers had been through serious accidents and incidents at their own companies and gave us insight into not only the present challenges, but also into what was lying ahead for us. You just learn to expect the unexpected," she says.

"Understandably, the young widows and children of our three lost crewmembers were grieving and in shock," F/O Gaffney says. Capt. Ed Tanza, the current Emery CIRP chairperson, traveled from New York City to work specifically with the family members of the deceased pilots. With the assistance of a mental health professional he and a NTSB representative assigned to the accident escorted the family members to the wreckage site and provided support for several days.

"After all is said and done," F/O Gaffney says, "the people who support family members in the days following the accident start to fade away. They can suddenly find themselves very alone. Offering them long-term support is important. We had several very generous CIRP-trained spouses, who contacted these families and offered their long-term support and friendship to them. We don’t want the families to think that we will ever forget them.

"We also experienced a ripple effect among the Emery crewmembers, company operations personnel, and their families," she recalls. "The crewmembers were devastated by the accident. Their families were upset and frightened. We received many calls from crewmembers and members of families asking how to best deal with the feelings that hit home in the aftermath of an accident.

"We are awaiting the final NTSB findings a little over a year since the accident. When the findings are published, we will all take another step toward closure in the loss of our friends. If anything can remotely be considered a silver lining, it will be that since the accident, Emery has sent several management and support personnel to CIRP training. Management understands, appreciates, and supports the importance of the CIRP concept. As we go forward as a company," F/O Gaffney says, "this training will be in place to support all the employees who work for Emery."

US Airways

F/O Rob Neighbour is the chairperson of the US Airways CIRP team. He’s been a volunteer for 5 years; like F/O Gaffney, he learned about CIRP from his central air safety chairman. F/O Neighbour took over the chairperson role from Capt. Constantine Kleissas, who built the pilot group’s first CIRP team. Capt. Kleissas, now a member of ALPA’s Accident Investigation Board, teaches the criticical incident stress management module to air safety investigators at ALPA’s Accident Investigation School. F/O Neighbour put on an ALPA CIRP basic training course in October 2000 and encourages team members to attend the company-provided course every April, alongside flight attendants, mechanics, gate personnel, and managers.

US Airways management supports the CIRP enthusiastically. A video outlining CIRP has been shown to every US Airways pilot during annual recurrent training. CIRP pilot volunteers are issued special IDs and have must-ride travel privileges in the event of a major accident.

"We have a management team of six people," F/O Neighbour explains, "and an ALPA team of eleven people, including our first fully trained pilot spouse." F/O Neighbour and his management counterpart, Capt. Randy Hass, both wear text-messaging pagers; the company’s Operations Control Center places both large and small events daily on the FlexAlert system—a software notification package sold to airlines—which sets the classification and severity of the event, then pages an appropriate list of responders as determined by the event.

"Management and union volunteers switch off in handling the CIRP cases," F/O Neighbour continues. "It works out quite well. We’ll get a page or two every day and cover an average of twelve events, or about eighteen to twenty-four pilots, per month, split between the management (check airmen) and union teams. We’ll cover medium-sized events that we think could have a negative effect on a pilot, which also keeps every peer volunteer both current and comfortable with cold-calling pilots. We’ve also lent our support to several other airlines in the past year, because we had the trained volunteers in the right place, available to help."

While being interviewed for this article, F/O Neighbour and Capt. Hass were "flexed" on a recent CIRP event—a US Airways flight crew holding in position on a runway in marginal weather saw another airliner land over the top of them onto the same runway because of an apparent error by a tower controller. The airplanes missed by as little as 40 feet. "If you don’t think that could shake you up, you’re kidding yourself," says F/O Neighbour.

He adds, "I think it takes a particular kind of personality to do peer support work. A lot of pilots think they can suck it up and press on when bad stuff happens; sometimes they can’t. That doesn’t make them lesser pilots—it just means that they’re human, experiencing a normal reaction to an abnormal event."

Delta Air Lines

Capt. Chris Hayes (Delta), the CIRP chairperson for his pilot group, agrees.

"A couple of years ago, a passenger in First Class died on my flight," he recalls. "We were at the gate, with the door closed, but we were still loading bags. I assisted in getting medical help on board. That was a traumatic event. I thought, ‘No reason we in the program shouldn’t use it ourselves,’ so I initiated a response on myself."

Capt. Hayes went through Delta’s CIRP training during the spring of 1997. He started out as a CIRP peer, then became a coordinator; in November 1999, he became chairperson of the Delta pilots’ CIRP Committee to ensure a smooth transition when Capt. Alan Campbell, one of the founding fathers of ALPA’s CIRP, retired in February 2000.

"Here at Delta, the company offers a four-day initial CIRP training course every spring," Capt. Hayes explains, "and a two-day advanced training course in October. The goal is to have someone working in the program for a year and a half before going to the advanced training. Delta trains 170 to 180 employees, plus another 20 to 30 trainees from other airlines, every year."

F/O Gaffney, chairperson of the Emery Worldwide CIRP Committee, received her initial CIRP training in the Delta basic course.

The Delta pilots operate and administer their own CIRP under the general guidelines of the company’s program. Approximately 40 pilots serve on the CIRP team, responding to about 50 events involving 120–130 pilots each year. In 2000, reports Capt. Hayes, the team handled 128 defusings and no debriefings.

Regarding the guidelines for response that the Delta CIRP team uses, Capt. Hayes explains, "Our responses are event-driven; we consider the effect the event might have on the person. We’re not into performance evaluation, we’re into stress reduction.

"If a passenger or crew member is injured or dies, we respond. If the situation involved an emergency or a serious abnormal event, we respond."

In one such case, a flight attendant fell ill and died in the lavatory while over the ocean on an international flight inbound to Atlanta.

"Because we had the time to respond, we had an excellent response," Capt. Hayes remembers. "CIRP volunteers and family members met the airplane."

In other cases, whether to respond requires a judgment call based on the unique perspective of a fellow line pilot. For example, says Capt. Hayes, consider two different inflight smoke scenarios: "If the flight crew reported a burning smell in the back of the airplane, turned off some lights, and made the smell go away, returned to the airport, didn’t declare an emergency or don smoke masks, and the mechanics cleared the airplane to return to service, I wouldn’t respond. But if the pilots declared an emergency, donned oxygen masks, and called for the fire trucks, I would respond."

Last year, the Delta pilots’ CIRP team responded to

"Most defusings take 15 to 30 minutes on the phone," Capt. Hayes explains. "We try to follow up about a week later, to make sure that the pilot’s reactions are diminishing in frequency and intensity. Some typical symptoms are sleep disturbance, suppressed appetite, and reduced ability to concentrate."

United Airlines

Though the CIRP pilot peers may be able to pick the time they make followup calls, they can’t pick the time the incoming call comes.

As chairperson of the United pilot group’s CIRP Committee, says Capt. Pocock, "I carry an ALPA beeper 24 hours per day; I’m actually a member of the United Go Team. My overnight bag is incredibly heavy, because I always have to be prepared to go directly to an accident scene at a moment’s notice."

At about 11 p.m. on a recent Sunday night, after Capt. Pocock and his wife had come home from dinner and a movie, one of United’s flight duty managers called him at home—a flight crew had experienced a significant event over the Pacific; no one was injured, but the situation had been most sobering. Capt. Pocock swung into action.

"First," he explains, "I assigned the case to a peer—a pilot based on the West Coast who used to be a captain on the airplane type involved. Second, I called my counterpart at the Association of Flight Attendants, because I knew the flight attendants might need some help."

Fundamental to the basic philosophy of CIRP is that the peer response occur within the first several hours after the critical incident. "All we need is access within the first six hours," Capt. Pocock points out. "It’s one reason I’m networking more with the Professional Standards Committee, HIMS [ALPA’s program for monitoring and helping pilots recovering from alcoholism], and other unions on the property."

He adds, regarding stress reactions, "If they get repressed, they’re going to be buried, but fester, and eventually come out. That’s the issue."

Capt. Pocock makes the point that firefighters, paramedics, police officers, and other nonairline employees usually work from a central base of operations to which they can return soon after the traumatic event and find peer support there. Pilots, on the other hand, may be off on their own on the other side of the world from a crew base. Thus, he argues, "the whole idea of using CIRP peers so far away is revolutionary."

One result of that typical geographic separation between flight crew member and CIRP peer, says Capt. Pocock, is that "most of our work as peers is done over the phone, which requires exquisite listening skills, because intonation replaces body language."

He adds, "When I assign a peer to a case, I ask about his or her schedule, so I know they’ll have all the time they need to support the pilots they call. You have to be completely there in the moment for them, for as long as they need. You must have no limitations on how long you can be on the phone, and no distractions."

As chairperson of his pilot group’s CIRP committee, Capt. Pocock has found that he must be "extremely generous in saying [to a pilot peer], ‘Okay, that’s fine that you can’t take the case,’ because the peer himself, or herself, must be up to it."

Capt. Pocock is another CIRP volunteer who took on the job because his Central Air safety Chairman asked for a volunteer. Now he oversees the United CIRP team of 14 peers, including two members of management who have been trained in CIRP techniques.

Today, he and F/O Rick Bicknell (Northwest), who was a Simmons Airlines captain and the ALPA CIRP coordinator during the 1994 Simmons Flight 4184 crash near Roselawn, Ind., teach the CIRP module at ALPA’s Basic Safety School for pilot safety volunteers.

One aspect of CIRP still gnaws at Capt. Pocock: "An inherent aspect of the program is that we can’t really show the positive results. A great deal of our stuff is anecdotal. It’s sort of like asking, ‘How many fires were you able to prevent?’ Having said all of that, intuitively, I believe the program definitely helps people."

One of those people is Capt. Pocock himself.

"My marriage has improved dramatically since I’ve learned to listen actively," he confides. Drawing an analogy with a tape recorder, he says, "Putting the ‘answer’ tape on the back and putting the blank tape, the one you’re using to record, on the front, is something you have to learn and practice."

That’s what ALPA’s trained CIRP peer volunteers practice: being there for their fellow pilots, lending an ear—and a helping hand—when bad stuff happens.

ALPA CIRP Chairpersons and Coordinators

ALPA U.S. Chairperson: Mimi Tompkins; Canada Chairperson: Tom O’Toole

If a pilot group does not list a CIRP Chairperson, the person listed is the Central Air Safety Chairman, who coordinates with CIRP in the event of an accident or incident. List is current as of April 16, 2001.


Tom O’Toole, CIRP Chairperson

Air Nova

Chuck Brown, CIRP Chairperson


Alain Demers

Air Ontario

Denis Costello, CIRP Chairperson


Bill Meredith

Air Wisconsin

Ward Abbs, CIRP Chairperson


Deborah Giese

Alaska Airlines

Jeff Schroeder, CIRP Chairperson

Allegheny Commuter Airlines

Mark Miller, CIRP Chairperson


Dave Mast

Aloha Airlines

Joe MacDonald, Jr., CIRP Chairperson


Mimi Tompkins

Aloha Island Air

Stafka King


Blaine Kiyuna

America West

Michael J. Tassielli, CIRP Chairperson


Jerry Johnson

American Eagle

Jim Woodke, CIRP Chairperson


John Manly


Mary Verry, CIRP Chairperson

Atlantic Coast Airlines

Barry Luff

Atlantic Southeast Airlines

Chuck White, CIRP Chairperson

Atlas Air

Chuck Ogier


Tom Cook

Bearskin Airlines

Derek Hale


Jennifer Nicholl

Calm Air

Conrad Schnellert


Jerry Hilderman

Canada 3000

John Scott

Canadian Regional Airlines

Gord Drysdale, CIRP Chairperson


Bernard King

Champion Air

Jon Grubs


Christopher D. Rhode, CIRP Chairperson

Delta Air Lines

Chris Hayes, CIRP Chairperson

DHL Airways

Phil Stotts, CIRP Chairperson

Emery Worldwide Airlines

Ed Tanza, CIRP Chairperson

Express Airlines I

Troy Caulkett, CIRP Chairperson

Hawaiian Airlines

Lauri Peterson, CIRP Chairperson


Timothy Wheeler

Kelowna Flightcraft

Michael Solomon, CIRP Chairperson

Mesa Airlines

Andrew Turner, CIRP Chairperson

Mesaba Aviation

Mike Teitelbaum, CIRP Chairperson

Midway Airlines

Dave Gwinn

Midwest Express

Karl Petersen


Jack Wortman, CIRP Chairperson

Pan American Airways

Jari Hayrynen

Piedmont Airlines

Bill Appleby, CIRP Chairperson

Polar Air Cargo

Anthony Mola

PSA Airlines

Jeffrey Yates

Ross Aviation

Michael Loewen, CIRP Chairperson

Ryan International Airlines

J.D. Hempsmyer

Skyway Airlines

Mark Williams

Spirit Airlines

Michael Ebaugh

Sun Country Airlines

Matthew Schneider, CIRP Chairperson

Tower Air

Bill Stowe

Trans States Airlines

Jeff Morgan


Greg Arikian, CIRP Chairperson

United Airlines

Steve Pocock, CIRP Chairperson

US Airways

Rob Neighbour, CIRP Chairperson


Lucy Young