This Time, It’s Personal

An ALPA CIRP volunteer shares his experiences immediately after the tragedy now called 9/11.

Air Line Pilot, March/April 2002, p. 20
By First Officer Rob Neighbour, CIRP Committee Chairman, US Airways MEC

The car was rocketing along silently up the interstate, plowing mercilessly toward an assignment I’d volunteered for—to debrief the widow of a member of the crew of one of the four airplanes involved in the tragedies of Sept. 11, 2001, or 9/11. A buddy of mine who is the Critical Incident Response Program (CIRP) chairman for his airline had returned my call almost immediately. I had offered to help in one city in which his airline’s CIRP had no resources at all for the survivors of the attacks. After a couple of calls to clear our calendars of other airline-related CIRP work, the CIRP team mental health professional (MHP) and I met up that very evening and started on our long drive for a visit neither of us looked forward to.

The MHP had warned me that very difficult questions could come up. Just hearing some of these questions from him during the car ride gave me a knot in my stomach. Although I had placed a team of pilots trained as peer support volunteers (PSVs) in each of my airline’s crew rooms to work with company-supplied MHPs, I took this assignment myself because of its expected difficulty and my proximity to our destination at that time.

When the U.S. national airspace system was shut down for a few days, it gave every airline’s CIRP team time to prepare mentally and also to drive to locations where they could do the most good. One US Airways pilot peer, First Officer Stu White, based in Charlotte, N.C., rode a Greyhound for 15 hours. Another couple, Philadelphia-based Capt. Jack Broadbent and his wife, Lani (a spousal support volunteer who was trained to work with pilot widows), drove for 16 hours, not including a border crossing, from an island retreat in Canada.

With PSVs moving toward their assigned positions, I could afford to lend myself and another pilot peer to the two most directly affected airlines, during times when we weren’t busy working in our own crew rooms. Boston-based Capt. Lucy Young, our US Airways MEC CIRP vice-chair, helped out for several days with American, while waiting for our BOS operation to reopen. I sent First Officer Conny Kleissas, based at Baltimore/Washington International, to cover the team of accident investigators working at the Pennsylvania crash site, until a United team could arrive.

No one expected this kind of event. Most airlines have a small team that does the more routine CIRP work, as they have neither the budget nor the ability to keep their peer volunteers current.

We at US Airways were, in some ways, luckier than other airline employees, in that we had a team of great people who are all very well trained and who turned out to be geographically pretty well distributed. Because of close communications with our dispatchers via a company pager system, and our MEC’s Central Air Safety Committee, we’ve had the opportunity to practice our "telephone defusing" skills on a regular basis, maintaining "currency," so to speak.

Individual airline CIRP teams normally count on help from other airlines’ PSVs for the most severe accidents, to help augment and relieve their own teams if the unthinkable were to happen. That model had served us well in the past. How could we have predicted that every airline’s employees would simultaneously be affected? Any ideas of "mutual aid," a term I stole from firefighters, had to go pretty much out the window. And so I was especially glad to pitch in and help, in some small way, another airline’s employees whose needs clearly exceeded our own.

Providing grief counseling to a widow or widower is difficult, specialized work. I quickly discovered that while most of my CIRP training proved valuable, the models we use for performing critical incident defusings and debriefings just didn’t fit. For the entire evening, I was there as a mostly silent pilot support volunteer, letting the MHP do his work. I was glad to have snared this MHP, as airlines had been calling any counselor they could find who claimed to have any background in grief counseling. Experienced, talented MHPs were in very short supply.

Who’s your buddy?

ALPA created the Critical Incident Response Program in the mid-1990s to help mitigate the effects of stress a pilot may experience after exposure to a critical incident or accident. At most airlines, we have trained pilot peer support volunteers (PSVs) who are happy to talk to pilots at any time about any aircraft-related incident they’ve experienced. We have called many pilots who have experienced a critical incident, such as an engine failure, cabin decompression, crew death or injury, or any number of stressful events. A lot of airlines have a small team of spousal support volunteers (SSVs) who are available to talk to spouses or significant others about the events that their partners have been through, and how those events could affect the pilots and their families. At US Airways, we also have an outstanding team of check airmen trained alongside the ALPA team, who are used in exactly the same way as the ALPA team.

Anything discussed with any CIRP volunteer pilot is kept between the two of them, with no feedback to management or training. No notes or records are kept whatsoever.

Later, USA Today published some debate about whether grief counseling should take place at all after an event such as this. After personally participating in the process, I can say that I think it should be mandatory.

Although unable to alleviate or interrupt the grieving process, grief counselors educate people, arming them with the tools that others have used successfully to deal with their grief. I learned that at times, grief can hit even harder than right after the death, e.g., after the funeral, when family, friends, and pilot volunteers leave, and the survivor is alone. Wonderful, well-meaning people often don’t realize how dependent a survivor can become on his or her "new" support system, only to have it drift away so quickly. If you find yourself providing emotional support to someone who has been strongly affected by the events of 9/11, or the subsequent job losses, I ask you to please continue in this role to the best of your ability. Allow the person to tell you, one way or another, when your support, at that level, is no longer required.

In case you didn’t have a chance to talk to a CIRP volunteer during the days following 9/11, I want to share some of the crew members’ reactions. To protect each individual’s privacy, I won’t divulge the airplane type, the person, or the city involved. Our team has handled about 800 pilots, flight attendants, and other employees, just at our "mid sized" airline.

Given the dozens of debriefings (held as a group with peers and an MHP) and hundreds of defusings (one-on-ones in the crew rooms) that we conducted during the first few weeks after the terrorist attacks, we couldn’t possibly tell you who said what. Nor would we ever divulge that confidentiality.

To help you understand that others share some of the same feelings that you may have experienced, I will relate only comments that I have heard from at least four people. This information may help you understand that you are a pretty normal person who has experienced a highly abnormal situation. You have had some normal reactions to the events of 9/11, or an impending furlough, and need to realize that you’re not alone. Thousands of others have experienced the same things you did.

Because of the vast number of ways in which people process information, each person’s reaction to 9/11 is unique. We differ in background, culture, social circles, work patterns, habits, and life experiences, all of which change the way we react to an incident. Some have friends or significant others who were directly involved in one of the four crashes. Perhaps you recognize the tail number of a hijacked airplane as one that you once flew or worked on. You may have flown with one of the hijacked crew members at another airline, or in the military. These experiences shape our reactions, and give us a little insight into why we’ve all been affected a little differently by 9/11.

In conducting crew room debriefings, your CIRP team heard certain comments over and over again. You may find the following familiar:

1. "They took my safety razor/nail clippers/Swiss army knife/eyelash curler!" I confess that I got a kick out of the last one, trying to visualize a terrorist threatening a flight attendant with an eyelash curler! One person pointed out that security personnel were taking away items that could be used as defensive weapons to thwart a terrorist. The PSVs and MHPs pointed out that, although airport security was doing some really stupid things, at least travel is a lot safer than it was earlier.

As time goes on, loopholes are being discovered and closed. Some of the silliness will go away, leaving us with a much safer working environment. As you know, we are now able to carry some of the previously prohibited items. We just have to give the screening authorities time, and keep pointing out the glaring holes.

2. "Ramp service workers and agents still aren’t going through security." While that was true at some airports, it wasn’t at others. In some cases, they were screened with wands and had lunchboxes randomly searched. In others, they were still getting through security without being checked. As a result, many groups, including ALPA, are calling for one level of security, evenly applied to all personnel throughout the air transportation system.

3. "These guys bypassing security have no background checks." While true in some cases, this loophole should close in the near future. If it doesn’t, you can bet that a ton of people, including pilots, will complain to their managers, their members of Congress, the FAA, and anyone else who will listen.

Interestingly, the ramp service workers that we defused want to be checked. They want to ensure that everyone who is inside the secure area belongs there and has had a thorough background check.

Some people suggested moving all catering facilities onto the field, so that catering personnel and their trucks can be thoroughly checked. How about that guy who fills up the Pepsi machine in the crew room? His van sits right outside, under a jetway, while he’s there. Thoughts such as these have given us all pause, and in some cases, added to our level of stress.

4. "I feel guilty that a group of pilots inflicted this terror." We’ve all felt this to some degree, especially as we imagine how the public now perceives us. Realizing that these were terrorists, not pilots, may help. Their "job" was to incite terror. We have all remarked on how well planned these events were: flying the exact same cockpit design; knowing which airplanes would have the most fuel on board; even selecting a VMC day so that the news crews could easily capture the most graphic and emotionally damaging footage. Focusing on the fact that these terrorists trained to use the Boeings as weapons, just as they’d trained to use box cutters, is most helpful. The terrorists learned enough to do their job. They had no intention of becoming real pilots, which was probably readily apparent to their instructors. I’m just glad that most reporters quit referring to the terrorists as pilots.

5. "My parents called me up and want me to stop flying. They said they’d pay off my credit cards and asked me to move back home with them." I was amazed to hear this so often, though it was mostly from
the younger, junior crew members. I’ll offer the same advice that the MHPs, peer volunteers, and fellow crew members suggested: Don’t let the terrorists win by changing your way of life. If you didn’t like your job before 9/11, think about it for a couple of months. If you still want to quit, then go ahead. But don’t do it now. Don’t quit because of this. Right now, we’re all in an emotionally heightened state. Our new environment has altered our judgment.

Personally, this whole experience triggered a memory of the last time I was furloughed by US Airways. I’d explained to my spouse that when an aircraft generator fails, the electrical system sheds nonessential electrical loads, e.g., coffee makers that use a lot of current, so that the remaining generator/s can easily handle the increased load.

What I was trying to say was, "I’m stressing here. I’m going to start pitching over the side all the stuff that I no longer need to survive. These decisions will be swift and abrupt." For example, I stopped serving as an active Red Cross volunteer. I just didn’t have time to do it anymore. What I failed to consider was how disturbing this abrupt shift was to my other half. I’d turned inward, started making substantial changes to my routine, and cut expenses everywhere. Even little things, like not ordering a beverage when we’d eat out, or dropping cable TV, were quite noticeable to those closest to me. I’m now sure that my significant other lost some sense of security in the process, wondering how to best fit into my "new reality."

This time around, although I shared some of my emotions about my experience defusing pilots and flight attendants, I failed to make myself available for my partner’s own altered realities, fears, and concerns. Given my heightened workload, my other half did not want to burden me and instead turned inward, choosing to bottle things up, which can be very unhealthy.

After day four, I finally figured all this out and mentioned it to an MHP. The MHP told me that he’d noticed during our defusings and debriefings that I was no longer an extrovert. At his urging, I brought my spouse in for a one-on-one defusing. Afterward, the MHP ordered us to go home early, turn off my cell phone and pager, and have a really nice dinner out, just the two of us, without interruptions. This was particularly poignant, as our previous night’s entire dinner was spent with my ear glued to the cell phone.

6. "We should be allowed to carry guns. Instead, they’re confiscating my Swiss army knife, making me take off my hat, jacket, and belt, and treating me like a criminal." We’ve all been here. While I’m an expert marksman, I don’t have a gun in my house. So I guess I’m "middle-of-the-road." On this issue, did you hear about the 30-year-old, reportedly disturbed man traveling on Oct. 8, 2001, to Chicago aboard a B-767, who somehow broke into the cockpit? Being right-handed, if I had a gun in a case like that, I’d have to swing its barrel in an arc past my captain. Having no time to threaten the intruder, I’d probably have to fire my weapon, most likely twice, as I’ve been trained. How would I feel for the rest of my life, having killed a mentally challenged man who suffers from anxiety? Pass. If we were to get some kind of stun weaponry, I’d support that in a heartbeat. Don’t forget that a couple of deadheading pilots and passengers were on this guy right away. The era of passive crew and passengers is gone forever. We travel with a lot of new allies now.

We’ve become aviation junkies who love our jobs and find them nurturing and rewarding most of the time.

7. "Swearing is up." True, for the short term, but don’t you expect more civil language to return? Courtesy’s up too, though … and isn’t that nice? Friends point out that some aggressive drivers are still on the road. Perhaps drivers perceive that their cars provide them with anonymity.

8. "When I was leaving for work, my son/daughter wrapped him/herself around my leg and begged me not to go flying today." That’s got to be a gut-wrenching experience for any parent. Kids, when young, are simple and honest. That honesty can cut like a sharp knife through all the veils that we adults erect. It’s usually good to tell your kids the truth and to speak with them openly.

Emphasizing the positive side of things is important, though. As one MHP put it when speaking to a patient’s child, "Those were very, very bad men. Luckily, there aren’t too many very, very bad men in the world. But there are some. I know now that all the good people on my airplane will help me if we someday have a bad person on my airplane, and that person tries to do something mean." Is that telling your kids the truth? I think so. Does this positive outlook apply to our discussions with significant others, and parents, too? Sure it does. It’s our job to defuse them a little, too, you know. Although we use family as our support system, please remember to share the positive side of things with them. We must serve as their support system as well! As one doctor told us in training, "Depression can be contagious."

9. "Continuing to do this job isn’t worth your life." By manipulating thousands of pounds of aluminum, rubber, fuel, and people through the air, we pilot types reap daily rewards: a grease-job landing, busting through that low layer of clouds to a beautiful blue sky above, or staying right on the glideslope as we configure and slow the aircraft on an ILS. We’ve become aviation junkies who love our jobs and find them nurturing and rewarding most of the time. As adults, a lot of us haven’t done much other than fly planes for a living. Understandably, the thought of losing that job causes great anxiety. What else can we do to make a living and support a family?

Do flight attendants feel the same? I know some do. Many love the personal interaction; or the feeling of their training helping them to take the correct action when an emergency arises. They take great pride in their jobs as well.

While some outsiders view flying as unsafe, or at least scary, most of us who fly for a living know otherwise. We know that the events of 9/11 were an anomaly, not the norm. Or, the ‘new norm,’ for that matter. Since 9/11, some people have experienced sensations at specific times—while putting on a uniform, packing a roll-aboard, walking down the jetway, or sitting in the cockpit seat. All these events tie to the job of flying an airplane and will bring up memories. Interestingly enough, smells can evoke some of the strongest memories.

10. "I’m having trouble sleeping." This seems to be the most common stress indicator of all. Some form of sleep disruption seems to affect almost all of us. Some of us can’t get to sleep; others go right to sleep, but then wake up at 1 or 2 a.m. and can’t get back to sleep. Consider using some light exercise in the early evening as one way to relax yourself. A lot of us will turn on the fan when in a hotel room, to generate a "white noise" that helps us sleep.

During a presentation at an ALPA safety conference on fatigue management, one NASA research doctor recommended that you "ritualize" your sleep habits. Try to use your bed for only two things! No bill paying. Limit television watching, especially the news. Feel free to watch escapist stuff.

Stop infecting yourself with the news for a while. If it’s important, you’ll hear about it anyway. How long did it take you to find out that we were bombing Afghanistan? How many times have you seen images of an airplane hitting the World Trade Center? Do you really need to see that again? Or another rehash of the story of how the attacks affected someone? Vote with your remote.

11. "I can’t commute to work anymore, as I always flew on another carrier to get here." Well, perhaps things will change on the airline on which you’ve been jumpseating. Rest assured that our ALPA jumpseat coordinators are struggling mightily to restore our ability to fly just as before. I’m not going to get up on my soapbox and ask for an inter-airline procedure, like a secure website that allows your dispatcher or gate agent to confirm that your potential jumpseat rider still works at that Part 121 carrier you’ve never heard of before. We’ll just have to see what happens with respect to off-line jumpseats.

As one MHP says, it won’t get better, it’ll just get less worse. We’ll now live in a new reality, one that calls for security checks and long lines at large public venues. We may feel that our privacy or our freedoms have been violated, but we may also be willing to pay that price for a slightly safer world. Human beings are remarkably adaptable. We’ll adapt to this, too.

Common stress reactions

These fall into several categories—

• Physical—Fast breathing, fatigue, diarrhea, headaches, sleep problems, upset stomach.

• Cognitive—Difficulty in solving problems, distressing dreams, hyper-vigilance, intrusive memories or memory problems, poor attention span.

• Emotional—Anxiety, agitation, depression, fear, feeling isolated, grief, guilt, withdrawal, feeling lost or numb.

• Behavioral—Antisocial actions, increased use of alcohol/nicotine, irritability toward family or crew, hyper-alertness to environment, problems in social relationships, speech pattern changes, being more suspicious.

Some suggestions on how to reduce stress

• Relearn the art of writing. Sit down and just write stuff down. You don’t have to e-mail or mail it, just write down what you need to say. Start a diary if you like. Stay in touch with your support system—your family or close friends. Talk to them. Ensure that they’re doing O.K., too.

• Exercise. Don’t invent something new, just do what you’re doing a bit more. Avoid abrupt, drastic changes in your routine.

• Cut back on stuff you know isn’t great for you. You know what this is. You’ve heard it all your life, haven’t you? Booze, smoking, fried foods, etc. While you’re at it, watch the meds. If you’re on a prescription for something, we’re not asking you to stop taking it. Be aware that sleeping aids, whether over-the-counter or prescription (hey, I’m not your AME!), inhibit your ability to get a full night’s rest and also slow down your recovery.

• Spend time enjoying nice things. Pamper yourself a little. If you have a dog, bask awhile in his/her unconditional love and simplified view of the world. The same applies to kids. Walks are great for you and your spouse, you know. (Take the dog, of course!)

Just don’t let the bad guys win. Because this time, it’s personal.

CIRP and the FAA

Any visit to an MHP (other than a debriefing session) after a critical incident must be reported to your AME during your next flight physical.

Discussions in crew rooms with MHPs, company EAP counselors, or pilot peers do not need be reported to the AME or the FAA. However, follow-up visits to an MHP after that point must be reported.

No discussions with trained CIRP pilot volunteers need to be reported, as we’re not therapists or counselors. We’re pilots with short memories. Very short memories.

If you elect to visit an MHP, please make sure you have a very good relationship with that individual, as well as with your flight surgeon. If your flight surgeon elects to report your visit to the FAA (he/she doesn’t have to), the FAA might send you a letter asking for more details. If the FAA sends you this letter, you’ll need your MHP to provide some details of your counseling in the form of a return letter to the FAA.

It’s very important that you immediately contact the ALPA Aeromedical Office in Aurora, Colo., if you receive such a request from the FAA. The ALPA doctors can advise you and your MHP on the proper way to respond. The FAA is looking for any adverse diagnosis or substance abuse that would impair your ability to fly.

Dr. Don Hudson, ALPA’s Aeromedical Advisor, has worked hard to establish an enlightened view of visits to MHPs—to counter critical incident stress, as well as clinical depression. He is in active discussions with the FAA to ameliorate the possible negative effects of this reporting policy and to decrease the number of pilots "driven underground," out of fear that the FAA will take adverse action against pilots who seek counseling. The FAA’s intention is not to discourage pilots from seeking professional assistance.