anonymous pilots in aircraft cockpit flying over sea

The Elephant in the Cockpit

I’m going to stick my neck out today. I’m going to talk about something I’ve been avoiding for certain political and professional reasons for some time now. A topic that is close to my heart.

As it turns out, aircrew are extremely reluctant to talk about mental health. On the rare occasions I’ve brought it up, I’ve seen Captains visibly squirm in their seats. They will find any excuse to talk about something else.

Anything but the elephant in the cockpit.

Unfortunately, the problem isn’t simply an inability (or unwillingness) to talk about it. Aircrew are also more unlikely to get the help they need because of the stigma attached – because of what it might mean for their careers.

I recall talking to one Captain who was clearly distressed. It was evident that the last few years had taken its toll.

I asked him if he’d talked to a company doctor to get some time off. I told him I’d done so and was afforded 3 months stress leave. 

But he refused. He said that no airline would hire him if they found that on his record. He said it would be career suicide.

The hard reality is, if certain airlines get whiff that you have suffered from any kind of mental health issue in the past (regardless as to the whether that issue remains in the past) they will bring the shutters down hard. It seems only super humans will do. Preferably robots, in fact.

But here’s the thing that really gets me.

Many of these airlines appear to turn a blind eye within their own organisations. It’s as if they don’t want to know about it. As if they would rather their aircrew suffered in silence. Despite asking them, in some cases, to work under extremely demanding conditions. 

To give you a glaring example, I’m sure many of you will have read about the draconian covid measures the Hong Kong government has imposed over the past couple of years. In the story of animal farm, you can think of the aircrew as the rats. We were seen as the least equal of all the animals. Consequently our lives were placed on the frontline in government’s war to maintain zero covid.

What that has meant is hard to put into words. It’s been soul destroying. Collectively we have endured not years, but hundreds of years of quarantine. I’ve had more swabs shoved down my throat than I can count. Funnily enough one captain I flew with did. He was on PCR test number 234 and counting!

Yet, that wouldn’t have been as bad were it not for the severe punishment the government (and company) threatened if we failed to comply. The simple act of leavening our hotel room could mean 6 months in prison. We weren’t even allowed outside to get some exercise (a right, I might add, even prisoners are extended).

Needless to say these measures placed the company between a rock and an impossible place. The only way to keep the show on the road was to enact something known as closed loop patterns. This meant that crew who “signed up” would sometimes spend upwards of 8 weeks locked in a hotel room between flights. This was before doing their mandatory 2-3 weeks of quarantine.

Only then were they allowed to feel sunlight again.

What made this particular sinister was the new productivity based contract our company forced us to sign towards the end of 2020. It meant if we didn’t fly above a certain threshold each month our pay was significantly reduced. Of course, we don’t have any control over productivity. We can only fly the flights that are rostered. 

I was pregnant with my second child when I was forced onto this new contract. Part of the decision to have a second was based on the money I used to make. At any rate, spending anywhere between 5 to 10 weeks away from my family was out of the question. Thankfully we had money in the bank. We could and did take the finical hit.

But they were many who couldn’t. And what do you do when your choices are to sacrifice your own mental and physical wellbeing or provide for your family?

Of course, you sacrifice yourself.

That’s what the entire aircrew body have done to help maintain the government’s zero covid policy over the past two years. To provide for their families. To keep life going in Hong Kong.

I’m proud to say we did. We gave Hong Kong – effectively – a zero covid existence for over a year. But, eventually, the inevitable happened. A number of crew members broke their quarantine order and caught covid. On investigation it was found they had left their hotel room on a layover.

They were sacked, fined, prosecuted… Instead of simply punishing the offenders, they clamped down on whole crew body. At a time we’d desperately hoped our restrictions would ease. Not only that, we were vilified by many corners of the media. There were even reports of members of the public spitting on aircrew.

Many people have asked me why I left my job. Many people were surprised by the decision I made. Despite everything, despite all of the above, it was, without a doubt, the single hardest decision I’ve ever made.

The job is deeply meaningful to me. I’m proud to say I’ve been part of a rich aviation heritage. To have flown for the same company my father flew for over 20 years. I’m more proud to say I flew as his first officer a number of times, including his last flight before retirement.

I desperately wanted to go the distance – to become a captain for the same airline. To come so close but turn away at the last minute is no small thing. Even after the decision was made, after months of torturing myself, I continued to have crippling doubts. I would get this feeling in the pit of my stomach like I’d been shot. It was awful.

But then, a few weeks ago, those doubts were shattered.

I learned a college of mine had committed suicide. He leapt from the balcony of his high rise apartment. A young British man, aged just 31 years. I didn’t know him well – I flew with him, I think, only a handful of times – but it hit me hard.

I felt angry, sad and ashamed.

Angry that it had got to this point. That the authorities and the media so shamelessly ignored the elephant in the cockpit. But also ashamed that maybe in my own silence – in my own avoidance of the elephant over the years – I had contributed to a culture that may have factored in his death.

In the days and weeks following I couldn’t help but wonder, could that have been me?

Just before the pandemic I sought help for own my long term issues with depression. I regard it as one of the most important decisions I’ve ever made. I believe it gave my the strength to get through the last couple years – even if I didn’t get through unscathed.

But what if I hadn’t?

Of course, there are different types and severities of depression. You can’t judge it with the stroke of one brush. But depression can spiral. I’ve never had suicidal thoughts but I appreciate, at least, how the mind could get there. How it could dig a torturous hole within itself. One it finds impossible to escape from.

This is why I believe the issue of asking for and getting help is so important. Making people feel they can – without judgement or repercussion – speak up and do so. Although most airlines offer programs that allow aircrew to seek help anonymously, so long crew as believe that getting help is a career ender, the industry has a significant problem.

While Hong Kong may be an extreme example, its illustrative of how far certain airlines/governing bodies are willing to neglect their duty of care.

The truth is aviators are some of the keenest people I know. They have a passion that most people only ever dream of finding. But that passion has been highjacked. It’s been used by the industry to move the goalposts repeatedly. Because they know that pilots will do just about anything to get their hands on the controls of a jet. 

To live the so-called dream.

We often joke about living that dream having been up all night. Once upon time that was mine. But I’ve come to realise there is only so much loss of sleep –  only so much soul crushing isolation – you can put up with before you lose the ability to dream altogether. 

If you ignore the elephant for too long, eventually it will crush you. 

It’s why I left the cockpit altogether.

30 thoughts on “The Elephant in the Cockpit

  1. Wow, wow, wow, I have no words to describe the power of this piece, AP2. I’m sorry for what you’ve had to endure, especially in the last two years. Your incredible writing gave me a glimpse of the hard decisions you’ve had to make and so much respect for your courage on the path you’ve walked.

    I hope that this post and your honesty brings some real change — both for others in your same position and the companies that employ them. And wider than that, awareness in people like me who haven’t put enough thought into the conditions of those on these particular front lines. This piece is a change agent.

    1. Hi Wynne. Thank you for your kind words. There’s been a huge number of pilots that have left Hong Kong over the past year or so.. I guess the good to come out it is, it’s been impossible to ignore the elephant. I’ve noticed more crew willing to talk about it over the past year as a result. Hopefully the powers that be will realise that some lines were crossed here that never should have been. Wishing you well 🙏

  2. My God, what a horrible story. I have no experience to say, “I understand,” except for the part about doing whatever you have to do for your family. I think we all understand that. But I don’t know where people find the strength to walk away from their life’s work, their goals, their vows, their very heritage. Yes, it may be the right thing to do, but I don’t imagine that makes it any easier. I can only read their stories — your story — and be deeply moved by your strength and character. I sincerely hope you are building a happy ending. May you find a wealth of good fortune going forward.

    1. Thank you for your meaningful words Jack. It was the hardest decision I’ve ever made. In truth, I may fly still. I haven’t made my mind. Perhaps it’s just Hong Kong and my former toxic company I needed to part ways with? I will take some time to let the waters settle before I decided whether or not I want to leave the profession entirely. For now it certainly feels like the right move. I’ve felt 10 times lighter since. I’m very interested in psychology and helping those who have suffered as I have. This may be a necessary step in that journey. I have every faith whatever I ultimately decide, I’ll be able to do what is needed. Wishing you well Jack. 🙏

  3. Wow! I knew things were difficult but I had no idea what was really going on. Thanks for sharing this incredible story and congratulations on being strong enough to endure what you’ve gone through and on having the courage to make those difficult decisions. Thanks also for letting the rest of us know what things have been like in the aviation world.

    1. Thank you Todd. It’s a one sided picture but I believe it’s a picture that needs to be painted. If only to show what it’s been like for the crew on the frontline the past couple of years. I hope my words may at least encourage some others to get the help they need. Not to hesitate. 🙏

  4. I also appreciate what you said about the importance of getting help for mental health. I went through a rough time many years ago and like you, I did not have suicidal thoughts but I could see clearly how things could get that way, as you said. Thanks again for sharing this story.

  5. Oh my! Never would’ve guessed there were so many restrictions and responsibilities associated with being a pilot in Hong Kong. Sounds very stressful. Especially not being able to go outdoors. Thank you so much for sharing your story. I’m glad you made your decision before it broke you mentally. Take care!

    1. Thank you Shaun. It was an incredibly stressful time. I’m glad to be out. I feel a million times better since I’ve left. I’ll be sure to take care. You too Shaun 🙏

  6. Oh, AP, what an incredible story! Thank you for sharing it. I understand sacrificing for those you love. I can only imagine what courage it must take to give up the career of your dreams and to leave your home country because you are suffering under a harsh regime. May your new life bring you peace and happiness, and may you have new opportunities that are all that you could wish for. All the best to you and your family! <3

    1. Having the choice to give it up is what makes it especially meaningful. There are many others who aren’t as lucky as me. I believe we all have to make great sacrifices in this life. I’m at peace with the decision now. My view is decidedly forward. Im excited about the opportunities and challenge ahead. Best to you and yours Cheryl 🙏

  7. I can only imagine how much worse the pressure is on saving face for pilots than us regular folk. When in reality, the impacts could be far worse if mental health issues are left untended. Simply horrible in the case of your friend, but even for a larger group (and the airlines), should something happen mid-flight. I’m so sorry you’ve had to go through a terrible ordeal like this, but my hat is off to you for: a) having the courage to do what you felt in your heart to do, and b) having the courage to talk about the elephant in the cockpit. Supporting you! 🤍

    1. The final report of what happened to the China Eastern airline flight is yet to surface, but I have my strong suspicions. Only in mainland China have the aircrew had it worse than us…

      Anyway, thank you for your kind words. I hope my story may inspire someone to get the help they need. To not hesitate. Ultimately we live only inside our minds. We must take care of it. 🙏

  8. Thank you for sharing with us your story AP. I live in New Zealand which also tried a ‘covid zero’ approach. There are many stories here similar to yours.

    1. What’s angered me more than the zero covid madness has been the length of it. Especially after vaccinations etc were rolled out. The costs have been astronomical. All they managed to do was kick the cab down the road. Thank you for lending your thoughts 🙏

  9. I can relate. Being a military aviator, (although not a pilot), we were expected to fly with no sleep and minimal time to adapt to the time change on deployments. There was absolutely NO talk of mental health issues, no matter what you saw in combat. They did provide some avenues to get anonymous mental health care, and a couple of options that weren’t anonymous. I tried one option after I had a breakdown when my then 11 year old stated that he wanted to kill himself. My flight doctor immediately went into my chart to verify that I wasn’t formally diagnosed with anything grounding. It was so sad because my very deep depression was categorized as “season of life issues” and did not even address how deep my depression was. I was able to stick it out to retire at 20 years, but 2 years later I am STILL addressing the damage I did by not seeking help sooner.

    1. Thank you for sharing your story. I’m sorry to hear about it too. I honestly think the industry wants to keep a lid on it because it’s a can of worms waiting to happen. Especially given the demands of flying against ones body clock all the time. There’s a reason sleep deprivation has been used as a form of torture. I suspect there are far more suffering in silence then we realise. I do believe the sooner we get the help we need the better. Thanks again for sharing. 🙏

  10. As others have said, I had no idea this was going on. Thank you on many levels – one for providing truth to those who need to hear/see/feel it (certainly myself) and two – for sharing your story. I know the courage it takes to stand strong in the face of the insurmountable, the overwhelming and I suspect you didn’t disclose because you wanted the attention yourself – the admiration and our regard – but you have it. We never know precisely the scope of who we help or how when we speak our truth. Peace and love to you and to your colleagues who’ve endured so much. ❤

  11. Monday Oct 10 was world mental health day ( and my employer (EU Commission) organized a full week of events, trainings, conferences. I participated in three conferences. One of them was held by a super good psychiatrist. She explained to the audience that depression is one of the most difficult illnesses to be diagnosed, and in most of the cases people will ignore it. Depression doesn’t mean that you cry all day long. Depression can be some parts of your body aching, frequent migraines, irritability, and a lot more. There are way to measure it, and one psychiatrist will know if it is depression, and how to treat it, of course. That’s the point. Psychiatrists would know because it is their job. But if you go to a psychiatrist or even a psychologist, most probably you will be stigmatized. She said, if you have got a cancer, everyone will be empathic and compassionate with you. But if you say you may be depressed, people will start to say – oh come on, you have a nice family, a good job, an excellent pay, beautiful house, and so on, I think it resonates to you. You have done the right thing David, no regrets, keep the beautiful memories of your job, that was your passion, and we know how difficult it is. Life will show you another path, and it will be another story. Your own story in good shape and good mental health.

    1. Thank you Cristina. It definitely resonates. I think she made an excellent point about the stigma. Why it is people are afraid to talk about it. I’m at peace with my decision now. I’m looking forward to new adventure ahead. No regrets. 🙏🙂

  12. Thank you for sharing your experience AP2. I am sorry that you’ve had to go through such a harrowing experience. It was inevitable, with such draconian lock-down controls that people would breach them at some point. But I also agree that the stressful environment created added to the existing pressures of your job would have been a catalyst for many mental health issues. As has been said above, it takes a lot of courage to walk away from a job, especially one you love, but it sounds like it was the right choice for you.

    World Mental Health Day was a good starting point to try and gwt people talking more openly about mental health. But we do need to change attitudes in societies, and with employers and workforces. Employers should have a responsibility for the welfare of their employees; to support them with any mental health problems they may be experiencing, and to look at how they design jobs and how their management is behaving which may create or add to stress etc. I fear some employers are introducing Mental Health First Aiders but not looking at other aspects so having minimum impact. I’d also say this is really important in areas where we need employees to be at their best … pilots, surgeons, emergency services … they deserve to be fully supported

    1. Completely agreed Brenda. Thank you for your kind words. It takes time to change attitudes. It starts, I hope, but having the courage to have the conversation. Wishing you well. 🙂🙏

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