Flight for Change: UND working with FAA to get pilots mental health help following sophomore pilot's suicide
In a series of notes 19-year-old John Hauser left for his parents he wrote, "life without flying was not worth living."
GRAND FORKS — Some call it the wake-up call the aviation community needed about the seriousness of mental health in pilots.
The parents of University of North Dakota sophomore John Hauser said their son's final flight was a suicide.
The 19-year-old feared getting help for his building depression would end his dream of flying.
He left his parents a series of notes, writing "life without flying was not worth living."
He asked them to push the FAA for change so other pilots don't have to go through what he went through.
"There's nothing else like flying," said Emme Miller.
She is a senior in the aviation program at UND. She is one of the student voices pushing for change as a member of the Mental Health Task Force at UND.
"For aviation it feels very stigmatized and there's not really access to a lot of resources unless you might put your ability to fly at stake," she explained.
That was a fear of Hauser, who dreamed of being a commercial pilot since he was a little boy growing up in Chicago.
"There's a fear of just going to the doctor, period," said Bob Kraus, the dean of the aerospace program at UND.
The fear of losing that medical clearance and being grounded. A worry the dean of the aerospace program at UND says is not necessarily the case.
"When you look at what's actually happened to people who have sought treatment, very, very few of them actually lose their medical certificates," said Kraus.
For those who do get grounded, getting the OK to fly again could cost thousands of dollars. It's also a long process, especially for a four-year college student.
"Overall, there's no guarantee — no matter how much time you spend, no matter how much money you spend, there's no guarantee you'll get your medical and be able to fly," Miller explained. "I know people who have waited for years, and are still waiting to get their medical."
Following Hauser's suicide, UND organized a first of its kind summit with flight schools, major airlines and the FAA to discuss changing how the industry handles mental health.
"What really surprised us was the buy-in from the entire industry, so everyone from the FAA administrator all the way down to all of the airlines that participated and that surprised us a lot," Kraus said.
The FAA admits currently it may take them at least six months to review a pilot's case folder. The goal is to reduce that to 60 days by adding more psychiatrists.
At the college level, they plan on instilling into pilots the practice of talking early and often. The plan to accomplish that is to expand the peer support network on campus, including training for students. Also counselors will be more visible and embedded into the program, rather than having a student visit a clinical setting.
"The idea is to get people the help early, to talk through some of those issues, to build their resiliency skills, to build their coping skills, and help them get through smaller situations so when bigger circumstances happen, they are able to do deal with them better," explained Kraus.
Miller says this new flight path for mental health in the aviation industry is headed in the right direction to erase the stigma and barriers, but says the work is far from over.
"Facing the issue head on, they acknowledge the issue is real," Miller said. "But I think they can talk a lot but things actually need to happen."
Another big issue of discussion is which medicines a pilot can take. The FAA currently only approves of four medications.
Donations can be made to the John A. Hauser Mental Health in Aviation Initiative Fund at https://undalumni.org/JohnsFund.