By: Wendy Santilhano
South Africa’s general aviation accident and incident rate has averaged out at approximately 17 per month over the past 13 years. Approximately two per month on average were fatal, touching deeply at the hearts of so many sectors of our aviation family and beyond.
After a fatal accident, the most common response within the aviation community is often the unanswerable question: Why?
For those left behind, lives are changed forever. In an instant family, friends and colleagues find themselves facing the changing spirals of grief.
Others may also be impacted by the ramifications of such a traumatising experience. It must be noted that not every traumatic event we encounter harms us as individuals.
Each person has his or her own level of resilience and ambit of coping mechanisms which facilitate the integration of what has been encountered in an effort to remain emotionally healthy – personally and professionally.
In August 2012, in remembrance of the Albatross disaster, a commemoration meeting was hosted at Henley Air, Rand Airport, by several [of those] who had been closely involved with this horrifying accident.
The assembled audience was diverse, with representatives from corporate, charter and contract aviation companies, as well as Aero Club-SA, RAASA, the airlines, ALPA-SA, the SACAA, ATNS, psychologists and CAA accident investigators.
The clarion call to those assembled, was to find new and different ways to provide support to those in aviation who are involved in accidents and other forms of crisis en critical incidents.
The intention of the meeting was to assess whether the need exists within the South African pilot community for a “Peer Support” process, such as is common in many countries. In other words, to establish a project which would enable pilots to offer support to fellow pilots in a trained and skilled way?
A CRITICAL INDICENT?
Aviation Law is quite specific on how it defines critical incidents and accidents. However, the term Critical Incident, from a psychological perspective, holds a different meaning and may be extended to include many forms of crisis or traumatic experience.
In this context, the common description of a critical incident is one where the experience is potentially so traumatising that the individual’s normal capacity to cope is inadequate, regardless of whether there is a threat to physical safety.
Irrespective, the responses are normal reactions of normal human beings exposed to an abnormal situation.
In the context of aviation, critical incidents may impact the “emotional fitness to operate an aircraft safely”, consequently, peer support is a link in the chain contributing to the healing process.
Recognising and understanding the physical, emotional, behavioural, intellectual shifts and changes that we or others around us may undergo when impacted by a critical incident, is important. The danger lies for each of us when we do not pay attention to our reactions during the occasions where our coping mechanisms fail us.
The best way for us to make sense of what we have encountered, is to tell our story – what we experienced and what we feel about it. Reaching out for support, if and when necessary, may pre-empt these symptoms from escalating into illnesses such as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance addiction and/or depression, even suicide.
Other steps include restoring routine, healthy eating habits and getting rest, while surrounding ourselves with our support systems.
Pilots are trained in different contexts around the world as a network of support to their peers/colleagues. Areas of support include performance, critical incidents, aer-medical issues, life crisis, and substance addiction.
This concept of a “buddy system” is effective, because pilots:
- are perceived as “on the same side”, so the process is seen as trustworthy;
- speak a “common language”, allowing a pilot in crisis to feel understood;
- are usually very private regarding occupation and personal problems, and
- understand the stresses unique to the operating environment and know their actions affect public safety.
PILOT WELLBEING PROGRAMMES
South Africans, as a society, are exposed repeatedly to very stressful and sometimes potentially traumatic life events, which often leave them feeling insecure, anxious and stressed.
A little over a year ago, the Airline Pilot’s Association (ALPA-SA) acknowledged the impact on their members and began a Pilot Wellbeing Programmes (PWP), established by pilots, for pilots. As with the PWP, these peer (buddy) support programmes are different from an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) whereby specialised companies are contracted to provide social support and counselling services to all employees, and an Emergency Response Programme (ERP) provided by companies specialising in providing physiological and psychological support in the case of large-scale traumatic events.
The August meeting overwhelmingly voiced consensus regarding the need for support within all sectors of the South African pilot community (general, commercial and professional). The recommendation was that the project begins with pilots, with possible expansion to include other sectors of the industry as the project matures.
The name Mayday-SA was taken from the German organisation Stiftung Mayday, which was established in 1994 in response to a call for family assistance to Alexander Viatkin, a display and test pilot, who was involved in the Berlin ILA Air show accident when the prototype Yak-58 crashed close to the runway threshold.
The response by the aviation community to the call for support was extraordinary. At the same time, the imperative to establish a permanent foundation to continue the support for pilots was overwhelming.
Stiftung Mayday subsequently developed into an independent organisation which has a central call centre which referred requests for support, confidentiality, to a wide network of well co-ordinated trained volunteers. Their primary focus is supporting any German aviation licence holder who is involved in a critical incident
More recently, the organisation has had to respond to an increasing need to provide support for pilots regarding life-related issues.
Similar to Stiftung Mayday, it is envisaged that Mayday-SA becomes a “first port of call” when a pilot needs a safe place to talk, but does not know to whom or where to turn to, for support.
The primary objective is to provide a caring and confidential environment able to support colleagues in a skilled, knowledgeable way through whatever circumstance or crisis confronts them and, in so doing, promote the wellbeing and safety of pilots.
The Mayday-SA project team has been hard at work responding to the call to provide support. The organisation will be independent and volunteer-based, driven by pilots, for pilots. Plans are in place to train an initial team of 25 pilot volunteers representative of all aviation sectors in South Africa during 2013. There will be two training courses for the team, one in Critical Incident Response, the other in Peer Support.
Truly listening may sound like a simple process, but listening is usually one of the hardest skills to master and is often the biggest gift we can give to another person.
The pilots assisting in the programme are trained, skilled, emphatic listeners and the process is strictly confidential. These pilot peers are not counsellors. They are trained to refer onwards to a professional should that become necessary, and only with the pilot’s permission.
The “pilot in need” always maintains responsibility for his/her wellbeing.