A general aviation pilot who survives a serious accident can expect mail from the FAA, one or more insurance companies, and one letter from an Indiana pilot who has made it his mission to help fellow pilots cope with the consequences, and eventually return to flying.
Gus Hawkins knows the consequences of crashing an airplane. In May 2009, departing Griffith-Merrillville Airport in Indiana in his experimental amphibian, Hawkins stalled and crashed. The airspeed indicator had failed during takeoff; Hawkins decided it was too late to abort, and intended to remain in the pattern and return to land. Turning crosswind, the airplane stalled and impacted terrain.
Hawkins said in a telephone interview that he has sent nearly 300 letters since November. When he travels (on vacation or to EAA AirVenture, where he gave a presentation in July to a small audience), he sometimes gets behind on the letters, but he catches up. He combs NTSB reports in search of pilots who survived a serious incident or accident.
“Now, there are probably about a dozen per week,” Hawkins said.
Hawkins knows very little about each recipient, the registered owner of the accident aircraft (who is more often than not the pilot in command). Not every letter draws a response, but those who do respond can be assured of confidentiality, and a conversation with someone who has been there, who understands the self-recrimination and self-doubt that many pilots experience after a crash. Hawkins knows nonpilots may be sympathetic and supportive (or not), but nonpilots are unlikely to fully understand.
He has gathered a small group of fellow pilots with similar experiences, and created an organization called Back to the Cockpit with a website and a Facebook page. Hawkins' research after his own accident revealed a gap that he hopes to fill with a combination of online resources, and a network including himself and other pilots who have gone through the process and are willing and able to listen without judging, and provide perhaps a bit more than basic sympathy.
“I’ve been trying to get more and more training in the area of critical incident stress management,” Hawkins said, referring to a principle and practice that has been well-developed and extensively studied in recent decades, a systematic approach to providing short-term psychological support (and debriefings) for first responders involved in high-stress incidents that can lead to post traumatic stress disorder in the absence of short-term support. Hawkins recognizes that CISM principles, including the critical incident stress debriefing, are not geared toward primary victims, “which is what the pilot is,” though he is hopeful that some of the principles will be helpful nonetheless.
“Two different physicians advised me to keep my concerns about my stress level to myself, because the FAA might pull my medical if they thought that I was depressed,” Hawkins wrote in an article about his efforts published in Midwest Flyer. “So should we hide our feelings, just because we want to fly another day? Doing so would not be helpful to the pilot in either the short or long term.”
Hawkins said airline pilots and test pilots have extensive resources, including psychological and other support, available to them immediately after an accident.
“In a way, the general aviation pilot is, to me, the most vulnerable, because we don’t have somebody bankrolling this tremendous program,” Hawkins said.
Hawkins has had more than a few conversations with fellow pilots about the experience of surviving an accident, coping with both physical injuries and the deep sense of guilt that often comes, particularly if pilot error was a factor. All too often, he said, the physical injuries heal but the psychological damage festers, and ends a flying career that might have continued.
Hawkins hopes to spread the word, so that every pilot is aware there is somewhere to turn after an accident.
“I just really sensed the road I took was harder than it had to be,” Hawkins said.