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Why Pilots Should Treat Life Contingencies Like Flying Contingencies

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In December, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) hosted a summit called “Navigating Mental Health in Aviation,” and I think most pilots would agree it’s about time. With numerous high-profile mental health-related incidents occurring in the transportation industry over the past few years, a conference with the mandate to better evaluate and support aviation professionals is a welcome conversation that’s long overdue.

As I write this article, I’m reminded of the training airlines put us through as pilots — and my recent experiences in the simulator handling emergencies and “non-normals.” We drill these things over and over in aviation, and rightly so. While an engine catching fire in flight might get my heart racing in real life, I would be supremely grateful I had practiced and planned for it ahead of time so that I would know what to expect and how to handle it. Take the recent incident with the crew of Japan Airlines safely evacuating an Airbus 350 that was engulfed in flames: I would imagine they’re all sitting around today grateful they trained and contemplated on such an event happening. All this has me asking this question: why do pilots, who are hardwired to plan for contingencies in their professional lives, often neglect this same level of planning in their personal lives?

Airplane emergencies and stresses are straightforward. These include fires, failures, unruly passengers, medical emergencies and bad weather, just to name a few. These types of stresses are fairly acute in nature. A pilot may have a bad flight, but sooner rather than later, that flight is over — and once blocked in, our minds move on to other topics like the commute home or what’s for dinner.

But what about life emergencies and stresses? Often these are more complicated, chronic and numerous in nature compared to flying stresses. Relationship issues, family problems, financial uncertainly — these are stresses all people face that don’t go away once your flight blocks in. In fact, these stresses are often exacerbated by the nature of being a pilot, which can include long stretches of time away from home, often at inopportune times. The longer these sorts of stresses persist, the more pressure is put on our mental health (much like heat accumulating in the wheels after a high-speed abort) and in some cases, a metaphorical fire eventually breaks out in our personal lives.

Our society has made strides in the past decades, encouraging people to address their mental health struggles through therapeutic means, but pilots woefully lag on this trend. Why? Because of the fear of losing our FAA medical. Our medical is our permission to earn a living. There aren’t many professions in which a person needs medical approval from a government agency to make money. It’s a valuable asset and precious to a pilot, but it can be fragile. I’ve lost mine twice now — once due to an Achilles rupture (my basketball days are forever over) and in another instance due to neck issues from my days in the Navy. In both of these cases (as unpleasant as they were), these were physical injuries and there was a tangible path to recovery. But the prospect of losing a medical for mental health reasons opens the door to a dark sense of dread for aviators. Pilots naturally avoid therapists and psychiatric offices for fear that the “word will get out,” as the FAA makes it clear all these interventions must be disclosed. It’s the one area regarding well-being that pilots seem to go out of their way to avoid addressing for fear of a diagnosis that might permanently ground them from flying, thereby potentially hampering their ability to put food on their tables.

With that in mind though, the FAA actually encourages pilots to seek help if they have a mental health condition since most, if treated, do not disqualify a pilot from flying. In fact, during the last several years, the FAA has invested a number of resources to eliminate the stigma around mental health in the aviation community so pilots seek treatment.

In an April 2022 Air Line Pilot magazine interview of Dr. Susan Northrup, head of the FAA’s Office of Aerospace Medicine, she had the following to say regarding mental health:

“There have long been concerns that once you’re diagnosed with a mental health issue, you’ll never fly again.

I want to stress that this is no longer the case, unless you have one of a select group of diagnoses. There are many individuals who’ve suffered mild anxiety or depression at some point in their lives who are flying again. However, it’s important to get help early on.”

So why is our aviation team here at Creative Planning — a wealth management firm — writing an article on pilot mental health? Simply put, good financial planning also involves good contingency planning. Much of the fear for pilots stems from the financial uncertainly that comes with taking a mental health break from flying. Therapy can do immense good, but if there’s not financial peace of mind going into it, it can actually add to stress rather than alleviate it. Detailed financial planning can greatly help alleviate the anxiety associated with these types of contingencies. Much like aviation planning, we hope for the best but always plan and prepare for the worst, no matter how unlikely it may be.

Financial planning isn’t terribly different in concept from flight planning, and the questions asked are similar in nature. How do we get from where we are now to where we want to be? What variables might we encounter along the way, and how do we account for those variables? As many of us know, flight plans are rarely executed exactly as written, as on any given flight a variety of factors are encountered that require a backup plan. Is the weather not looking great at your destination when you’re about an hour out? Start running the fuel numbers to your alternate and make a plan. Is there some equipment inoperative that would prevent you from shooting certain kind of approaches at your destination? Look ahead at the options available and make a plan. Financial planning is no different, and our team is here to help.

All our aviation wealth managers understand airline contracts and benefits inside and out, and we utilize this knowledge by incorporating it into your overall financial plan. Your financial plan will include contingency planning for all the “what ifs” in your life — especially the ones that can be very specific to airline pilot families, such as:

  • What happens to my family if I lose my medical and go out on disability?
  • What if I die prematurely and all my future income disappears?
  • What if I get furloughed?

All our airline pilot clients go through a risk management analysis and assessment to answer these “what ifs” and more so that, if the unexpected happens, we’ve already run the numbers, looked at the options available and made a plan. Just like rehearsing airborne contingencies ahead of time and knowing what your options are will bring peace of mind in the airplane, so will planning for contingencies that happen in your life outside of flying.

We on the Creative Planning Aviation team are standing by to help guide you through the above considerations and more. If you’d like to schedule an appointment to discuss your situation with one of our aviation team wealth managers, you can call Creative Planning at 833-416-4702 or schedule a meeting online.

This commentary is provided for general information purposes only, should not be construed as investment, tax or legal advice, and does not constitute an attorney/client relationship. Past performance of any market results is no assurance of future performance. The information contained herein has been obtained from sources deemed reliable but is not guaranteed.

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