Punishing a Pilot for Being Mentally Ill


Case One: A pilot flying a commercial airliner has a heart attack that prevents him from being able to fly the plane. His co-pilot takes charge and safely lands the aircraft. The pilot is rushed to a hospital and the passengers are grateful for the co-pilot’s skill.

Case Two: A pilot flying a commercial airliner has a mental breakdown and becomes disoriented. He announces that the flight is doomed, mutters comments about Jesus and flees the cockpit.  His co-pilot takes control and passengers wrestle down the confused pilot. When the plane lands safely, the pilot is arrested, charged with one count for interfering with a flight crew, and taken to a locked facility. Angry passengers file civil lawsuits against the airline for employing someone who has a mental disorder.

A judge in Amarillo, Texas, ruled last week that the pilot in Case Two was not guilty of interfering with a flight crew because he suffered from a “severe mental disease” and “was not guilty by reason of insanity.”  The pilot will now be sent to a federal mental health facility for further examination until another hearing on or before Aug. 6th. The judge will decide then whether he can be released from custody or should be committed indefinitely to a locked mental facility.

I am grateful for the judge’s ruling, but I also have a question: Why was the pilot arrested and prosecuted?

No one doubts that a heart attack is a medical emergency. No one suggested that the pilot in Case One be arrested even though he might have contributed to his heart’s weak condition by smoking, being overweight or not exercising.

The judge who reviewed the evidence in Case Two concluded that the pilot had a “severe mental disease” and was not responsible for his actions because his disorder made him legally insane.

Logic tells us that neither pilot wanted a medical emergency to ground their careers. So why were they treated so differently?

We all know that people who have mental breakdowns can be dangerous. We all know that a majority are not.  The pilot who had the heart attack did not have to be wrestled down by passengers. But how relevant should the actions of a person be when he/she has suffered a medical emergency? What if the pilot with the heart attack had locked his hands on the controls, causing the aircraft to nosedive, putting the passengers’ lives in danger? After his fingers had been pried loose and the plane safely landed, would he have been charged with a crime?

We excuse the first pilot because we know he’s not to blame. But we punish the pilot in Case Two even though he had no control over his mental breakdown.

There are lots of reasons why we discriminate against persons with mental disorders. But I think one of the most common and unrecognized is fear.  We want to blame people who become mentally ill. We think they must have done something to end up like they are. They must deserve what has happened to them, otherwise why would they be sick?

If we were to admit that mental disorders can happen to anyone, then we would have to believe that any of us could have a mental illness. We would have to accept that any of us could “lose our minds.” And that fear is so terrifying that we do not want to acknowledge it.

This is one reason why we insist on punishing people who become psychotic and we feel sympathy for others who suffer from a medical emergency that happens  below-the-neck.


About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.


  1. It is a fact that too many people with mental illness do NOT belong to the criminal justice system.  They simply need to be treated so that they can recover and become resilient.  
    As a society, we have failed to be compassionate towards people with mental illness.  On top of the fact that the mental health system is broken (lack of housing, lack of treatment clinics, behind in research in understanding the brain disorder, …), there is also this huge stigma imposed on the people who suffer mental illness.  
    Thanks to NAMI and some other organizations who help educate the public, and advocate for these marginalized people.  We can only hope this injustice will reduce as time passes. 

  2. Clayton Cramer says

    The reason the pilot was wrestled to the ground was because of understandable concern that he might take the plane right down into the ground.  He wasn’t punished; he was found not guilty by reason of insanity.