US federal authorities have been investigating nearly 5,000 pilots suspected of falsifying their medical records to conceal that they were receiving benefits for mental health disorders and other serious conditions that could make them unfit to fly, documents and interviews show.
The pilots under scrutiny are military veterans who told the Federal Aviation Administration that they are healthy enough to fly, yet failed to report - as required by law - that they were also collecting veterans benefits for disabilities that could bar them from the cockpit.
Veterans Affairs investigators discovered the inconsistencies more than two years ago by cross-checking federal databases, but the FAA has kept many details of the case a secret from the public.
FAA spokesman Matthew Lehner acknowledged in a statement that the agency has been investigating about 4,800 pilots “who might have submitted incorrect or false information as part of their medical applications.” The FAA has now closed about half of those cases, he said, and has ordered about 60 pilots - who Lehner said “posed a clear danger to aviation safety” - to cease flying on an emergency basis while their records are reviewed.
About 600 of the pilots under investigation are licensed to fly for passenger airlines, according to a senior US official familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing case. Most of the rest hold commercial licenses that allow them to fly for hire, including with cargo firms, corporate clients or tour companies.
Experts said that the inquiry has exposed long-standing vulnerabilities in the FAA’s medical system for screening pilots and that the sheer number of unreported health problems presents a risk to aviation safety. While pilots must pass regular government-contracted health exams, the tests often are cursory and the FAA relies on aviators to self-report conditions that can otherwise be difficult to detect, such as depression or post-traumatic stress, according to physicians who conduct the exams.
Many veterans minimise their ailments to the FAA so they can keep flying but exaggerate them to VA to maximise their disability payments, physicians and former officials at the aviation agency say.
“There are people out there who I think are trying to play both sides of the game,” said Jerome Limoge, an aviation medical examiner in Colorado Springs who gives physicals to hundreds of pilots a year. “They’re being encouraged by VA to claim everything. Some of it is almost stolen valour.”
These conditions are not automatically disqualifying. The FAA can grant waivers with restrictions when an ailment is adequately controlled and regularly does so, but pilots must accurately report medical issues, take regular physical exams and be monitored to keep their licences.
Federal contracting records obtained by The Washington Post show the FAA’s Office of Aerospace Medicine allotted $3.6 million starting last year to hire medical experts and other staff members to reexamine certification records for 5,000 pilots who pose “potential risks to the flying public.”
Senior officials at the FAA, including its top physician, Susan Northrup, declined interview requests from The Post. Officials at the Department of Transportation, the FAA’s parent agency, also declined to comment.
“The FAA used a risk-based approach to identify veterans whose medical conditions posed the greatest risk to safety and instructed them to cease flying while the agency reviews their cases,” Lehner said in a statement. “The vast majority of these pilots may continue to operate safely while we complete the reconciliation process.”
New health exams
In many of the cases closed by the FAA, pilots have been ordered to correct their records and take new health exams; some have been temporarily grounded while the results are reviewed, according to Lehner, as well as pilots and their attorneys. Aviation authorities also learned that some pilots did not disclose their VA disability benefits because FAA-contracted physicians advised them to withhold the information, officials said.
The VA inspector general’s office is also investigating many of the 4,800 pilots to determine if any should be referred to the Justice Department to face charges of defrauding the benefits system, according to two senior US officials familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation.
Court records show at least 10 pilots have been prosecuted since 2018 on federal charges of lying to the FAA by hiding their veterans disability benefits and obscuring their health histories, including two whose cases were discovered only after they crashed aircraft.
The FAA has known for two decades that tens of thousands of pilots are probably flying with serious undisclosed medical conditions, based on past investigations and audits, and experts who have testified before Congress. But transportation officials had long resisted pressure from lawmakers and watchdog groups to expand background checks on pilots by running their names through medical disability databases maintained by other federal and state agencies.
The ongoing probe started in 2019, when the VA inspector general’s office, concerned that some pilots may be hiding mental health conditions or fraudulently receiving disability benefits, cross-checked the agency’s disability benefit records against a database the FAA shared of veterans licensed as civilian pilots. About one-third of the country’s 110,000 commercial pilots learned to fly in the military.
Disability benefits reviewed
“Given the serious safety issues involved with flying commercial airplanes, and to promote the proper use of significant taxpayer dollars, we have been proactively reviewing certain VA disability benefits paid to commercial pilots based on conditions that may be disqualifying if true,” Inspector General Michael Missal said in an email.
As the FAA’s probe has intensified in recent months, Deputy Transportation Secretary Polly Trottenberg, who also serves as acting FAA administrator, VA Secretary Denis McDonough and congressional oversight committees have received briefings, according to government officials familiar with the conversations.
In March, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, an influential trade organisation, called on the FAA to declare an amnesty for those swept up in the review. In a statement to The Post, the group said pilots often inadvertently make mistakes on the medical certification form because it asks overly broad questions and is difficult to navigate.
“This is a complex issue, and it would be easy to just point fingers at the thousands of pilots caught up in the issue,” the association added.
The Air Line Pilots Association International, which represents almost 70,000 pilots employed by 39 US and Canadian airlines, did not respond to requests for comment.
The FAA’s review has led some pilots who served in the military to complain they are being treated unfairly.
“If they’re going to shine a light on veterans, they need to shine a light everywhere,” said Rick Mangini, 52, a former Army pilot who has been grounded from his job flying for a cargo company since his medical certificate was not renewed last month. The FAA notified him in May that he was under review for failing to disclose sleep apnea, for which he receives VA disability benefits, Mangini said. Although he checked the box on his application that asked if he receives any government disability benefits, Mangini, who lives in Killeen, Tex., said he was not aware he had to provide specifics.
“I know of a lot of pilots who have told me about [medical conditions] they aren’t telling the FAA about,” he said. “What they’re doing to veterans? That’s the definition of harassment.”
US passenger airlines have not had a fatal crash since 2009, and other forms of commercial air travel remain relatively safe. But safety experts suspect suicidal pilots were responsible for several high-profile disasters in recent years, including a China Eastern jet that flew into a mountain last year, a Germanwings jet that crashed in the French Alps in 2015 and a Malaysian Airlines flight that vanished over the Indian Ocean in 2014.
Pilots who have been diagnosed with depression, anxiety or other mental health conditions are not automatically prohibited from flying. But the FAA requires them to be closely monitored because their conditions and medications can affect their ability to safely handle an aircraft.
The investigation has also exposed a glaring systemic vulnerability for VA, federal authorities and pilot advocates said.
Under pressure from Congress to take better care of veterans after two decades of war, VA has expanded access to tax-free disability benefits. The agency projects that about 6 million veterans will receive $132 billion in compensation this fiscal year, up from 3.3 million veterans in 2011. At the same time, the system has become more vulnerable to dubious or fraudulent claims, according to former VA officials and veterans advocates.
As the FAA works to determine which pilots are fit to continue flying, Missal has also urged VA officials to review the pilots’ disability files for possible cases of fraud, he said. “We will continue to work with VA and other stakeholders to ensure the integrity of the benefits and services reserved for our nation’s veterans.”
Louis Celli, a former executive director of the American Legion, said he suspected many of the pilots under investigation either are too sick to fly, have exaggerated their disabilities to VA or are defrauding taxpayers outright.
“One of the agencies has been fooled.”