AUGUST 28, 2023
Experts say the sheer number of pilots’ unreported health problems presents a risk to aviation safety. (Illustration by Lorenzo D’Alessandro / TWP)
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 U.S. 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.
The site of a Germanwings airliner crash in the French Alps in 2015. French authorities found that Andreas Lubitz, the co-pilot of the plane, had been treated for suicidal tendencies but hid his condition from his employer. (Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters)
Many veterans minimize their ailments to the FAA so they can keep flying but exaggerate them to VA to maximize 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 valor.”
The medical conditions that could disqualify a pilot from flying
- Bipolar disease
- Cardiac valve replacement
- Coronary heart disease that has been treated or, if untreated, that has been symptomatic or clinically significant
- Disturbance of consciousness without satisfactory explanation of cause
- Heart replacement
- Myocardial infarction
- Permanent cardiac pacemaker
- Personality disorder that is severe enough to have repeatedly manifested itself by overt acts
- Substance abuse
- Substance dependence
- Transient loss of control of nervous system function(s) without satisfactory explanation of cause.
Source: Federal Aviation Administration
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.”
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 U.S. 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.
Thousands of commercial pilots who are military veterans failed to tell the FAA that they receive veterans’ disability benefits for a range of health issues. FAA officials said they plan to overhaul the agency’s medical certification form to make sure pilots comply with the law. (Washington Post illustration; FAA)
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.
“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 organization, 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 U.S. 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.”
Rick Mangini, an Army veteran who has been grounded from his job flying for a cargo company since his medical certificate was not renewed last month, says some pilots are being treated unfairly. (Ilana Panich-Linsman / TWP)
U.S. 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.”
No data-sharing, rare enforcement
The FAA has known about flaws in its medical screening process since 2005, when inspectors general at the Transportation Department and the Social Security Administration — in an investigation dubbed Operation Safe Pilot — uncovered a scam that had run undetected for years.
About 3,200 pilots in Northern California were collecting Social Security disability benefits, claiming they were too sick to work, but reporting to the FAA that they were medically fit to fly. Many worked as commercial pilots even though, under the law, those receiving disability compensation from Social Security can only work limited hours.
The U.S. attorney’s office in San Francisco prosecuted 45 of the most serious cases for fraud and related charges, winning convictions or guilty pleas in all of them. Officials said they could have prosecuted hundreds of additional pilots, but the cases would have clogged the justice system.
At the time, aviation officials acknowledged that their medical screening depended on pilots to be truthful about their health histories. Depending on their age and the class of license they fly under, pilots must take physical exams every six months to five years. The FAA does not require its doctors to review any of the pilots’ medical records outside the aviation system. Members of Congress and safety advocates urged the FAA to strengthen its oversight by cross-checking its national registry of pilots — not just those in Northern California — with databases maintained by Social Security and other federal agencies that pay disability claims.
The most obvious source was VA, which compensates millions of veterans for disabilities incurred in the line of duty. But no data-sharing program was implemented, even one limited to spot-checking the pilots’ claims. FAA officials said they didn’t have enough staff members or money. They also questioned whether the enhanced enforcement would do much to improve public safety.
Lawmakers grew impatient and angry. “The argument makes a mockery of FAA’s safety regulations,” noted a 2007 congressional report. “FAA cannot punish noncompliance if it does not attempt to look for it.”
In 2008, the FAA began requiring pilots to disclose whether they receive government disability benefits and increased oversight of the aviation medical examiners contracted to conduct physicals. The FAA also notified pilots that their medical forms could be shared with other federal agencies to verify their accuracy.
Until last year, though, the authority was rarely, if ever, used.
In a 2010 audit, Transportation’s inspector general scolded the FAA for making “limited progress” and urged officials to “expedite” data-sharing agreements with VA, Social Security and other agencies “to ensure unqualified airmen do not receive a medical certification enabling them to fly.”
But the FAA continued to dawdle, despite the evident risk. Pilot medical issues were the cause of 9 percent of fatal aviation accidents during a 10-year period from 2012 to 2022, data compiled by the National Transportation Safety Board shows.
A fatal crash in Europe in March 2015 raised new alarms about the risks of pilots with undisclosed mental health conditions. Andreas Lubitz, the young co-pilot who authorities say deliberately flew a Germanwings airliner into the French Alps, had been treated for suicidal tendencies and depressive episodes but hid his condition from his employer, French authorities found. The case spurred an investigator in Missal’s office to learn more about U.S. pilots who may have concealed medical issues or defrauded VA.
Pilot Andreas Lubitz. (AFP/Getty Images)
In 2018, the FAA shared a limited number of pilot medical records with the VA inspector general’s office, whose probe led to the prosecution of four pilots in Northern California for failing to disclose mental health conditions, including two flying for major airlines.
Then, after resisting for more than a decade, transportation officials agreed in 2019 to share a trove of pilot medical records with VA investigators. They compared that database with a list of veterans whom VA had assigned a 50 percent degree of disability with one of 15 health issues that the FAA considers potentially disqualifying for pilots.
Missal’s office shared the resulting list of nearly 5,000 pilots suspected of lying to the FAA about their disability benefits with Transportation Inspector General Eric Soskin, whose office referred the cases to the FAA in June 2021, a spokeswoman confirmed.
In summer 2022, one year later, FAA officials began notifying pilots that their records were under scrutiny. The agency hired former staffers from its Office of Aerospace Medicine to help review the cases as contractors, but told them the nature of their work was secret, according to people involved in the project.
Pilots’ reasons for not reporting
The FAA’s investigation quickly ran into resistance from pilots unions and industry groups, which balked at potential enforcement that could ground their members. They began lobbying authorities to allow aviators to resubmit their medical applications without penalty for failing to disclose they were collecting disability benefits.
Lehner, the FAA spokesman, said the agency “will take additional steps — including enforcement action — based on the details of the individual cases.”
In some cases that have gone to court, disturbing details have emerged.
Noah Felice, a 72-year-old Navy veteran, was convicted in December of making false statements to the FAA after he crashed a Cessna during an aborted takeoff in Rochester, N.Y. Authorities investigating the accident blamed it on pilot error and discovered that Felice had failed to disclose that he had six prior criminal convictions and was collecting $2,900 a month in veterans benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder. He is scheduled for sentencing in September and faces up to five years in prison.
Gabrielle DiBella, a lawyer for Felice, declined to comment on his case because his sentence is pending. But she criticized the FAA for “a history of pursuing mass criminal charges against pilots rather than implementing any sort of system that would simply allow them to verify the information provided” on the medical applications.
Matthew Jones, a 35-year-old Army veteran who served in Iraq, pleaded guilty to fraud charges in December after he ignored weather warnings and flew a helicopter into a Tennessee mountainside, killing a passenger. He had failed to disclose to the FAA that he was receiving veterans benefits for seizures and also had a history of strokes and marijuana usage, court records show.
Jones, who was left paralyzed below the waist, admitted to duping customers, including the passenger who died, that he was a certified flight instructor. His attorney did not respond to requests for comment.
Pilots must request waivers from the FAA for a number of medical conditions, including mental illness, some cardiac issues and substance abuse. But the wait for those waivers can take months in the FAA’s understaffed medical certification system, one reason pilots say they limit what they report.
Joseph LoRusso, a Colorado-based aviation-law attorney whose firm has fielded “hundreds” of queries from military veterans under FAA scrutiny since July 2022, said it is an open secret that “probably greater than 85 percent of pilots are lying on their medical forms” because they don’t want to flag conditions that might drag out approval or renewal of their licenses.
“Really, they’re only making the skies more dangerous,” LoRusso said of the FAA’s approach to mental health. “It’s ungodly frustrating that pilots cannot be humans.”
FAA officials said they have now reiterated to aviation physicians that they are not allowed to advise pilots to hide their VA disabilities from aviation authorities, Lehner said.
Mitchell Garber, former chief medical officer for the NTSB, said in an email that given the FAA’s reliance on self-reporting, “falsification or failure to disclose important medical information may put the safety of the pilot and their passengers at greater risk.”
Some pilots who have been charged with falsifying their records say there’s a disconnect between the federal government’s standards for determining if a veteran is disabled and its rules for certifying aviators.
Adam Asleson, a former Air Force Special Operations pilot, lost his job flying for Delta Air Lines and his pilot’s license after he was charged in 2018 with lying to the FAA for not disclosing VA disability benefits for depression. Asleson, 44, who served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, said military pilots rarely disclose mental health issues because they are dedicated to their mission and don’t want to let down their units.
“You’ll get your wings taken away,” he said. Prosecutors dropped the charge against him as part of a deal in which he agreed to provide 100 hours of community service and not work in the aviation industry for a year.
Asleson said that his health condition wasn’t serious and that VA officials only assessed him as having a history of mild depression. He got his license back four years later and now works for a charter flight company as a Boeing 737 pilot. “Which tells me they never should have stripped my license in the first place,” he said.
Other pilots have blamed their plight on what they describe as VA’s lax oversight.
Nicholas King Beyer, a 37-year-old Navy veteran from Northern California with a commercial pilot’s license, was charged with lying to the FAA by concealing his VA disability payments for “major depressive disorder.” At his 2020 trial, transcripts show, Beyer’s attorneys played down the condition and blamed a VA doctor for overdiagnosing him, saying that Beyer had suffered “some grief and unhappiness” when his first marriage fell apart while he was in the Navy.
But prosecutors noted that Beyer never objected to the $979 in monthly disability payments he had been receiving for his depression for four years. A judge found him guilty and sentenced him to a year’s probation.
In a phone interview, Beyer said it was unfair that the FAA was cracking down on pilots who are veterans — and not those who never served in uniform — just because they have access to their VA medical records. “Personally, I think it’s crazy,” he said. “It’s discriminatory, really.” He said the FAA revoked his pilot’s license after his conviction but he reapplied and finally won it back a few months ago.
Medical examiners working for the FAA, meanwhile, say they rely on the honesty of pilots to disclose conditions such as mental health issues. Pilots are not required to show their medical examiner their records from previous doctor’s visits — and few do, according to those familiar with the system. The exams run short, often less than an hour, and the vast majority of exams are approved. The aviation medical examiner’s goal is to get pilots in the air and keep them there, physicians said.
“If there’s something they don’t mention, that’s on them,” said Warren Silberman, a former FAA aeromedical certification chief who now works as a consultant and medical examiner. “I don’t know for sure who’s lying to me and who’s not. You just do the best you can.”
An increase in VA disability claims
After two decades of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, VA has sped up processing claims for compensation benefits for service-connected disabilities and liberalized who gets them — particularly for post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health problems, veteran advocates and former senior VA officials said. By granting more claims, though, the agency may have opened the door to more fraud.
“Veterans and their advocates have gotten more skilled than ever about getting higher checks, and VA has gotten more generous,” said Celli, the former American Legion official.
VA sets no prohibition or income limit on veterans who hold full-time jobs and receive disability checks, even those the government determines are 100 percent disabled — a rating reserved for those with the most debilitating service-connected conditions, compensated at $3,622 per month for those with no dependents.
This number doubled from 2016 to 2022, to 1.1 million from 531,000, VA budget documents for fiscal year 2024 show. Claims have grown more complex, with a 200 percent jump over the last decade in original claims with eight or more medical issues, the documents show.
The system has created a quandary for many pilots, though, who want to keep flying while still maximizing their VA claims.
“They’re throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks,” said Keith Roxo, a former Navy fighter pilot and aerospace physician who is director of operations for the aviation medical consulting firm Wingman Med. “And you know what sticks? Almost everything. It’s, ‘Get what you can. Disability is supposed to compensate you for your suffering.’”
Roxo acknowledged that some VA disabilities “are just disabilities on paper.” He tells his clients not to stretch the truth when dealing with the FAA, he said. “What’s worth more to you: the disability pay or the job with United?”
Asked if he plans to assign his staff to review benefit claims filed by pilots for accuracy, McDonough, the VA secretary, said he will let any criminal investigations run their course.
“I attach great importance to the function of our inspector general, and there is a process there that’s being worked through,” McDonough said in an interview. “We continue to stay in touch with him on this.”
Meanwhile, physicians examining pilots for medical fitness this year were given a new checklist of yes-or-no questions to help them assess if a veteran receiving disability benefits for PTSD should be certified to fly.
Silberman acknowledged that when he gives pilots physicals, he is sometimes surprised at VA’s willingness to grant benefits.
“If you see some of the stuff the VA gave them for disability,” he said, “you shake your head and say, ‘Whatever.’”