How A Grounded Pilot Used Meditation to Fly Again

Carl Eisen was at the height of his career in the fall of 2007. An Airbus A300 captain in his mid-forties, he was confident and assured, with more than 10,000 hours of experience in the cockpit. His profession required calm, unflappable, singular focus, and Eisen was proud of his ability to perform complicated maneuvers under extreme stress.

Then he bought his wife a new horse trailer.

“I was towing it with my truck to have electric brakes installed,” he remembers, “and as I was driving down the road, I thought, it has no brakes, maybe I’m going a little fast—” and as if on cue another vehicle pulled out in front of him, cutting him off. Eisen managed to get his truck and trailer under control and safely off the road, but as he sat there in the immediate aftermath of a near wreck, adrenaline pumping, he had a terrible realization. “I didn’t really feel any different than I did any of my other waking hours.” Eisen had been living in a constant state of heightened alert, unable to turn it off.

“Pilots are expected to be superhuman, to suppress feelings of anxiety.”

He made an appointment with his doctor, hoping he had “a heart condition or brain tumor,” he says, knowing that a prescription of antidepressants and therapy would jeopardize the job he loved. “Pilots are expected to be superhuman, to suppress feelings of anxiety.”

A pilot who is diagnosed with depression or anxiety and doesn’t disclose it to their airline is at risk of prosecution from the Federal Aviation Administration. A pilot who’s diagnosed and does disclose it faces immediate grounding.

Eisen was grounded for a year. He took antidepressants and explored cognitive therapy, and when he still felt anxious after nine months, he found his way to insight meditation. “I understood immediately that that’s what had been missing.” He meditated for twenty minutes a day and after a month his “anxiety level was almost to zero.”

Staying Cool When Instruments Freeze

Eisen soon had ample opportunities to practice his new mindfulness techniques on the job, and one of the most dramatic came on a hot summer afternoon in 2014, when he piloted his Airbus A330 through a line of thunderstorms as he departed Dallas for Newark. “Almost immediately, the needles on two of my airspeed indicators started fluctuating, then slowly dropped to zero.” Eisen, like all Airbus pilots, is well-trained for this. There’s a procedure pilots are required to commit to memory. “The first item on that checklist is Disregard All Airspeed Indications, because you don’t know which ones are correct.”

Eisen followed the procedure and took the engine power to 84 percent. “Then, to my surprise, the other two remaining airspeed indicators showed that we were slowing down. But were we actually slowing down or are they icing up too?” Mindful of the checklist that says Disregard All Airspeed Indications, Eisen waited and watched, but the situation didn’t stabilize as the procedure indicated it would, and his intuition told him the plane was indeed slowing down. He bucked the procedure and bumped the engine power up to 87 percent. “At that point I became a test pilot, abandoning a mandatory recovery procedure. I had no way of knowing exactly HOW fast we were going. If I put in too much power I risk overspeeding, losing control and/or breaking the plane apart in mid-air. But If the two remaining airspeed indicators are correct, I really AM slowing down to the point of a stall, which means the plane stops flying and starts falling out of the sky.” With autopilot off and turbulence tossing the plane in all directions, Eisen tuned in to the feeling of the plane. “I could feel the air flow burbling over the wing. That’s a sure sign—we’re on the verge of stalling!”

So Eisen free-styled—and called on his mindfulness training. “Rather than get wrapped up in figuring out the details, I remembered one simple fact about the 160 tons of aluminum I was piloting: If you cut the power to zero and pitch the nose down 2 degrees, you can hand-fly without any airspeed indicators at all and stay in the normal speed range making the jet one very expensive glider.”

Eisen knew from experience that would allow him to get control of the plane. Sure enough, the iced-up systems started working again in the warmer air, and Eisen and his co-pilot were able to emergency-land without further problems.

A subsequent investigation revealed that it would have taken 90 percent engine power to stabilize the aircraft. “If I had fixated and followed the procedure to the letter, we would have stalled and lost control.” When the unexpected happens, and the prescribed procedure fails, Eisen says, “you need to be present for what IS and not stuck in stories about how things SHOULD be. Non-reactivity and non-fixation (open and inclusive awareness) really help me exercise discernment. Meanwhile, improved concentration and focus free up working memory so I can think more clearly, in a less distracted way.”

Coming Out of the Meditation Closet

Despite the transformational effect of his meditation practice in his own life, personal and professional, Eisen kept it to himself. And he might have continued as a “closet meditator” if Andreas Lubitz had not crashed a Germanwings airplane into the Alps in March 2015.

“I thought if I can’t talk about this openly, we are not going to make any progress for pilots’ mental health. If I have to become the poster child, I will.”

But Eisen discovered no one wanted to talk about it. “The letters I wrote about my own experience” —letters he sent to his airline and union— “they wouldn’t even respond to me.”

So he continued his own studies with Diana Winston, Director of Mindfulness Education at UCLA Semel Institute’s Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), and became certified as a mindfulness teacher. He started, an online resource that demystifies meditation and makes it accessible to airline pilots. He connected with Matt McNeil, a commercial pilot and mental health professional who started an organization called Lift Affect to offer mental health services to pilots. And he noted that although pilots and other crew were using mindfulness apps on their phones, and were receptive to his message, the real resistance came from airlines, the unions, and the Federal Aviation Administration. “My experience with trying to introduce mindfulness to the airline industry is the sound of doors slamming all the way down the hallway.”

The skills and abilities that make pilots able to fly a 300,000-pound aircraft through inclement weather with ease can also be their downfall.

Eisen says those doors need to open. A recent study indicates that 13.5 percent of the 130,000 pilots surveyed meet the threshold for depression. “That study should have been a wake-up call, the Germanwings flight should have been a wake-up call. The approach the airlines are taking is very old fashioned.”

Meanwhile, Eisen says, the grassroots effort made by him and a few others is taking off, and not a moment too soon.

“When we deal with pilots, when they finally do come forward, they wait until their ass is on fire. They wait until they’re on the roadside bleeding out before they come for help. I was one of those guys, too.”

Eisen says the effects of mindfulness meditation are particularly acute for pilots, who tend to be goal-oriented. “Attachment to outcome is one thing pilots are into, we create certainty in our minds. It’s essential if you’re going to become a pilot, but you don’t know how to disentangle yourself from that in the rest of your life.” The skills and abilities that make pilots able to fly a 300,000-pound aircraft through inclement weather with ease can also be their downfall.

“The first time you check out an airplane it’s massive and intimidating, but like anything else, you become accustomed to it. But there’s a level at which we’re fooling ourselves. We should be in awe all the time. After all, one mistake and it can kill you and everyone on board,” Eisen points out. “But with mindfulness practice, I find that the experience of fear regarding a future task is optional. Some people use fear to motivate themselves, to give themselves an edge or to remain hypervigilant. I used to do this myself. Now I choose curiosity and wonder. I’m in awe of the machine and grateful for the people who make it all work so reliably and safely. Gratitude and awe, without fear, give me lots of motivation and comes with a more open and inclusive awareness.”

Eisen hopes talking openly about mental health will someday be as common among pilots as any other topic. “With the drug and alcohol program, they introduce it at training. But we do not have conversations about mental health in training. We just need to have the conversation for real, out in the open.”

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