Sullenberger: U.S. has safeguards in place for pilot health

The U.S. requires extensive training for its pilots as well as regular checkups and medical disclosures that should help prevent a rogue pilot from crashing a plane like German pilot Andreas Lubitz did last week, CBS News aviation and safety expert Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger said on CBS' "Face the Nation" Sunday.

Investigators have said that Lubitz deliberately crashed Germanwings Flight 9525 into the French Alps last Tuesday, killing himself and the other 149 people on board. Ripped-up sick notes suggest he had an illness that he was hiding from his employers.

Sullenberger said that the U.S. "must do everything we can" to prevent a similar accident from happening at home, but that there are several safeguards already in place to do so.

For one, he said, Lubitz could not have been an airline pilot in the U.S. because American airline pilots must have at least 1,500 hours of training, about two or two-and-a-half times as much as he had.

He also said the U.S. has had two "wonderful" advantages for the last several decades.

"Since after World War II until just recently, about 75 percent of all airline pilots in this country have been military-trained aviators, and of course that means that they've been through a rigorous, very structured and disciplined screening process to become military pilots, and then they've been screened a second time to be hired as airline pilots," Sullenberger said. "It's an important selection process that means that anybody who's doing this job is well suited by training and by temperament. And for those who were not military pilots, the training and hiring standards have been high enough that most civilian pilots have had multiple professional flying jobs and been screened by multiple employers prior to being hired by a major airline."

Pilots also undergo examinations, and Sullenberger called professional pilots "the most scrutinized professional group that exists in the United States." They must undergo a medical examination every year until the age of 40, and every six months after that. Pilots also must disclose every medical condition that could affect their fitness to fly or risk facing severe penalties, and must also list every single doctors visit they have had at their annual or semiannual medical examination.

"There may be some hiding going on but it's been made somewhat better by a more enlightened approach that the [Federal Aviation Administration] recently took in terms of mental health in 2010 by allowing pilots to be recertified to fly while still taking certain kinds of medication to improve their mood," he said.

The safest carriers have historically been those from North America, Australia, New Zealand and parts of Europe, Sullenberger said, and he also noted that the newer Middle Eastern carriers have been very safe.

"Unfortunately, while we do have agreed-upon international standards, they have become essentially recommendations because in order for them to be implemented, each country must mandate that its airlines and those that use its airspace adhere to these standards, so there is variation," he said.

  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.