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Hi, and welcome to The Safety guru. Today I’m very excited to have with me Charles Curreri. He’s a retired captain from American Airlines. He’s also the founder of Project Wingman. Charlie, welcome to the show. Very excited to have you with me today.
Honored to be here, Eric.
So, Charles, why don’t you share a little bit of background in terms of what is Project Wingman? Because Project Wingman is quite unique, had significant success at American Airlines and is a role model in terms of interventions in other organizations and in the airline industry. So, why don’t we start with a bit of an introduction to what it was and how you got into Project Wingman?
Eric, in a nutshell, Project Wingman is a pilot to pilot peer assist program for pilots and their families. It was established in June of 2011. We were running an EAP program from the Union side at the Allied Pilot Association, we realized that there was a gap in pilots seeking mental health care from a stigma perspective or a lack of knowledge. Sadly, though, we had six suicides in a period of eight months, and then we realized as a group of us that we needed a 24 7 hotline for pilots only and their family members to possibly mitigate these issues. And so, what we did, eight of us, I was met with the senior leadership of American Airlines and also with the Allied Pilot Association. We brainstormed for like five hours in a closed-door meeting with many medical professionals, American Union professionals, counselors. And I spearheaded the meeting. And at the end of the day, we decided that we needed to develop a 24 7pilot mental health hotline. And it came about in June of 2011. It did not morph much quickly into the robust program it is today because we didn’t have the foundation, the horsepower from the company side.
What happened was a very senior Czech airman, Evaluator Pilot, took his own life, September 2011. And that precipitated scrutiny by the American Airlines flight leadership. They thought, well, one of our own could do this to themselves. We must have a problem. And so, we met with the company leadership in the flight department and brainstormed about what we should do in terms of advertising, marketing, and getting to the forefront of pilot mental health care. And so, what the company did was hire me at that point to be a full time, inhouse senior manager, Project Wingman, to assist in having pilots get help they needed through the flight department. It did not mitigate the union. It was a collaborative effort between the company and the union. And that’s the beauty of it all, is that the organization has buy in to pilot mental health care, and the union has bought in to pilot mental health care. So, you have this very unique collaboration, both sides of the aisle, to ensure that pilots are getting the necessary care they needed without jeopardizing their medicals.
So, we’ll get into some of the specifics, but there’s no industry that’s probably more focused on safety than aviation. So, tell me a little bit about the link between mental health, wellbeing, and safety.
It’s a very connectedness with that link. And the word we’ve been using, and it’s been used a lot in the last 15 years, is just culture. Right now, in the aviation industry, you know just culture, pretty much no harm, no foul, unless you do something egregiously wrong, violating SOPs or federal guidelines. But just culture in a mental health sense is this. If you have a problem, you can be assured that we will do everything we can to keep it confidential and ensure that you retain your Aero medical certificate at all costs. Now, obviously, there is going to be those small outliers that the pilots are undergoing significant psychological impairment. But we found, and the research is showing this, and I’m finishing my doctorate on this, is that an organization and a union that collaborate and create a just culture for self disclosure and mental health issues is a safer environment. And for example, the FAA has a well-established program, and all their lines have this called an ASAP program. And you know what that is. And so, we look at Project Winged as a mental health ASAP program. You call the hotline, and you will get the help you need to get you safely back home.
Now, there are some caveats. If you’re a threat to yourself or somebody else, and that’s always brought to the surface immediately at the beginning of the conversation, because that has to be reported. And that’s obviously for the safety of the flying public and for the safety of the air crew member. But very rarely is it’s one in a million. We don’t get that phone call, really. But we do get the normal average everyday stuff. And so, we want to ensure the pilots understand that normal everyday mental health issues are going to be okay to report to yourself and to your counselor because we’ll mitigate that. It will be a covering for you. It will be a just culture for you. And it’s been amazing. All the chief pilots, from the Vice President of flight on down to the youngest chief pilot all knows that Project Women is a safe place to go to get help. And so, it’s worked.
So, you talked about the importance of it being peer based. Tell me a little bit more because I’m a huge advocate. I’ve seen that in the aviation space. I think if it’s EAP, traditional EAP program, you don’t get the same coverage, same level of support. Tell me about how that peer base really helped penetrate to make it something that was accepted across pilots.
It’s a great question. I’ve done some research on this over the last two years. One of the things I’ve learned is that only about 4 % of corporate America utilize EAP 4 %.
However, some studies have shown an average of 22 % of the workforce will call a peer-to-peer hotline. Wow. They will seek peer support. Now, here’s why. The biggest reason is mutual experience. You get me. For example, let’s think about a police officer. This is a study done in London, study done in Britain with police officers. And in Toronto, two studies have showed that a very small percentage of the police officers were called the company EAP or the Union EAP. But when they established the peer support, it almost rose by eight times. And so, we know this because of one, mutual experience. You get me, you understand the job. You know the grind, you know the threats out there, you know the danger of it all. You know the coming in, going out. You know the long nights, long trips, three-day, four day trips across the ocean. And you know our personality profile. That’s one. Neutral experience. Number two, reciprocity. Recip means that you and I both share the same power balance. Pilots are reluctant to go to a team leader because they don’t want to relinquish power.
When you go to a counselor, you are putting that counselor above you in terms of power balance. He or she holds the cards, pretty much. So, pilots believe that. But when you call a pilot, reciprocity means we get each other in neutral experience. Also, there’s not a power imbalance. You’re no threat to me because you get me. You understand me and trust. Third thing is trust. They found over in Britain; they did a study on trauma risk management. And they found, once they developed this robust peer program for the police officers, and then the supervisors, their phone call use went up 80 % in one year.
They went to a peer led crisis hotline type; peer led evidence based crisis hotline. So, we know the data is out there. I know that I could quote military data, I can quote police data, I can quote other stuff, but we don’t know much about pilots yet, and that’s where my research is coming right now. So mutual experience, reciprocity, trust, big three.
Which makes good sense.
Right. So, those are the big three reasons why I think peer support. And I’m sure there’s others, but those are my big three right there.
And so how did you go about getting pilots to sign up to get trained to do it? I’m sure that it was not an overnight, lots of volunteers. Tell me a little bit about how you were able to secure interests and get them ready for this experience.
Let’s go back to the history of it. I picked five initial quadrate people back in June of 2011. Well, they would work with me a little bit on EAP stuff, but we had no hotline. I picked my five eight best people and we trained for a week. We gave a 40-hour course. I developed a syllabus for peer support training. I have two master’s degree in counseling and I’m a PhD candidate. But I realized from my military experience, administrative wise, being a general executive officer and my flying experience, that we needed key people. And there’s a whole bunch of reasons why I picked these people. But one was skill sets. I mean, are you a good listener? Are you compassionate? Are you competent? Can you handle a crisis? Are you engaging? Are you trustworthy? Will you hold confidentiality? Do you get along with the flight office? Do you get along with your peers in the Union? It’s a whole person concept. And those are certain core competencies we knew we needed among the initial quadrants. Then we spent two and a half days together. We talked about listening skill sets, ethics. We covered a lot about ethics, risk management, suicide prevention.
That’s a whole 18 hours block right there because in the airlines, we always train to the most egregious emergency. So, we want to train people to be confident in a phone call that warrants suicide prevention mitigation. So, it’s a pretty intense two and a half day course. They came in, we initially quadrated, we spent time together, we laughed, we had lunch, and then we did a lot of role-playing case studies. So, we put a pilot next to a pilot at a table and pretend you’re on the phone. And I give the case scenario on the board on PowerPoint and now handle the case. So, we had low, medium, high, high threats. And so, we talked about that a lot. So that’s a whole, probably about six hours on case study and role playing. I don’t have the syllabus in front of me, but I know there’s other things we talked about, safety culture, self-compassion, taking care of yourself, burnout, fatigue, those things. So, it’s about eight courses, plus an 18 hour online course that the government has for suicide prevention. And then once you are through the course, you were assigned a mentor.
In the early days, I was a mentor, obviously. But once our group got to about six months, then as we added more people, then the senior peer support volunteers became mentors. So, you would come out of the training and then you would start many of the phones during your block of days. And then if you had any problems, you call your mentor. And every call, typically, you would call your mentor, anyhow, to debrief to make sure everything was covered, and the pilot got the help he needed. So, it was a lot of oversight. Plus, some of the phone calls are traumatizing some people and they needed to debrief it. I’m sure. Or the mentor would step in and call the pilot or the family member to just ensure they had the right care. So, a lot of oversight.
The training is pretty intense. And we have had some people come to training and finish and go, I’m not cut out for this. Do you understand that. There are some people who came to training who thought they were cut out for it, but the leadership of the team would boot them off the team, not boot them, but say, this is not a good fit for you. But that developed a lot of trust among the union representatives, union leadership, and then the flight department leadership. So, when a project agreement volunteer would engage the flight department, they would understand that this person calling was vetted and we could trust them. So, a lot of trust between the flight department and the union representation. That’s the key.
And how important was it to get the palette association so that the union at the table and partner? Because all the examples I’ve heard are generally a joint partnership between the Union and leadership for this to work well. Tell me a little bit about how that came together and also the criticality of that step.
Well, one of the things I did once we started EAP and then morphed into Project Wingman was, I went around on a base tour. I would leave Dews twice a month. I’d go to New York, the domiciles to meet with the chief pilots. Every month, it’s called a HIMS meeting, Human Intervention Motivation Study meeting, which is the code word for pilots and recovery.
If you’re in a substance abuse program banded by FAA, you must go to monthly meetings with your chief pilot and you need representation. And normally, those meetings had about 10 to 12 pilots each month in the domicile. So, I went to those meetings to get to know people, the union leadership in that base, and the company leadership at that base. And I did that for about three months. And then when women started going more visibly, then I engage the flight department and the union base reps. Every domicile has a base representative, there’s two, the chair and vice chair. So, I get to know them also. And the team, as members came on board project women, I made sure that you must meet with the chief pilots and you must get to know your Union representatives at that base because you’re the conduit, you’re the guy and the girl in the middle. They’re going to look to you to help. They will call you at night if they have to. Chiefs will call you. Union reps will call you because they trust you and they want to know who’s in their base anyhow. So, we made sure that we did at least three representatives at each dome on Miami, San Francisco, Chicago, Phoenix, and so forth.
Right now, I believe Project Women Now is about 40 representations, 40 support volunteers.
Well, quite a growth from your initial five or eight now.
Yeah. And so, the collaboration really came when I started on the Union side. So, in the fall of 2011, the Vice President of flight came to me and I met with him in his office, along with the Union Senior Vice President of the Union, to talk about bringing me on board into the flight department right inside the building where all the training is done, where all those pilots come through every year. So now that gave us the horsepower, that gave us the visibility, and that gave us the capital collaboration because now I was on loan from the Union to the company side. Even though I was a Union rep, I was quasi management. And that’s where we took off. Now we developed videos, and you should see some of the videos we made early on. It’s pretty amazing. Magnets of human factors training. We were handling… Everybody saw video every year, emotionally heart wrenching video about people hurting and got helped. So, we became a big marketing. We marketed mental health care. And here’s the thing, Eric, ready for this? And I run the International Pilot Peer assist Coalition 501 C in the United States, but it’s international.
We had a conference in November in London. A hundred and something people showed up. It was amazing. While listening, talking to all the airline representatives throughout the world, we were the only ones who have a full-time paid pilot, staff, volunteer and management, senior manager running project women for the company side and collaborating with the Union.
And most airlines don’t have that collaboration. So, the guy, the pilot took my place, the master level clinician, great man, but he works closely with all the senior leaders in the flight department and the Union. And he mitigates a lot of the flight red tape. So, it’s amazing. And people are still shocked. So, you have a company of women, senior manager, project women in the company side. And all I say to them is this, think of the military. Project Wingman person in the flight department is the command chaplain.
He works for the four stars. And all the four-star cares about how can I help my people? And all the wingman manager says, I need your help. Money, resources, videos, time. That’s the huge benefit. And other airlines, nobody in the world does it that way.
Interesting. It’s pretty amazing.
I’ve asked many of the airlines if they would gravitate towards that, and they still have not done it. The reason why it’s so important to do that, because now you get the horsepower in the flight department, and now you’re inside human fact, you’re embedded into the culture. So, here’s my thought. When you’re embedded in collaborating, you will shift how pilots view mental health care. It’s important. It’s important for their mental health and well-being. It’s important for the safety of the airline. This episode of The Safety Guru podcast is brought to you by Propulo Consulting, the leading safety and safety culture advisory firm. Whether you are looking to assess your safety culture, develop strategies to level up your safety performance, introduce human performance capabilities, re-energize your BBS program, enhance supervisory safety capabilities, or introduce unique safety leadership training and talent solutions, Propulo has you covered. Visit us at propulo.com.
We’ve talked before, you have a lot of amazing examples, successes that came out of Project Wingman. Are you able to share a few examples that give a little bit of a sense of how impactful Wingman is?
I’m going to tell you two stories that are tied together in a bizarre way. I could tell you hundreds, but these two stood up because of what they did at the end. So, we had two cases, two separate cases. The first case was a man whose wife dropped the divorce papers, a pilot. Early one morning, he thought she went out to call for some girlfriends. But an hour later, the sheriff shows up with papers. He snaps. Snaps is not a nervous breakdown. He emotionally has a heart attack. So, he leaves the house in tears. And he has a weapon in his car. So, he’s driving away from his home. He calls the chief pilot of New York City. They know each other. So, he explains to him what’s going on. He’s crying and notifies the chief he has a weapon. So, the chief gets on, calls me, three-way call. We’re talking and he’s driving around this town. It’s a very big town in a big city. He hangs up. Now we’re worried. So, we got the police involved. The son called us. We figured out the car. And three hours later, they found him in a parking lot of some shopping center. And the police graciously went to the car, got him out of the car. He was very grateful, took the weapon, and brought him to a local hospital, very well-known hospital in his town. And when they got there, the police called me and said, this is where he’s at. So, I called. When I called them, I talked to the intake representative and explained to their pilot. Long story short, we made sure they did not diagnose him in a way that puts him permanently out of the car.
At risk. Right.
So, what happened was he went through the process. He was grounded for about over a year, did all the mental health work that the FA mandated. The good news, too, when in the hospital, he was in there for 10 days. They had 15 psychiatric interns at that major hospital, and they never had a pilot before. So, he got extraordinary care for those 10 days by the way. And again, the case manager worked closely with the Union representation, the head nurse there, and with Project Wingman, me. And then a year and a half later, he got his medical and came to the schoolhouse for training. Now, hold that story. Same time frame, one of our pilots, our captains, got almost fired for acting inappropriately in a hotel. I’ll leave it at that. And the major reported him, no chart to file, but he was sent back home off the trip and saw the chief pilot had a big section hearing, a disciplinary hearing, and we were talking, him and I, between those, that hearing. And he tells me this very in-depth story of addiction, sexual addiction. And so, I just said, become clean. And he did. And the company was going to terminate him for inappropriate sexual behavior. But nobody filed charges. He didn’t hurt anybody. And long story, he went to care, went to the world’s major leading sex addiction therapist, Dr. Patrick Karnes, whom I know, and got the help he needed. So, he’s out for a year and a half also. So, these two are running parallel recovery courses. And guess what? They got the medicals back and they go to training together. How do I know that? So, I’m in the building, I’m in my office, and the captain finishes his four-day training and gets his license back, his airline transport pilot ticket back as a 737 captain. He’s so excited. He comes by my office and he’s like, Wow, I’m so happy. Project Wingman and the nurse team at APA took care of me, gave me the right advice. They covered me. And I’m so grateful to Project Wingman for help saving my career. So glad for you. So, the next guy comes in, the first officer, his first officer comes in 10 minutes later. Listen to his story. He goes, Charlie, we’re so grateful for Project Wingman. You saved my career in the hospital.
When I had the weapon, I thought I could fly again. But Project Wingman and the nurse team at Union and you guys covered me and you made sure I did all the right things in last year. And look at me, I got my license back. I am so excited. I said, Wait a second. You just finished your check ride 20 minutes ago? Right. Who are you with? And he tells me the name. I go, Huh? You’re just in my office. And he goes, Was it? Yeah. I go, I can’t believe you’re two in the same training syllabus together for four days. And can you tell me why he was out? Can you tell me what he said? He said, oh, he had a back problem. I said, what did you say? Oh, I had a heart issue. But I laugh at that because they didn’t want to self-disclose what happened. And I don’t blame them. But the good news is that they follow the protocol. Project Wingman mitigate a lot of the barriers that sometimes are in place with pilot self-reporting. The FAA did their due diligence, and we made sure, along with the Union representation, that they both got the proper care, proper documentation, proper medical evaluations, psychiatric evaluations.
And they are right now enjoying a very robust career. I’m friends on Facebook with both of them. And it’s amazing seeing them fly around the world. It’s amazing.
So, you touched on such an important point, which is around the element of just culture. In both of those stories, if things had not gone well, they could have lost their license to fly, which is a huge part of the identity of being a pilot is to be able to fly. Tell me why that’s so critical. Because some people would say, something happened, we need to address it. There needs to be consequence.
Unless you do something illegal, I know for sure the company I work for was not going to punish you. Telling the truth is always forefront on our mind. Always ethically tell the truth to the company, tell the truth to the union, and we can help you out. So back to your point. Why is it important to self-disclose? If you are having symptoms of a heart attack, numbness in your left side, chest pain, thumping in your chest, racing heartbeat, sweating, you would not just sit there and write it out. You would have someone driving the hospital call 911. So, the same premise. If you’re having a major depressive episode for the weeks on end, there’s no sense in just sitting that thing through. We know this for a fact because several of our… We know for a fact for several of the pilots I knew, worked their funerals, visited their families, were suffering quietly for months on end, severe depression symptoms, and mitigating it by calling in sick a lot. Sure. So, my point is that it’s easier to say I have an earache than a heartache, but we wanted to reduce the barrier to say it’s okay to self-disclose a mental health problem because there’s a safe place to go and safe place to come back to.
Let us be a safe culture for you, whether it be the flight department side or the union side. Now the pilots are understanding that if I go to my wingman volunteer, he or she’s going to get me the help to the union side and the company side that I need, time off, vacation, whatever I need. And they’re not going to ask any questions. All they’re going to ask is this, how can we help this pilot? That’s the key. Because everybody knows that the psychological well-being of a pilot and investment into a pilot’s career is a monetary wise to want to cost replace the pilot. It’s well worth the investment to help this pilot get safely back into the cockpit. We want him or her back. That’s the financial investment. So where are we going to go from here? Down the future lies that organizations throughout this country, particularly the United States, airlines in particular, major airlines, even the regional carriers, I hope would start really moving towards a robust, just culture for pilot, pure assist programs. It’s good for the pilots, good for the airlines. It’ll save money. So, I had a major executive at a major airline when I lectured them one day for three hours.
They brought me in to New York, and he asked the question, what does a pilot peer support save a company? Financially, what money we’re looking at when you invested? I said, About a billion dollars. I heard a pen drop. I said, Sir, God forbid you have a pilot flying in an airplane who shouldn’t be flying, and bad things happen, and a lot of people get killed. It’ll cost you a billion dollars. And sadly, we saw that down the road, German wings. And I was on the panel up in Washington. I was in five working groups and listened to testimonies and listened to experts and 50 members that were in that ARC Aviation Committee. And I heard the stories. And that’s why the FAA did not, to their credit, mandate EAP programs or pilot peer support programs back in 2015. Europeans did. The European equivalent FAA said every airline will have a peer support program on property federally overseen. Got that? Sure. There’s federal oversight in European Union. In the US right now, there’s not. And I hint to airlines, you better do this now because it’s going to come down the road later.
It’s good for the pilots. It’s good for your airline. It’s well worth every cent you put in. So that’s where we’re at. That’s my vision to bring this to the forefront through my center for aviation mental health. Com and through IPAC is to educate market peer support and private well-being. It’s a way to the future. I mean, there’s no way out of it. Peer support is a way to the future.
It is. I think your story at American Airlines clearly illustrates it, but it also applies to other industries I’ve heard for fire fighters, for whichever industry. I’ve heard cases as well. And utility workers where there’s similar peer support groups, all hugely successful, much more than any AP programs. I think it’s something to look at and hopefully something that does get expanded to other airlines. And even I don’t know if it has been expanded to other crews, like non flight crews, other employees at American Airlines, because that’s the other element is its different investment, but the same issues can happen everywhere on the wrap.
It’s funny you say that Ronny, actually, because we’ve been talking about this now that I’m retired since I run International Pilot Appearances Coalition. Europeans are on board with me. We have a team of advisors, and we are slowly branching out to flight attendants, mechanics, crew chiefs, and air traffic controllers. Yeah, all important.
So, we might rename it International Aviation pure assistance coalition. So, we’re looking at all that right now. But in the United States, my last airline, we tried several times to bring on board the flight attendants, but we could not get enough traction and buy in from their side, even though I met with the Senior VP, the Vice President of the flight attendants, Fleet Services. So again, my former airline is doing it well. They’re the model. So, I’m here now just trying to educate other airlines or even universities. I’m going to speak next week of a major university, their cadet program, they asked me to come up and speak about mental health and pilots. They had very little knowledge about ins and outs of mental health care among pilots, AMEs, FAA. So, they asked me to come up and lecture April 20th. So, I’m going to go up there for a couple of days, spend time with a bunch of cadets. That’s where I think you make your money. Initial Cadre, pilot, cadets, early on get buying to mental health care. So, Charlie.
Thank you so much for coming on the podcast, for sharing your perspective. You’ve done some great work at American Airlines. I hope it inspires others to explore a similar program. I think there’s a lot of good learnings. You mentioned your website. If somebody wants more details in terms of what was done, what was that the website?
It’s C, Charles… So, it’s C 4, the number 4 AMH.com. C4AMH.com.
Excellent. Thank you so much, Charles, for joining us and sharing your perspective. Thanks for.
Thank you for your time, Eric.
Listening to the Safety Guru on C-Suite Radio. Leave a legacy, distinguish yourself from the pack, grow your success. Capture the hearts and minds of your teams, elevate your safety. Like every successful athlete, top leaders continuously invest in their safety leadership with an expert coach to boost safety performance. Begin your journey at execsafetycoach.com. Come back in two weeks for the next episode with your host, Eric Michrowski. This podcast is powered by Propulo Consulting.