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Family says UND student pilot killed in crash was dealing with 'mental health concerns'

According to the National Transportation Safety Board’s preliminary report, the Piper PA-28-181 airplane operated by John Hauser, 19-year-old sophomore and commercial aviation student, made a “rapid descent” into the ground, not long after the plane took off. Hauser was killed in the Oct. 18 crash.

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A North Dakota Highway Patrol officer photographs the scene Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021, where a UND plane crashed Monday evening in a field near Buxton, N.D., killing the pilot. Eric Hylden / Grand Forks Herald
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GRAND FORKS -- The University of North Dakota commercial aviation student killed in an Oct. 18 plane crash suffered from mental health issues, and his family has established a memorial fund to support the mental health of UND aviation students.

Robert Kraus, dean of Aerospace at UND, said administrators were previously unaware of any mental health issues student pilot John Hauser may have been dealing with, but Hauser’s family confirmed that was the case. Kraus said the official cause of the crash will be made known when the NTSB releases its final report, which could take up to a year. A preliminary NTSB report said that there were no mechanical problems with the plane.

“We don't want to do anything official until the NTSB report comes out but his family has allowed us to say that yes, there were mental health concerns,” Kraus said.

Kraus said there were no “warning signals” prior to the crash, and that Hauser was an “outstanding student” who had good grades and was progressing well through UND’s program. Kraus said it is difficult to look back and determine what Hauser was thinking at that time, which fuels speculation about the crash.

“Everybody thought everything was normal, and then this event happened,” Kraus said. “Everyone is scratching their head as to why. Were there missed signals or is there something that we could have done prior?”

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An investigator from the National Transportation Safety Board has ruled out the possibility of mechanical problems, according to an initial report of the crash, though that report is preliminary and may be changed.

Hauser was killed on a night flight to Fargo, where he was scheduled to practice taking off and landing before returning to Grand Forks. Kraus said the flight is a normal way for students to gain hours in the cockpit.

Hauser already had a private pilot’s license before he came to UND, Kraus said, though he wasn’t sure which school or flight academy he attended. Of the 250 hours needed for commercial aviation, Hauser had 133 hours, on top of what he had flown for his private pilot’s license.

Shortly after his death, Hauser’s family established the John A. Hauser Mental Health in Aviation Initiative Fund, with the UND Alumni Association & Foundation. The fund can be found online at undalumni.org/JohnsFund. As of Monday morning, Nov. 1, more than $20,000 has been raised for the fund.

Flight students, doctors and therapists

A problem particular to aviation, Kraus said, is that pilots don’t want to see a doctor and they “really don't like to go see a therapist” out of concern they may be grounded for a medical or mental health issue.

When it comes to mental health, conditions including psychosis, bipolar disorder and severe personality disorder disqualify a pilot from obtaining a Federal Aviation Administration medical certificate, according to the FAA’s website dealing with pilot mental fitness. Kraus said Hauser was not affected by those conditions. But the stigma against seeking counseling for a mental health issue remains, and Kraus said UND is working to address it.

“We have to say there are ways to talk to somebody, and this is how you do it,” he said.

Mental health professionals are obligated to report pilots who show signs of a severe mental illness, Kraus said, but the matter isn’t always cut and dry. Simply feeling stressed or sad does not necessarily mean a pilot, even a student pilot, will have the medical certificate called into question. Kraus said there are “degrees of OK,” before a pilot can be grounded. But it’s the fear of losing their flight status that keeps them away.

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UND has taken several steps to address the mental health of aviation students both before and after the crash. In April, the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences enacted the JDO Mental Health Task Force. It’s a group made up of students, faculty and staff who work to raise awareness of mental health related concerns. The goal is to put in place programs and training for the college.

The week of the crash, Kraus said students could speak to workers at UND’s counseling center on an anonymous basis. It was a chance for them to open up about the crash, without their feelings being recorded on the record.

“The idea is to help somebody before they get to the point that they would be grounded,” Kraus said.

Counseling services remain available on the campus, as are aviation support groups. There are telehealth services 7-8 p.m. Tuesdays for students who want to discuss their experiences together. Those sessions are also available in person from 11 a.m. to noon Thursdays in room 207 of Ryan Hall.

On Oct. 28 a special training on suicidal behavior was held on campus, which included ways to help a person who is in crisis. The training will be periodically held over the next few weeks.

Another issue in aviation is how mental health professionals record the diagnosis of a pilot. Kraus said education is important for clinicians, when it comes to pilots. A minor issue not requiring medication should be recorded as such, instead of a diagnosis that would ground a pilot.

NTSB report

According to the NTSB's preliminary report, the Piper PA-28-181 airplane operated by Hauser, a 19-year-old sophomore and commercial aviation student, made a “rapid descent” into the ground, not long after the plane took off.

NTSB preliminary reports do not include causes of crashes, however the report, written by Aaron Sauer, the NTSB investigator in charge, indicated: “The airplane damage was consistent with a high angle and high energy impact with terrain.”

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Sauer concluded his report with: “Post-accident examination of the airplane revealed no mechanical malfunctions that would have precluded normal operations.”

The report includes information that was mostly already known, but refined the timeline of events leading up to the crash.

Hauser took off from Grand Forks International Airport on Oct. 18 at about 7 p.m. About 30 miles south of Grand Forks, the plane made a 180 degree turn heading north before quickly descending into the ground. Air traffic control lost contact with the plane at about 7:24 p.m. The wreckage of the plane was discovered by local law enforcement at about 8:40 p.m., in a field near Buxton, North Dakota

The main wreckage of the plane was found about 25 feet from the initial point of impact. The report indicated crushed pieces of the plane were found at those two locations, and debris was found forward of the main wreckage.

Information in the preliminary report is subject to change. Any errors will be corrected in the report’s final version, according to the NTSB.

Related Topics: ACCIDENTS
Adam Kurtz is the community editor for the Grand Forks Herald. He covers higher education and other topics in Grand Forks County and the city.

Kurtz joined the Herald in July 2019. He covered business and county government topics before covering higher education and some military topics.

Tips and story ideas are welcome. Get in touch with him at akurtz@gfherald.com, or DM at @ByAdamKurtz.

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