Murder-Suicides By Pilots Are Vexing Airlines As Deaths Mount
Over the decades, commercial air travel has become safer. But one cause of death persisted: pilots deliberately crashed into murders committed suicide.
Preliminary evidence suggests the crash of a China Eastern Airlines jet in March may be the latest such tragedy, a person familiar with the investigation said. If confirmed, it would be the fourth since 2013, bringing the death toll in those crashes to 554.
So, as airplanes become more reliable and pilots make fewer and fewer mistakes, homicide-suicide deaths become increasingly large among pilots. While intentional acts aren’t usually included in airline accident statistics, if they were, they would be the second-largest category of deaths worldwide, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. synthetic. By comparison, 1,745 people died from pilot error, mechanical failure or other causes on Western-built jets between 2012 and 2021.
“It was terrifying,” said Malcolm Brenner, a former human behavior investigator for the US National Transportation Safety Board who worked on the 1999 EgyptAir Flight 990 crash investigation. “It’s a major cause of concern. It’s one of those industries that needs addressing.”
So far, however, these rare but deadly actions have defied simple solutions. While improving mental health care is a top priority, those who have chosen to kill themselves and kill others at the same time on jet planes mostly do not reveal any clues to their colleagues in advance. friends or family.
And because of the taboo nature of suicide, the cases pose unique political and cultural challenges, sometimes leaving such events shrouded in mystery or open to dispute. For example, a probe into the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 over the Indian Ocean in 2014 suggested it may have been there intentionally, but the Malaysian government report has no information on who had it. could have done so or why.
The risk of dying in a plane has dropped dramatically in recent decades due to innovations in safety equipment, aircraft reliability, and pilot training. After 5,005 people died on Western-built jets between 2001 and 2010, the total number of deaths dropped to 1,858 over the next decade, according to data compiled by Boeing Co., AviationSafetyNetwork and accident reports. According to Boeing, the odds of being on a plane in a fatal crash are about 1 in 10 million people.
But deaths attributed to pilot suicides, which have bucked that trend, are actually on the rise, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. If the China Eastern crash is confirmed to be the latest such suicide, it would mean that the death toll from intentional acts has exceeded all other causes since the beginning of 2021.
So far, Chinese authorities have revealed few specifics about what caused the China Eastern jetliner carrying 132 people to crash on March 21. The flight, a Boeing 737-800 from Kunming to Guangzhou, was flying at an altitude of about 29,000 feet when suddenly plunged at high speed. , according to Flightradar24 data. Surveillance videos show it pointing its nose at the ground.
Government authorities and Boeing have not announced any potential safety issues with the plane since then, indicating no system failures have been detected. Preliminary information from the jet’s anti-collision data recorder showed that someone in the cockpit had initiated the dive, a person familiar with the probe said. The possibility that the crash was intentional has been previously reported by the trade publication Leeham News and Analysis as well as the Wall Street Journal.
China’s embassy in Washington did not directly respond to questions about whether the accident was intentional. Investigators are conducting the probe “in a scientific, meticulous and orderly manner” and will release the information “in a timely and accurate manner,” the embassy said in an email.
As with any incident investigation, it can take months or years to conduct the necessary tests and analysis to determine the cause and rule out even possible system failures from distant.
In addition to the missing Malaysian plane with 239 people on board, a Lam-Mozambique Airlines jet with 33 people crashed in Namibia in 2013 after the captain locked the co-pilot out of the cockpit. . In 2015, a co-pilot of Germanwings GmbH also locked the captain before plunging into the side of a mountain in France with 150 people on board.
Four other intentional crashes hit airlines around the world before 2013, killing another 389 people, according to AviationSafetyNetwork and accident reports. The incidents do not include acts of terrorism, such as the plane crash on September 11, 2001.
After the Germanwings crash, which French investigators found was caused by a co-pilot suffering from mental health problems, US and European aviation regulators expanded programs for flight crews. unions received more psychological treatment and encouraged them to move forward without fear of losing their jobs.
Surveys of airline pilots have shown that between 4% and 8% have attempted suicide, roughly the same rate as the general population. Far fewer people actually try to do it – and the number of successful murder pilots who commit suicide on a plane is tiny by comparison.
Quay Snyder, a physician specializing in aviation medicine and co-leader of the American Aerospace Medical Association, said pilots must pass routine medical exams to maintain their degrees and reluctant to report depression or other mental illnesses for fear of losing their livelihood. mental health working group. The association has engaged with regulators, airlines and unions to create peer mentoring and other programs to allow pilots to receive treatment while keeping their licenses.
But an advisory panel to the US Federal Aviation Administration in 2015 found that there was no “compelling evidence” that screening for suicidal tendencies would prevent incidents like Germanwings.
“It is very difficult to predict who will be the killer-suicide,” says Snyder.
Other possible ways to prevent pilots from committing suicide do not run counter to longstanding safety or security measures.
Sophisticated locks on the cockpit doors that allow pilots to stay away from other crew members have been installed to deter hijackers. French authorities advised against changing the door design after the Germanwings crash, saying the changes could undermine security.
One idea – adding automatic limits on pilot actions in the cockpit – would require a drastic change in aviation safety philosophy.
Benjamin Berman, a former airline pilot who also worked as an accident investigator, said: “I firmly believe that the pilot present on the flight deck is the person or device that controls the aircraft. “I don’t see technology replacing that role. But it does put the pilot in control, allowing him or her to do whatever they want.”
Even the simple solution of always having at least two people in the cockpit, recommended by European regulators after Germanwings, is no guarantee that someone trying to bring down the plane can’t do it. Although the details of what happened aboard the China Eastern jet are still unclear, it had three pilots in the cockpit – a captain, co-pilot and intern – according to media reports. Chinese communication.
Now, aviation groups are calling for expanding pilots’ access to mental health treatments while acknowledging that routine psychological care may not make a difference in their lives. serious murder-suicide.
“It’s very rare,” said David Schroeder, a former FAA psychologist who, along with Snyder, leads the Aerospace Medical Association’s mental health efforts. “It’s difficult. How do you try to predict that? How do you intervene when almost all flights don’t?”
(If you or someone you know is struggling, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at +1-800-273-8255.)
–With support from Cynthia Koons
(This story has not been edited by NDTV staff and was automatically generated from a syndication feed.)