Airline pilots are among the most trusted professionals in the world. So when a troubled young co-pilot decides to play God and take the lives of 150 passengers and crew; a deep feeling of unease permeates the sanctity of the profession. In the wake of the Germanwings tragedy, how common is pilot suicide and why does it happen? Indeed, what can be done to prevent such a tragedy from happening again? AVIATOR investigates.
GERMANWINGS PILOT MENTALLY UNSTABLE
Pilot suicides are very rare but as we’ve seen in recent months, they do happen. Investigators believe the recent Germanwings tragedy, whereby an A320 crashed into the French Alps, killing 150 people, was caused by the plane’s co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz, who locked the captain out of the cabin after the latter had left for a toilet break. The captain knocked and tried desperately to get back in, but the doors were fortified — a security precaution taken after the 9/11 attacks. The voice recorder indicated that Lubitz had been breathing up until the moment of the crash, suggesting he meant to destroy the plane.
Lubitz suffered from severe clinical depression. Medical records from 2009 reveal previous episodes of severe depression. Lufthansa training school released a statement following the crash that they knew no reason why the 27-year-old co-pilot would deliberately crash the plane, killing himself and everybody on board.
Lubitz had medical documents citing his mental health problems, had medical records as evidence of medical maintenance for depression, anxiety disorders and panic attacks. One of the medicines was the tranquilizer Lorazepam, a benzodiazepine that is a relatively stronger medication than the more typically prescribed diazepam (or valium). It suggest that the 27-year-old was coping with anxiety or panic attacks of a more serious nature than the run-of-the-mill, more manageable stress-specific incidents. The implication is that the young pilot was having or trying to manage a major depressive episode. However, it is essential to point out that having depression or clinical depression, whilst it might certainly induce suicidal tendencies in the sufferer, it definitely does not impair their judgement to the extent that they are willing to hurt others. Quite the opposite, in fact. There are, of course, incompatible admixtures of medications (plus alcohol) and other recreational drugs that might impair someone’s judgement to that extent.
The Dusseldorf prosecution office in Germany stated that Lubitz was in a long period of psychotherapeutic treatment and had noticeable suicidal tendencies prior to obtaining his pilot’s licence. The co-pilot had lied to doctors prior to the flight, stating he was on leave. If doctors were aware of his employment status, we would like to asume that they would not have passed him fit to fly. This knowledge perhaps struck fear in Lubitz that his clinical depression would eventually destroy his career and end any hope he had of working for a major international carrier such as Lufthansa.
Lubitz was described by his acquaintances from his hometown of Montabaur, Germany as a “normal guy” and a “nice young man”. He was engaged in sports, liked music, had friends, and had a membership for a flight club. He was described as “a lot of fun, even though he was perhaps sometimes a bit quiet”. Those that knew him were as shocked and surprised as everybody else by the news of the crash.
It’s likely Lufthansa will be required to pay hefty compensation claims for the losses suffered by the victims of the crash. It also raises questions about their screening process for pilots in the face of the impending threat of legal action from the relatives of the 150 victims. No ties to terrorism were found linking to the demise of the Airbus A320. Footage found in one of the mobile phones recovered from the crash site detailed the final moments before the crash. A banging of metal could be heard from the footage, indications of the captain trying to break through the heavy metal door of the cockpit which Lubitz had secured prior to crashing the plane.
PILOT SUICIDE RARE
Despite the Germanwings tragedy, pilot suicides are rare. In fact, flying is one of the safest forms of transportation. In the United States, most pilot suicides are committed by people flying solo in light aircraft. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has identified in a report eight cases of pilot suicide between 2003 and 2012. In only one instance was there a passenger on board.
Four of the eight pilots had been drinking at the time, while two had been taking antidepressants. The report noted that “factors involved in aircraft-assisted suicides may be depression, social relationships, and financial difficulties, just to name a few problems.” The good news? The frequency of these suicides has declined sharply in recent decades, the NTSB said.
Even more rare — but more gruesome — are times when pilots appear to commit suicide while carrying dozens or hundreds of passengers on board. The September 11 terrorist attacks were the most infamous example, followed closely by the Germanwings tragedy.
The Aviation Safety Network (ASN) – a private, independent initiative that covers accidents and safety issues relating to airliners, military transport planes and corporate jets – identifies at least eight instances worldwide since 1976 where pilots appeared to have deliberately crashed airliners, sometimes taking dozens or hundreds of people with them. Here is the full list of airliner accidents involving possible or rumoured pilot suicide compiled by the ASN:
In September 1976, a Russian pilot stole an Antonov 2 and directed the aircraft into a block of flats in Novosibirsk, the third most populous city in Russia after Moscow and St. Petersburg, where his divorced wife lived. The man and 11 residents were killed—but the wife was not among them.
In August 1979 a 23-year-old mechanic stole a military HS-748 and crashed into a Bogotá suburb, shortly after takeoff. He was killed, along with three people on the ground. The man had been fired from his post after working at the airport for two years.
An Air Force engineer stole an Antonov 26 in Bashkortostan in July 1994, in the former Soviet Union, to commit suicide. The aircraft crashed when it ran out of fuel, killing the pilot.
In August 1994 a Royal Air Maroc ATR-42 crashed in the Atlas Mountains shortly after takeoff from Agadir, Morocco. The investigation suggested the accident was caused by the captain, who disconnected the autopilot and directed the aircraft to the ground. The Moroccan pilots union challenged these findings. Forty four people died.
Silk Air Flight 185, a Boeing 737 en route from Jakarta, Indonesia to Singapore, crashed in Indonesia in December 1997 following a rapid descent from cruising altitude. While Indonesian authorities were not able to determine the cause of the accident, the NTSB suggested that the captain committed suicide by “switching off both flight recorders and intentionally putting the plane in a dive, possibly when the co-pilot had left the cockpit,” the ASN report stated. According to the investigation, in the months before the crash the captain experienced multiple work-related difficulties and significant financial hardship. One hundred and four people perished in the crash.
In October 1999 an Air Botswana captain on sick leave boarded an ATR-42 aircraft parked on the Gaborone airport and took off. Shortly afterward he reported to the controller that he wanted to speak to the country’s president, Air Botswana’s general manager and his girlfriend, among others. The president was out of the country, so arrangements were being made for him to speak to the vice president. After flying for about two hours, he did two loops and then crashed at 200 knots into two other ATR-42s parked on the runway. He died from the impact.
In October 1999, EgyptAir Flight 990 crashed near Nantucket, Massachusetts, killing 217 people. Before the crash, the plane’s pilot had apparently excused himself to go to the bathroom. The black box recorder then picked up unintelligible commotion and banging on the door. The co-pilot, Gamil El Batouty, could be heard muttering over and over, “I rely on God. I rely on God. I rely on God. I rely on God.” The captain eventually forced his back way in and could be heard saying, “What is this? Did you shut the engine[s]?” As the plane crashed, the captain was heard trying to right the plane, saying, “Pull with me. Pull with me.”
The NTSB concluded that the crash occurred because of the co-pilot’s “manipulation of the aeroplane controls.” But they did not explicitly call it suicide, and Egyptian officials have disputed that it was deliberate.
In November 2013, Mozambique Airlines Flight TM470 crashed in Namibia, killing 33 people on board. Investigators initially couldn’t figure out why the plane had crashed but the plane’s black box recorder offered some disturbing clues. The co-pilot had left the cockpit for the bathroom only to find that the door was locked when he returned. The captain then altered the autopilot to bring it to below ground level and manually switched it to maximum speed. Someone was pounding on the cockpit door as the plane went down. The captain never once called for help.
WHY THE COCKPIT DOORS ARE FORTIFIED
In the most recent of these airline pilot suicides, i.e. post-9/11, there’s a recurring pattern — the pilot or co-pilot leaves the cockpit and gets locked out by the other person, who intentionally crashes the plane.
Paradoxically, recent security measures may have made this even easier to do. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, international regulations required all airliners to reinforce their cockpit doors with steel and cypher locks. The idea was to prevent terrorists from gaining control of the plane.
The cockpit door is normally locked and accessible only by code. But anyone inside the cockpit can also disable this access pad for five minutes, preventing people outside from gaining entry. At that point, the only way to contact the person in the cockpit is via intercom. So if one of the pilots is intentionally locked out, he can’t gain entry.
Pilots rarely leave the cockpit unless there’s a pressing need, like going to the bathroom (and even then, most pilots don’t take bathroom breaks on short flights). When that happens, a spokesman for the European Aviation Safety Agency said there’s currently no requirement for European domestic flights that one of the cabin crew come into the cockpit and stay with the remaining pilot.
In the U.S. and on international flights, by contrast, regulations do require two people to be in the cockpit at all times. If one pilot leaves, a flight attendant steps into the flight deck. In the wake of the Germanwings crash, some European airlines like EasyJet and Norwegian Airlines have announced that they’ll now adopt similar policies.
NEW LAWS IN AUSTRALIA EFFECTIVE IMMEDIATELY
Meanwhile, as a result of the Germanwings tragedy, the Australian government has struck a deal with industry whereby airlines must have two crew members in the cockpit at all times. Federal Transport Minister Warren Truss said in March that domestic and international airlines will have to comply with the new rule immediately.
Standard operating procedure will require two members of the operating crew, or authorised people, on the flight deck at all times. The arrangements will apply at all times to all regular passenger transport services, where the aircraft has seating capacity for 50 passengers and above.
The agreement will be reviewed after 12 months. Truss says aviation agencies will work with the industry and airline staff on further improvements, such as the requirements for medical testing, including mental health, of all flight crew members.
“Today’s decision is a sensible, measured response that combines safeguarding the travelling public with the practical capabilities of the aviation sector,” Truss said.
Australian pilots are subject to annual medical reviews, which include a psychiatric assessment. If at any time there are concerns about the mental health of any pilot or co-pilot they are not placed in command of aircraft.
Australia is one of several countries that has introduced mandatory regulations for two-crew members in the cockpit at all times.
BA PILOT MURDERS WIFE, PLANS TO CRASH 747
There’s a saying that fact is often stranger than fiction, and one British Airways pilot confirmed this train of thought, not to mention his insanity, when he murdered his wife and then planned to crash a Boeing 747 “to make a statement” the day after the murder.
According to The Telegraph newspaper, Robert Brown, 47, hit his estranged wife Joanna at least 14 times with a claw hammer in 2010, following a bitter and costly divorce battle. He had been due to fly a 747 from London to Lagos, Nigeria the next day but rang in sick at the last minute. Brown told his trial: “I didn’t want to be another husband who kills his wife and then himself and nobody cares. I thought if I got to work I could crash an aircraft, or fly to Lagos and crash it there. I wanted to make a statement.”
Brown was convicted of manslaughter rather than murder after convincing the jury that he had been suffering extreme stress due to his marital breakdown.
Not long after the Germanwings tragedy in France, Joanna’s friends and family said that disaster, in which 150 people died, showed that airlines were still not monitoring the mental well-being of their pilots robustly enough. Her mother, Diana Parkes, said: “Robert Brown was able to use his mental state to get away with murdering my daughter, and yet he was continuing to fly as a BA captain until days before she was killed.
“His claim in court that he planned to ditch a commercial flight the day after he killed her was chilling to hear and yet there has never been any acknowledgement from British Airways that lessons can be learnt from that.”
Hetti Barkworth-Nanton, 48, who was Joanna’s best friend, said there were “chilling similarities” between the breakdowns of Brown and Andreas Lubitz who deliberately crashed Flight 4U9525 in the French Alps.
She said: “When I saw the picture of Lubitz in his running kit, it sent a shiver down my spine. Brown was also a competitive runner. But tragically the similarities don’t end there. Neither should have been allowed to fly and put the lives of passengers at risk.”
Barkworth-Nanton added that the practice of assessing pilots every 12 months was not stringent enough. “Robert’s last assessment had been in December and he killed Jo the following October,” she said. “He apparently mentioned the stress of his divorce at the assessment, but then was given the green light to fly. There was no follow-up by the airline to see whether his stress was getting worse and colleagues who he confided in about his state of mind kept quiet because they were worried he would be suspended and lose his income.”
Recent reports have suggested that Germanwings co-pilot Andreas Lubitz had researched suicide methods and cockpit-door mechanics prior to committing his heinous crime. Indeed, prosecutors revealed that data retrieved from a tablet computer at the pilot’s home showed that he searched the information in the days prior to the March 24 crash that killed all 150 people on the Airbus A320.
Lubitz, who had a sick note for the day of the crash that he concealed from his employer, also looked for medical assistance on the device, the prosecutor said. Since the crash, a picture has emerged of a young pilot who had battled depression and interrupted his flight training at Deutsche Lufthansa, only to be readmitted after medical experts found him fit to proceed.
It goes without saying that serious steps need to be made to prevent passengers and flight crew alike from being placed at the mercy of such “troubled” individuals ever again. How that can be achieved is a major challenge that needs to be confronted although, in a tragically ironic manner, it proves that clinical depression is a killer, normally affecting only the patient and their immediate circle. Perhaps, it is time for employers and government to take it far more seriously and provide more resources for its treatment at source and ongoing management before it’s too late.