Yesterday’s revelation that the recent crash of Germanwings Flight 9525 was caused by an apparent pilot suicide shocked the world. First Officer Andreus Lubitz reportedly locked the captain out of the cockpit and calmly flew the airplane with its 150 passengers into the side of a French mountain, killing everyone on board.
The act of suicide by an airline pilot while flying is not common, but has happened more than most people think. The most well-known suicide pilots, the Japanese kamikazes of World War II, carried no passengers, although the September 11 suicide hijackers did. The Aviation Safety Network lists nine crashes dating back to 1976 that were confirmed to be suicides. Additionally, ABC News notes that a Japan Air Lines pilot crashed his DC-8 in 1982, killing 24 people, but surviving the crash himself. Last year’s disappearance of Malaysia Flight 370 is widely believed to have been due to a pilot suicide as well.
Airline suicide crashes are usually not well known because they have primarily occurred in the third world. The sole suicide crash before Germanwings that affected a Western country was EgyptAir 990, which crashed off the island of Nantucket, Mass. in 1999. The American NTSB determined that a relief first officer crashed the plane into the ocean, killing all 217 people on board, but Egypt disputed the conclusion.
For most people, there are strong psychological barriers against killing oneself or others. A pilot who intentionally crashes his plane has obviously overcome these strong taboos against killing and suicide. While pilots are normal people with normal problems, few people who commit suicide do so while taking hundreds of other lives at the same time. Nevertheless, one study cited by Air & Space Magazine found that suicide was suspected in .33 percent of fatal crashes over 20 years. This is slightly more than one crash per year, mostly involving small airplanes.
Flying is a high stress occupation. Being an airline pilot involves long periods of time away from home and family, which leads to a high divorce rate. The airline industry is often unstable and furloughs (layoffs) or demotions can come suddenly and last years, leading to financial problems. Add to that a grueling schedule with irregular work hours, regular flight tests and medical exams that can quickly end a career, and the knowledge that a momentary lapse can kill or lead to a violation by regulatory authorities and it is easy to understand how a pilot could suffer from depression or substance abuse. In spite of the stress, suicide is not demonstrably higher for pilots according to most studies.
“It’s a special job. You are working at irregular times; if you have a family, you are often not there [or] may be at home when everyone is at work,” said Dr. Andre Droog, president of the European Association for Aviation Psychology on Voice of America. “If you are flying intercontinental flights, you may build up jet lag and fatigue and of course you have to manage your life very well.”
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In spite of policies at many airlines that encourage pilots to self-report addiction or mental health issues, many pilots are fearful that doing so will cost them their jobs. In 2010, the FAA changed its policy to allow pilots to take antidepressants for mild to moderate depression, but the current policy stipulates that approval is on a case-by-case basis and requires successful treatment for six months, during which time they would not be legal to fly. This effectively means that pilots have to either forgo treatment, fly illegally, or take a six month leave of absence.
In Asia, where several suicide crashes have taken place, many airlines now subject their pilots to psychological testing. “They ask about your mental health, about events that could affect you psychologically,” one captain from an Asian airline told CNBC. “But who willingly admits to anything that could lead to a suspension of their license? I won’t. I need my job.”
Since airline crewmembers know each other best, flight crews are encouraged to report any potential problems that they observe. In the United States, many pilot unions have professional standards committees to help resolve interpersonal conflicts. Concerned crewmembers can talk to representatives on these committees without involving company representatives and threatening jobs.
“Never leave a person alone – that’s probably the most effective suicide prevention technique there is,” said Tony Catanese, a clinical psychologist at Glen Iris Psychology in Melbourne on CNBC.
Federal aviation regulations already require that both pilots remain in the cockpit, but contains an exception for “physiological needs.” For flights lasting from six to eight hours, it is unrealistic to assume that neither pilot would ever have to visit the lavatory. On most flights, there are no relief crews to fill the empty seat for a few minutes. Cockpit doors have been strengthened since the September 11 attacks to resist forcible entry, making it difficult for the second pilot to break back in.
One solution might be for a flight attendant enter the cockpit when one pilot leaves. The Flight Attendant would probably not be able to wrestle the controls from a suicidal pilot, but might be able to at least prevent him from locking the other pilot out.
Ultimately, there is no way to effectively prevent any possibility of future airline pilot suicides. At present, even though the shock of the Germanwings crash is still fresh, the problem of suicides by pilots is a tiny statistical blip. The vast majority of airline pilots around the world are professionals who have learned to cope with life’s problems and keep them out of the cockpit.
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