For decades, commercial air travel has become increasingly safer. But one cause of death stubbornly persists: pilots who intentionally crash into murder-suicides.
Preliminary evidence suggests the crash of a China Eastern Airlines Corp. in March could be the last such tragedy, a person familiar with the investigation said. If confirmed, it would make the fourth since 2013, bringing the death toll in such crashes to 554.
So, as planes become more reliable and pilots become less susceptible to error, deaths from murder-suicides make up a larger and larger share of the total. Although intentional acts have traditionally not been included in air accident statistics, they would be the second largest category of fatalities worldwide if they were, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. By comparison, 1,745 people died from pilot error, mechanical failures or other causes on Western-built jets from 2012 to 2021.
“It’s scary,” said Malcolm Brenner, a former human behavior investigator with the US National Transportation Safety Board who worked on the investigation of the 1999 EgyptAir Flight 990 crash, which turned out to be be an intentional act. “It’s a major cause for concern. It’s something the industry needs to address.”
So far, however, these rare but deadly acts have defied simple solutions. While improving mental health care is a priority, those who chose to take their own lives and kill dozens of others at the same time on airliners have mostly revealed no clues to their colleagues, friends or family.
And due to the taboo nature of suicide, the cases create unique political and cultural challenges, sometimes leaving such events shrouded in mystery or open to contestation. The investigation into the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 over the Indian Ocean in 2014 found it was likely sent there on purpose, for example, but the Malaysian government report contains no information on who may have been. could do it or why.
The risk of dying on an airliner has decreased significantly over the past few decades thanks to innovations in safety equipment, aircraft reliability and pilot training. After 5,005 people died in Western-built jets from 2001 to 2010, the total fell to 1,858 the following decade, according to data compiled by Boeing Co., AviationSafetyNetwork and accident reports. The probability of being on a plane involved in a fatal crash was about one in 10 million, according to Boeing.
But deaths attributed to pilot suicides have bucked that trend, actually trending upward, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. If the China Eastern crash is confirmed as the last such suicide, it will mean deaths from intentional acts have exceeded all other causes since the start of 2021.
So far, Chinese authorities have revealed few details about what led to the China Eastern plane carrying 132 people crashing on March 21. The flight, a Boeing 737-800 from Kunming to Guangzhou, was cruising at around 29,000 feet when it suddenly dived at high speed. , according to data from Flightradar24. Surveillance videos show him nosedive toward the ground.
Government authorities and Boeing have not announced any potential safety issues with the plane since then, suggesting that no systemic flaws have been discovered. Preliminary information from the jet’s crash-proof data recorder indicates someone in the cockpit initiated the dive, said a person familiar with the probe who was not authorized to speak about it. The likelihood that the crash was intentional was reported earlier by trade publication Leeham News and Analysis as well as the Wall Street Journal.
The Chinese Embassy in Washington did not respond directly to questions about the intentional nature of the accident. Investigators are conducting the investigation “in a scientific, meticulous and orderly manner” and will release information “in a timely and accurate manner”, the embassy said in an email.
As with any accident investigation, it can take months or years to complete the testing and analysis necessary to identify a cause and rule out even the most remote possible system failures.
In addition to the lost 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 Germanwings GmbH co-pilot also locked the captain before crashing into the side of a mountain in France with 150 people on board.
Four other intentional crashes occurred on airlines around the world before 2013, killing another 389 people, according to AviationSafetyNetwork and accident reports. Incidents do not include acts of terrorism, such as the planes that crashed on September 11, 2001.
After the Germanwings crash, which French investigators say was caused by a co-pilot suffering from mental health issues, US and European aviation regulators expanded programs to give aircrew access to more treatment psychological issues and encourage them to come forward without fear of losing their jobs.
Surveys of airline pilots have shown that around 4-8% have considered suicide, which is about the same rate as the general population. Far fewer people actually attempt to realize it – and the handful of successful pilot murder-suicides on airliners is infinitesimally small in comparison.
Airline pilots must pass periodic medical exams to maintain their licenses and have been reluctant to report depression or other mental illness for fear of losing their livelihood, said Quay Snyder, an aviation medicine doctor who is co- director of the US Aerospace Medical Association. mental health task force. The association has partnered with regulators, airlines and unions to create peer-to-peer counseling and other programs that allow pilots to receive treatment while maintaining their licenses.
But a panel advising the US Federal Aviation Administration in 2015 found there was “no compelling evidence” that screening for suicidal tendencies would prevent incidents such as Germanwings.
“It’s pretty hard to predict who’s going to commit a murder-suicide,” Snyder said.
Other possible ways to prevent pilot suicides run counter to long-standing safety or security measures.
The sophisticated cockpit door locks that allow pilots to keep other crew members out were put in place to prevent hijacking. French authorities have recommended no changes to the door design following the Germanwings crash, saying changes could compromise safety.
One idea – adding automated limits to a pilot’s actions in the cockpit – would require a sea change in aviation safety philosophy.
“I strongly believe that the pilot who is on the flight deck is the ultimate person or device responsible for the aircraft,” said Benjamin Berman, a former airline pilot who also worked as an accident investigator. “I don’t see technology supplanting that role. But it does leave the pilot in control, allowing him to do whatever he wants.”
Even the simple solution of always having at least two people in the cockpit, which was recommended by European regulators after Germanwings, does not guarantee that someone determined to bring down a plane could not do so. Although details of what happened on board the China Eastern jet remain unclear, there were three pilots in the cockpit – a captain, a co-pilot and a trainee – according to Chinese media.
For now, aviation groups are calling for expanding pilots’ access to mental health treatment while acknowledging that routine psychological care may not make a difference in extreme cases of murder-suicide.
“It’s so rare,” said David Schroeder, a former FAA psychologist who, along with Snyder, leads the Aerospace Medical Association’s mental health efforts. “That’s the difficulty. How do you try to predict this? How do you intervene when almost all flights are not like this?”
(If you or someone you know is having difficulty, contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at +1-800-273-8255.)
–With help from Cynthia Koons
(This story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)