Homicide-suicides by pilots are climbing and airways don’t know why

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And because of the taboo nature of suicide, the cases present unique political and cultural challenges, sometimes leaving such events shrouded in mystery or open to dispute. For example, the 2014 investigation into the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 over the Indian Ocean found it was likely flown there on purpose, but the Malaysian government report provides no information on who might have done so or why.

Suicide-related falls buck the declining trend

The risk of dying on an airliner has decreased significantly in recent decades due to innovations in safety equipment, aircraft reliability and pilot training. After 5,005 people died on Western-built jets from 2001 to 2010, the total dropped to 1,858 over the next decade, according to data compiled by Boeing, AviationSafetyNetwork and accident reports. The odds of being involved in a fatal accident on an airplane were about 1 in 10 million, according to Boeing.

But fatalities attributed to pilot suicides have bucked that trend and are actually moving up, according to data from Bloomberg. If the China Eastern crash is confirmed as the latest suicide, it means deaths from intentional acts have surpassed all other causes since early last year.

So far, Chinese authorities have revealed few details about what led to the March 21 crash of the China Eastern Jet, which carried 132 people at speed, according to Flightradar24 data. Surveillance video shows it dashing nose-down towards the ground.

Government agencies and Boeing have since announced no potential safety issues with the plane, suggesting no systemic flaws have been uncovered. Preliminary information from the jet’s crash-safe data recorder suggests someone in the cockpit initiated the dive, said a person familiar with the probe who was not authorized to speak.

China’s embassy in Washington did not directly respond to questions about whether the crash was intentional. Investigators conducted the investigation “in a scientifically sound, careful and orderly manner” and would release information “timely and accurately,” the embassy said in an email.

Wreckage of the Germanwings plane that crashed in the French Alps in 2015 after a young German co-pilot locked himself alone in the cockpit and set off on the crash course. Reuters

As with any accident investigation, it can take months or years to perform the testing and analysis needed to pinpoint a cause and rule out even the remotest system failures.

In addition to the lost Malaysian plane with 239 people on board, a Lam-Mozambique Airlines jet carrying 33 people crashed in Namibia in 2013 after the captain locked the co-pilot out of the cockpit. In 2015, a Germanwings co-pilot also locked out the captain before crashing into a mountainside in France with 150 on board.

According to the AviationSafetyNetwork and accident reports, four other intentional crashes occurred on airlines around the world before 2013, killing an additional 389 people. Incidents do not include terrorist attacks like the planes that crashed 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 their programs to give flight crews access to more psychological treatment and they encourage them to volunteer without fear of losing their jobs.

Surveys of airline pilots have shown that about 4 to 8 percent consider suicide, which is about the same rate as the general population. Far fewer people actually try to carry it out – and the handful of successful homicides of commercial airline pilots is infinitesimal by comparison.

Difficult to predict

Airline pilots must pass regular medical exams to keep their licenses and have been reluctant to report depression or other mental illnesses for fear of losing their livelihood, said Quay Snyder, a physician specializing in aviation medicine and co-head of the psychiatric department US Aerospace Medical Association Health Working Group. 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 retaining their licenses.

But a panel advising the US Federal Aviation Administration in 2015 found that there was “no convincing evidence” that screening for suicidal tendencies would prevent incidents like those at Germanwings.

“It’s quite difficult to predict who is going to commit murder-suicide,” said Dr. snyder

Other ways to prevent pilot suicides go against long-standing safety measures.

The sophisticated locks on the cockpit doors, which allow pilots to keep other crew members out, were fitted to prevent hijacking. French authorities advised against changing door designs after the Germanwings crash because changes could undermine safety.

One idea – adding automatic limits to a pilot’s actions in the cockpit – would require a dramatic change in flight safety philosophy.

“I firmly believe that the pilot on the flight deck is the ultimate person or device in charge of the aircraft,” said Benjamin Berman, a former airline pilot who also served as an accident investigator. “I don’t see technology replacing that role. But that puts the pilot in control and allows him or her to do as he or she pleases.”

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 intent on crashing a plane couldn’t make it. While details of what happened aboard the China Eastern Jet are still unclear, according to Chinese media reports, it had three pilots in the cockpit — a captain, a co-pilot and a trainee.

For now, aviation associations have called for expanding pilots’ access to mental health care, while acknowledging that routine mental health care may not make a difference in the extreme cases of homicide and suicide.

“It’s so rare,” said David Schroeder, a former FAA psychologist who worked with Dr. Snyder leads the Aerospace Medical Association’s mental health efforts. “That’s the difficulty. How are you trying to predict that? How do you intervene if not all flights are like this?”

Bloomberg