BBC News has reported that French investigators concluded that the co-pilot of the Germanwings flight 9525, Andreas Lubitz, appeared to want to “destroy the plane,” intentionally initiating a descent while the pilot was locked out, leading to the crash in the French Alps on March 24.
While the German co-pilot’s motives remain mysterious, clues as to his psychology are being dissected, including the suggestions reported in the media that he appears to have flown fewer hours than would be expected given the career stage reached. Plus he seems to have taken a mysterious break of several months in the middle of his training.
An academic study entitled, ‘‘I am Flying to the Stars’—Suicide by Aircraft in Germany,” from authors based at the University Hospital Schleswig-Holstein, the German Federal Bureau of Aircraft Accidents Investigation, and the University of Gottingen, Germany, points out that differentiating between the intention of committing suicide and a mere accident is difficult in plane crashes.
Prevalence and Incidence of Suicide by Aircraft
The authors of the study, Thorsten Schwark (now at the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Clinical-Forensic Imaging), Karsten Severin, and Wolfgang Grellner, found in their review that a suicide note, or other evidence of pilot self-destruction is rarely found. Sometimes the autopsy hints at a suicide because the pilot is discovered to have been intoxicated.
The study, published in the academic journal Forensic Science International in 2008, concludes that the diagnosis ‘‘suicide by aircraft’’ is arrived at by eliminating rival explanations such as technical failure, a sudden disease related incapacitation of the pilot, etc.
The authors point out that the number of unrecognized cases of crashes caused by pilot suicide may therefore be substantially higher than accident reports suggest. The study quotes previous data that less than 0.5% of all fatal aircraft crashes are due to suicides.
Review of aircraft accident reports issued by the German Federal Bureau of Aircraft Accidents Investigation, from 1974 until 2007, found that over 34 years, nine (suspected or confirmed) suicides by aircraft (0.3 suicides per year) with 18 fatalities were found. In contrast, in Germany in 2006, 9,765 deaths were suicides.
The fraction of suicide-associated deaths among aircraft crashes is as low as 0.6%. In comparison, the fraction of suicides committed by using a car lies between 2.5% and 4.5% of all fatal traffic accidents. The conclusion could be that suicide is not that rare an event on the ground.
Confirmed and Suspected Cases of Suicide by Commercial Plane
Professor Robert Bor is a Clinical and Specialist Aviation psychologist and has co-authored with Gaby Field and Peter Scragg an academic review entitled, “The Mental Health of Pilots: an Overview,” which documents other cases where pilot suicide appears implicated in commercial airline crashes.
The study, published in Counselling Psychology Quarterly, reports that pilot sabotage was suspected in the Silk Air 737 crash in December 1997, where the aircraft plummeted into a river in Indonesia, killing all 104 passengers and crew. Investigators believe that the pilot deliberately flew the plane into the ground.
The former military pilot in command had a history of gambling and financial problems. He had taken out a life insurance policy the day before the flight.
The cause of the crash of a Royal Air Maroc commuter plane in 1994, which killed 54 people, was deemed a case of pilot suicide.
In 1982, a Japan Airlines pilot was institutionalized after trying to crash the DC-8 that he was flying into Tokyo’s Haneda Airport, killing 24 passengers in the process.
In 1998, an Air Botswana pilot crashed his plane into the remainder of the airline’s fleet at the airport at Gaborone. The pilot, believed to have been grounded after an AIDS diagnosis, died in the crash.
This kind of suicide crash appears to be an angry revenge for problems that have their origins in the workplace, or a grudge against an employer. Triggers include failure to achieve promotion, or even a demotion. Personal problems stemming from debt, relationship difficulties, substance misuse, and mood disorder are also likely causes.
Bor points out that one possible reason why a commercial suicidal pilot might choose to crash their plane is that the evidence it was self-harm might be destroyed, so protecting their family, and the memory of the pilot, from the ‘shame’ of suicide.
Using the aircraft as the instrument of death might also be an expression of resentment against the stress of the job, or grudges against the airline employer, or anger at society at large.
The Importance of Airlines’ Reponses
But as airlines rush to reassure the public by introducing new, more intensive, regulations and checks on the mental health of pilots, it is possible that this hasty response could end up encouraging the very problem it seeks to tackle.
A study entitled, “The Psychological Effects of Constant Evaluation on Airline Pilots: An Exploratory Study,” by Ina Lempereur and Mary Anne Lauri from the University of Malta, concludes that constant evaluation in itself has psychological effects.
This study, published in the International Journal of Aviation Psychology in 2009, points out that airline pilots are the most frequently trained, evaluated, and monitored professionals in the world.
Yet many pilots fear flight and medical checks because they represent a threat to their flying license. For most pilots, job security and the recurrent investigations are more stressful than potential personal injury, or even death.
Because proficiency and medical checks are heavily standardized, through years of practice pilots get to know in detail the skills, attitudes and medical criteria that secure their flying license.
Active pilots become practiced on how to hide stress-related psychological problems during their medical evaluation, so as not to jeopardize their flying license.
The message that comes from this research is that psychological distress among active airline pilots is a reality.
Pilots in this study wanted airlines to normalize this reality by making professional psychological help more available, and removing the stigma on pilots who may need such assistance, by accepting the fact that certain psychological problems, albeit temporary, may be a common hazard to this profession.
Until airlines solve the conundrum of how to induce pilots to go for psychological help without endangering their license, the enigma of what causes some crashes will endure.
Raj Persaud and Peter Bruggen are joint podcast editors for the Royal College of Psychiatrists, and also now have a free app on iTunes and Google Play store entitled “Raj Persaud in conversation,” which includes a lot of free information on the latest research findings in mental health, plus interviews with top experts from around the world.
Photo courtesy of viZZZual.com on flickr