Pi­lot sui­cide rare but with prece­dent

Sunday Express - - WORLD - New York

WHAT goes through the mind of a pi­lot as he turns the nose of an air­liner to­ward the ground and pre­pares for death, tak­ing 149 other peo­ple with him?

It may be months be­fore in­ves­ti­ga­tors delv­ing into the crash of Ger­man­wings Flight 9525 have even a par­tial an­swer to that ques­tion. A full an­swer may never be found. A French pros­e­cu­tor said on Thurs­day that one of the flight’s pi­lots in­ten­tion­ally crashed the plane, adding that the pos­si­bil­ity of sui­cide was “a le­git­i­mate ques­tion to ask.”

But if An­dreas Lu­b­itz, the flight’s 27-year-old co-pi­lot, was determined to kill him­self, he would not be the first to use an air­plane as a tool for self-de­struc­tion or to kill pas­sen­gers and other crew mem­bers in the process.

“Air­craft-as­sisted pi­lot sui­cides,” as the Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion calls them, are rare. They in­clude the Novem­ber 2013 crash of a Mozam­bique Air­lines plane bound for Luanda, An­gola, which bears an eerie re­sem­blance to the Ger­man­wings plane’s demise. When the flight’s copi­lot left to use the lava­tory, the cap­tain locked him out of the cock­pit and man­u­ally steered the air­craft earth­ward. On the plane’s black box recorder, of­fi­cials said, the co-pi­lot could be heard knock­ing on the cock­pit door.

The crash of Egypt Air­lines Flight 990 off Nan­tucket, Mas­sachusetts, in 1999, which killed all 217 peo­ple on board, was also caused by de­lib­er­ate ac­tion, a Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board in­ves­ti­ga­tion con­cluded. A re­lief pi­lot, Gameel al-Batouti, waited for the cap­tain to leave the cock­pit and then dis­en­gaged the au­topi­lot. As the plane de­scended, he could be heard say­ing in Ara­bic, “I rely on God,” over and over.

De­lib­er­ate crashes of com­mer­cial air­planes are so rare that re­searchers have for the most part not been able to study them for pat­terns. But sev­eral stud­ies have looked at gen­eral avi­a­tion crashes that were caused in­ten­tion­ally, try­ing to find similarities in the pi­lots that might help pre­vent sim­i­lar sui­cides in the fu­ture.

Ac­cord­ing to a study con­ducted for the F.A.A. and pub­lished in 2014, out of 2,758 avi­a­tion ac­ci­dents recorded by the agency from 2003 to 2012, only eight were determined to be sui­cides.

The pi­lots of all the flights were male, the study found, and ranged in age from 21 to 68. Four had been drink­ing and two were tak­ing an­tide­pres­sant drugs at the time of the crash.

The re­searchers, led by Rus­sell J Lewis of the agency’s Civil Aerospace Med­i­cal In­sti­tute, found that five of the pi­lots had given hints of their in­ten­tions to oth­ers be­fore their fi­nal flight.

One of the cases in­volved a 45-year-old pi­lot who had a his­tory of de­pres­sion and at least one sui­cide at­tempt that he had not dis­closed to the F.A.A. Wit­nesses ob­served the plane head­ing straight for the ground shortly af­ter take­off.

In an­other case, a 47-year-old stu­dent pi­lot who was in­volved in a cus­tody dis­pute took off in a Cessna 150 with a child pas­sen­ger. Af­ter fly­ing for an hour and half, the plane headed back for the air­port but then took a steep dive, crash­ing into the pi­lot’s ex-mother-in-law’s house, ac­cord­ing to the F.A.A. study. The pi­lot and child were killed.

Air­line of­fi­cials have said that Mr Lu­b­itz, who had 630 hours of flight ex­pe­ri­ence, passed the med­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal tests re­quired by the air­line “with fly­ing colors.”

They ac­knowl­edged a gap of a few months in his train­ing, but they said that they did not know the rea­son for the in­ter­rup­tion.

Ex­perts on sui­cide say that the psy­chol­ogy of those who com­bine sui­cide with mass mur­der may dif­fer in sig­nif­i­cant ways from those who limit them­selves to tak­ing their own lives.

“This is not so dif­fer­ent in some ways from some­one who walks into a school and kills a bunch of peo­ple, and then kills them­selves,” said Michelle Cor­nette, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Amer­i­can As­so­ci­a­tion of Sui­ci­dol­ogy.

But she said she could not spec­u­late on Mr Lu­b­itz’s case un­til more de­tails came to light.

Dr Cor­nette said that it was en­tirely pos­si­ble that some­one who was sui­ci­dal could pass psy­cho­log­i­cal ex­ams and re­ceive a clean bill of health.

“Peo­ple know what’s go­ing to raise a red flag,” she said. — NY Times.

RES­CUE work­ers work on de­bris of the Ger­man­wings jet at the crash site near Seyne-les-Alpes, France on Thurs­day.

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