Sui­ci­dal plane crashes are rare

Airline em­ployee says he’s ‘just a bro­ken guy’

The Arizona Republic - - USA TODAY - Bart Jansen

The ap­par­ent sui­cide of a Hori­zon Air em­ployee on an unau­tho­rized flight with no pas­sen­gers aboard Fri­day marked an ex­ceed­ingly rare crash for an air­liner, ac­cord­ing to gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tors and in­dus­try ex­perts.

Only a hand­ful of airline-pi­lot sui­cides were re­ported among air­lines world­wide in re­cent decades. The Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion guides 42,000 airline and pri­vate flights each day, or nearly 16 mil­lion in 2016.

But when they hap­pen, as with the fiery crash near Seat­tle, they gain wide­spread at­ten­tion. A prom­i­nent ex­am­ple was Ger­man­wings Flight 9525, which crashed into the Alps in March 2015 with 150 peo­ple aboard. French in­ves­ti­ga­tors ruled the crash “was due to the de­lib­er­ate and planned ac­tion of the co-pi­lot, who de­cided to com­mit sui­cide while alone in the cock­pit.”

Other in­ci­dents have been ruled sui­cides but dis­puted, in­clud­ing Egypt Air Flight 990 near New York in Oc­to­ber 1999 with 217 peo­ple aboard and Silk Air Flight 185 crash in Indonesia in De­cem­ber 1997 with 104 aboard.

With no pas­sen­gers aboard, the Seat­tle in­ci­dent was sim­i­lar to a gen­er­alavi­a­tion ac­ci­dent, where a sin­gle pi­lot crashes a pri­vate plane alone. But even those ac­ci­dents are de­clin­ing.

An FAA re­port in Fe­bru­ary 2014 checked 2,758 avi­a­tion fa­tal­i­ties dur­ing a 10-year pe­riod and found eight cases of prob­a­ble sui­cide. Five of those pi­lots had com­mer­cial li­censes, and two of those had a his­tory of sui­cide threats or jok­ing about sui­cide. But all the in­ci­dents hap­pened in a small pro­pel­ler plane or heli­copter.

De­spite the rar­ity, gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tors and in­dus­try of­fi­cials have stud­ied whether to ad­just med­i­cal ex­ams be­cause psy­cho­log­i­cal prob­lems are essen­tially self-re­ported.

crews are just like the rest of us. Some­times they have men­tal illnesses, and those need to be iden­ti­fied and treated and done so in a way that doesn’t risk the fly­ing pub­lic,” said Greg Raiff, CEO of Pri­vate Jet Ser­vices, which lines up char­ter flights for clients. “No­body wants to let one slip by, and the cur­rent sys­tem doesn’t do enough to pre­vent that.”

The 29-year-old Hori­zon em­ployee took the Bom­bardier Q400 tur­bo­prop from Seat­tle-Ta­coma In­ter­na­tional Air­port about 8 p.m. and per­formed dan­ger­ous ma­neu­vers, au­thor­i­ties said. The em­ployee was ini­tially iden­ti­fied as a me­chanic but might in­stead have been a ground-ser­vices agent, au­thor­i­ties said. Two F-15 fighter jets pur­sued the plane be­fore it crashed into Ketron Is­land.

On Satur­day, in­ves­ti­ga­tors with the Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board worked to fig­ure out how the in­ci­dent un­folded.

De­bra Eck­rote, re­gional di­rec­tor for the NTSB’s western Pa­cific re­gion, said in­ves­ti­ga­tors were try­ing to re­cover the cock­pit recorder, which could have cap­tured the man talk­ing as he com­man­deered the plane and might hold clues for a mo­tive.

She said the event was “very un­usual”: “It’s not like we get this ev­ery day.”

Eck­rote said the plane crashed in a heav­ily treed area. Both wings were ripped from it, and the rest of the air“Airline

“Airline crews are just like the rest of us. Some­times they have men­tal illnesses.”

Greg Raiff, CEO of Pri­vate Jet Ser­vices

craft was left in pieces, she said.

Wil­liam Wal­dock, a pro­fes­sor of safety sci­ence at Em­bry-Rid­dle Aero­nau­ti­cal Univer­sity, said he is in­ter­ested to hear what ex­pe­ri­ence the ramp worker had be­cause fly­ing the plane would have re­quired some knowl­edge for un­do­ing sev­eral locks and brakes and start­ing the en­gines.

“Some­where along the line he had to fig­ure out how to start it,” Wal­dock said. “Nor­mally ram­pers wouldn’t have any rea­son to be in the cock­pit.”

Ed Troyer, the pub­lic in­for­ma­tion of­fi­cer for Pierce County, Wash­ing­ton, de­scribed the pi­lot as a “sui­ci­dal male” but not a ter­ror­ist.

“I’ve got a lot of peo­ple that care about me. It’s go­ing to dis­ap­point them to hear that I did this,” the pi­lot said in recorded com­ments to air-traf­fic con­trollers. “Just a bro­ken guy, got a few screws loose, I guess.”

The Na­tional Air Traf­fic Con­trollers As­so­ci­a­tion is as­sist­ing the in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Pres­i­dent Paul Ri­naldi com­mended the con­troller’s poise dur­ing the in­ci­dent.

“The record­ings of the in­ci­dent dis­play his ex­cep­tional pro­fes­sion­al­ism and his calm and poised ded­i­ca­tion to the task at hand that is a hall­mark of our air traf­fic con­troller work­force na­tion­wide,” Ri­naldi said.

Brad Tilden, CEO of Alaska Air­lines, which in­cludes Hori­zon, said an em­ployee took an unau­tho­rized flight, and the com­pany was co­op­er­at­ing with in­ves­ti­ga­tors.

“I want to share how in­cred­i­bly sad all of us at Alaska are about this in­ci­dent,” Tilden said.

The U.S. pol­icy to al­ways have two peo­ple in the cock­pit is in­tended to pro­tect against health prob­lems. Be­fore a pas­sen­ger flight, airline crew mem­bers eval­u­ate each other for their readiness to fly.

Un­der FAA rules, com­mer­cial pas­sen­ger pi­lots un­der age 40 have phys­i­cal ex­ams ev­ery year and those older ev­ery six months to keep their cer­tifi­cates.

Con­tribut­ing: As­so­ci­ated Press

JOHN WAUL­DRON VIA AFP/GETTY IM­AGES

A stolen air­plane makes an un­likely up­side-down aerial loop over Puget Sound be­fore crash­ing Fri­day night.

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