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March 27, 2015

A Real Solution to Suicide-Murder By Pilot? The 7 Past Incidents to Learn From

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It was like Germanwings 9525 crashed all over again Thursday, after a French prosecutor shared that First Officer Andreas Lubitz had intentionally downed the aircraft in the French Alps after locking the Captain out of the cockpit. Questions rose immediately: What are the rules for entering and leaving the cockpit? How can we prevent this from happening again?

Of course, this is not the first time an airline pilot has intentionally downed his own aircraft, Egypt Air 990 being the most well-known (a cause which Egypt still disputes as a suicide-murder), as well as SilkAir 185 in 1997 and the much ignored LAM 470 only a year and a half ago in November of 2013. Though details on the SilkAir wreck are murky since it is believed the Captain manually shut the circuit breaker to the cockpit voice recorder, LAM is the only other one known to have one of the pilots intentionally locked out of the cockpit.

Flight deck insecurity

Regardless of past examples or future possibilities, everyone is wondering if a pilot should be able to lock anyone out of the cockpit. This is short-sighted, as reversing that capability opens the doors to a string of other threats and awful potential. Yes, I am referring to September 11th, 2001, where even though they weren’t supposed to be flying the plane, it was still a case of a suicide-murder by the people piloting the aircraft.

A 767 wheel belonging to Egypt Air 990, floating in the Atlantic Ocean.

A 767 wheel belonging to Egypt Air 990, floating in the Atlantic Ocean.

People need to be kept out of the cockpit, and the pilot(s) need to have the capability and authority to maintain flight deck security. Though it doesn’t break any laws, and though I wish that the public videos of how the Airbus flight deck doors were not so readily available and being viewed around the internet, I consider the process and technology to be sufficient.

It must be understood that the pilot is in a position of power, and there is nothing that can be done to change that, nor should there be. Though the “human element” led to the deaths of 150 people on Germanwings 9525, that same human element also affords the ability to save lives. It was 3 years ago to the day that a kind, talented, veteran Captain on an airline in the United States had a nervous breakdown, and the First Officer was able to get the Captain out of the flight deck and lock him out for the security of the aircraft while he conducted an emergency landing alone. The quick thinking of the F/O and his ability to use that locking capability worked.

There are tens of thousands of airline pilots that are talented, highly trained professionals, and we should not begin to create an environment that would remove or undermine that authority to command the aircraft. Anything less, and you are more likely to have some people with terrible intentions making their way into the cockpit. The death toll on September 11th, 2001 far exceeds all other suicide-murder by pilot examples combined.

It takes two to make a thing go right

Another suggestion is to ensure there are at least two people in the cockpit at all times. Many in the media are misreporting that, though Europe does not require it, that the regulations in the United States already have this in place. This is not the case. Federal Aviation Regulations (specifically, FAR 121.543) state that pilots must remain in their seats, buckled, except for addressing “physiological” needs (going to the bathroom). The FAR leaves it up to the airlines to develop the policy from there, which the FAA then reviews and approves for safety, with some airlines opting to bring a flight attendant to sit in the cockpit when one pilot steps out.

Making this 2-person minimum requirement is a fine idea, but it may not be an end-all solution to the problem, as many imply. Perhaps having another human being present might make it difficult for the otherwise lone pilot to go through with his idea. Or maybe the presence of a flight attendant can offer a fighting chance if the situation were to take a turn for the worst.

Or, maybe the ill-intending pilot can incapacitate the additional person. In 1994, a fellow FedEx pilot occupying the jumpseat of flight 705 used weapons he had smuggled onto the aircraft to attack the pilots in an effort to hijack and crash the aircraft so his family could collect a hefty life insurance policy. A bloody battle ensued. Using hammers and brute strength, the other three men subdued the attacker and landed the aircraft safely. Not only were their efforts to neutralize him heroic, but their ability to land the aircraft with their own severe injuries, make this a remarkable story of survival.

Aircraft sabotage could also incapacitate an aircraft without ever requiring an act of violence, nor even being alone in the cockpit. Germanwings First Officer Lubitz calmly and simply used the auto-pilot setting to descend into the mountains, doing so because his being alone afforded him that opportunity. If the other pilot were present and the First Officer truly intended to take down the aircraft, he may have had the ability to do so, regardless, with other adjustments.

In Egypt Air 990, the Relief First Officer not only commanded the nose-down attitude of the aircraft (which the Captain physically fought to undo) and retarded the throttles, he also cut fuel to the engines. Without growing additional arms, the Captain was completely incapable of fighting the forward pushing of his fellow pilot’s yoke while restarting the engines, which the First Officer likely would have also physically stopped as well.

In 1993, a pilot of Aeroflot 593 thought it would be cute to bring his two children up to the flight deck while at cruising altitude. When his 16 year old son began toying with the yoke in a way that partially disengaged the auto-pilot so that roll authority would be manually controlled (there was no audible tone at the time to indicate the disengagement), the aircraft began to roll. The confusion, subsequent dive and inability to recover in time lead to the deaths of all 75 on board. An untrained child adjusting only one setting, accidentally sabotaged and doomed the aircraft that had three other, capable pilots present in the cockpit.

Addressing mental health

Psychological evaluations are also being thrust into the conversation, and like the 2-person cockpit idea, I wouldn’t oppose modifying regulations pertaining to it. It is high time that we have deeper discussions on mental illness, not just in the airline industry, but in our country and the world. The stigmas associated with mental illness and depression do more harm than good, creating an environment that is ripe for those afflicted to be unable to have their challenges properly addressed.

Of course, the power of an evaluation with any level of frequency may not be a preventative cure in itself. There is no sure way to say that if First Officer Lubitz had received an examination even the previous day, that his ailment would have been noticed by professionals.

Foolproof me once, shame on you…

Every accident brings about investigations that allow us, as an industry, to reform and make commercial travel that much safer in what is already (and still) the safest time in aviation history. With this investigation not even a week old, it will be some time before we, as an industry, know how to respond to this tragedy with modifications and improvements to regulation, training and procedures to make air travel that much safer.

Even with the best attempts, there will never be a foolproof, crash-proof system that ends all aircraft accidents and prevents those in power from doing harm if they intend to do so. Even if we institute a multi-person presence in the flight deck and very frequent, specific psychological evaluations, we will never be able to totally eliminate the incredibly remote possibility that this may happen again. In the meantime, I will continue to fly with the trust that I have for flight crews around the world, which they have earned with their exemplary safety record. Oh Captain, my Captain.

Phil Derner founded NYCAviation in 2003. A lifetime aviation enthusiast that grew up across the water from La Guardia Airport, Phil has airline experience as a Loadmaster, Operations Controller and Flight Dispatcher. He currently runs NYCAviation and performs duties as an aviation expert for the media. You can reach him by email or follow him on Twitter.


  • Sharkman Quint

    With violence in general, be it committed with weapons or now aircraft, people tend to ignore the mental health implications and focus on the implement used. Nice to see you addressed that, as more and more evidence seems to support that this individual never should have been allowed to pilot a commercial airliner.

    • keller josef

      good article ,please explain Mode S EHS data access protocol

      Project Number
      04
      .
      08
      .
      01
      Edition
      00.01.01
      4.8.1
      -
      D20
      -
      VALR
      -
      DAP
      -
      G
      -
      SNET
      -
      V3 Operational eva
      luation of enhanced STCA using DAP
      18
      of
      98
      ©SESAR JOINT UNDERTAKING, 2011. Created by
      ENAV
      and DSNA
      for the SESAR Joint Undertaking within the frame of the
      SESAR Programme co
      -
      fina
      nced by the EU and EUROCONTROL.
      Reprint with approval of publisher and
      the
      source
      properly
      acknowledged
      .
      Objective
      To evaluate the
      level of
      ATCOs confidence
      in
      DAPs
      STCA
      prototype in the
      simulated operational environment
      Identifier
      Success Criterion
      CRT
      -
      04.08.01
      -
      VALP
      -
      001
      0.00
      10
      The
      level of confidence
      in using the STCA DAPs prototype is considered
      acceptable
      by ATCOs.
      CRT
      -
      04.08.01
      -
      VALP
      -
      001
      0.00
      11
      The
      level of confidence
      in using the STCA DAPs prototype is considered
      acceptable in the different ATS areas. Particular benefit are expected in
      TMA.
      2.2.3.1
      Choice of metrics and indicators
      This section provides a list of KP
      As
      and metrics adopted during the validation activities.
      KPA
      Metrics/Indicators
      Related Validation Objectives/Hypothesis
      Safety
      -
      Flights id (pair)
      -
      STCA ON time
      -
      STCA OFF time
      -
      Aircrafts
      (horizontal) separation
      (NM) at STCA ON time
      -
      Aircrafts (horizontal) separation
      (NM) at STCA OFF time
      -
      Aircrafts Flight Level at STCA ON
      time
      -
      Aircrafts Flight Level at STCA OFF
      time
      -
      Aircrafts Climbing/Descending rate
      -
      Aircrafts CFL at STCA ON time
      -
      Aircrafts CFL at STCA OFF time
      -
      Aircrafts S
      FL at STCA ON time
      -
      Aircrafts S
      FL at STCA OFF time
      -
      Aircrafts
      Roll Angle
      at STCA ON
      time
      -
      Aircrafts
      Roll Angle
      at STCA OFF
      time
      -
      Aircrafts
      Track Angle Rate
      at STCA
      ON time
      -
      Aircrafts
      Track Angle Rate
      at STCA
      OFF time
      -
      Warning tim
      e

      is this available in real time of all aircraft replying Mode S ?

  • http://www.twitter.com/paulosergiomdc Paulo Sérgio Martins

    I feel the Silk Air incident is incredibly close to the USAir flight 427 incident. Suicide/mass murder was put forward as the most likely scenario, however, this could not be conclusively proven.

  • chadclan

    Excellent article Phil!

    Thank you for your ‘Addressing mental health’ paragraph, specifically these couple of sentences:

    It is high time that we have deeper discussions on mental illness, not just in the airline industry, but in our country and the world. The stigmas associated with mental illness and depression do more harm than good, creating an environment that is ripe for those afflicted to be unable to have their challenges properly addressed.

    So many people are living lives of misery because they are afraid of the consequences of simply seeking treatment for mental illness, treatment that would allow them to perform far better than hiding their problem and pretending nothing is wrong.

  • acm_ian

    Mental health issues especially suicidality are difficult to detect without admission by the suffer. Two in the cockpit surely goes a very long way to preventing LAM470 and copycat 4U9529. A cockpit panic button with emergency door opening might also help if there is conflict in the cockpit.

  • acm_ian

    It is reported this is in the FAA regs somewhere and it sure sounds like a rule to me with scope of implementation flexibility:

    “Normal procedures for opening flightcrew compartment doors to include:
    [...]
    (g) Procedures for two person flight crews, when one flight crew leaves the flight deck, (i.e. [a flight attendant] must lock the door and remain on the flight deck until the flight crew member returns to his or her station)”

  • acm_ian

    Source:

    http://fsims.faa.gov/WDocs/8900.1/V03%20Tech%20Admin/Chapter%2002/03_002_001.htm

    3-47 PROCEDURES FOR OPENING, CLOSING, AND LOCKING FLIGHT DECK DOORS.

    2) Unless an air carrier has FAA-approved procedures under § 121.587(b), the flight deck door must remain closed during flight time. In order to operate the flight deck door during flight time and permit flight deck access by persons authorized in accordance with § 121.547, part 121 certificate holders must develop and use FAA-approved procedures regarding the opening, closing, and locking of the flight deck door. These FAA‑approved procedures should be included in the operators’ operations and F/A manuals.

    B. Certificate Holders’ Procedures. Certificate holders’ procedures must include at least the following:

    1) Normal procedures for opening flightcrew compartment doors to include:
    [...]
    f) Procedures for two person flightcrews, when one flightcrew member leaves the flight deck
    (i.e., a F/A must lock the door and remain on the flight deck until the flightcrew member returns to his or her station).

  • Mat.G

    Well at least this is a sign of how safe things are now. We are now getting to the really tricky safety issues that will take something more than changing aircraft designs and new procedures to fix.

    I think the saying goes that the high up the mountain you climb, the thinner the air becomes. We are at the pointy end of safety now, and it is not going to be easy to keep climbing.

  • PI by Nature

    One thing not covered might be how flight attendant crews are arranged, and if there might be a push to have at least one male flight attendant on any scheduled flight (where possible), because a deranged person at the controls could easily overcome a smaller woman. Elsewhere, I have read that Auburn Calloway’s regular crew had a smaller woman as one of the pilots…and that could have been a bigger problem if Calloway didn’t exceed his hours by a single minute the prior day, forcing him to jump-seat on a flight with 3 male crew members who were able to fight back.

    • http://flymaine.blogspot.com FlyMaineBlog

      I disagree. With the proper training, females can perform just as well as males. I know one female cabin crew member in particular who I would put up against the largest males. Also, I worked shoulder to shoulder with small female police officers who easily overcame large males without using weapons. It’s all in the training. Women don’t need us to guard them.