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