I read with interest the
following hysterical lines in the Sunday Times, sensationalizing a risk that’s
been around for many years: “South African pilots have warned of an aviation
time bomb due to a lack of proper mental health regulations, saying it could
result in a disaster similar to this week's suicide crash in the French Alps.”
Hardly a time bomb
But let’s not lose perspective.
It’s only a little more than a hundred years since the first scheduled flight
with a paying passenger in 1914. In 100 years of commercial air travel, most of
which happened without any precautions, there have been only 3 crashes due to pilot
suicide or attempted suicide, killing passengers.
In 1999 an Egypt Air plane was almost certainly crashed by the co-pilot, although, for political reasons,
it was never explicitly stated by the investigators. Pilot suicide may also be
the best explanation for the recent Malaysian flight 370 disappearance. That
would be only five comparable events of “mass murder by pilot” out of millions
of flights worldwide.
That’s hardly a time
A sinister pattern
Many news providers have
simply commented on previous crashes, relevant or not, but without recognising
some very pertinent similarities, which makes me wonder whether Andreas Lubitz had studied these prior examples to plan the disaster.
Read: Drug use linked to airplane accidents
In 1982, a Japan Air
Lines pilot reportedly "lost his senses" and crashed a plane carrying
150 people into Tokyo Bay, killing 24 of them, though he himself survived.
There was reportedly a fight in the cockpit before the plane went down.
In 1997, when Silk Air
flight MI 185 crashed, all 104 people on board died. The Indonesian authorities
did not accept the possibility of suicide, but American investigators found
that it was a deliberate crash, and that the cockpit voice recorder had
probably deliberately been switched off before the pilot caused the plane to
dive to destruction, perhaps after the co-pilot had temporarily left the
Airlines Flight 470 crashed in 2013 after the pilot put it into a “dangerously
steep dive” and killed everyone on board. The flight recorder showed the co-pilot
had left the cockpit for the toilet, and then found the door locked to prevent
his return. The pilot changed the autopilot to aim below ground level, and
switched to maximum speed. As the plane plunged downwards, someone was hammering
on the cockpit door. The pilot never called for help.
In 1999, Egypt Air
Flight 990 crashed into the ocean soon after leaving New York, killing all 217
people on board. There was no evidence
of anything wrong with the plane itself. The crash was found to be caused by
the unexplained actions of the co-pilot. Shortly before, the pilot had left, apparently
for the toilet. The black box recorded garbled turmoil and banging on the door.
The co-pilot was heard repeatedly mumbling "I rely on God, I rely on God."
The pilot somehow managed to force himself back into the cockpit, asking "What
is this? Did you shut the engine?" He was heard trying to right the plane
as it crashed.
There’s a recurring
pattern: the pilot or co-pilot leaves the cockpit and gets locked out by the
other person, who intentionally crashes the plane.
A mere placebo
The policy now being
rapidly adopted, of requiring a member of the cabin crew to enter the cockpit
whenever a pilot exits, is essentially useless. An air hostess wouldn’t be
capable of recognizing whether a pilot had made dangerous changes to the
autopilot, and would be unable to open a cockpit door locked by the pilot, or effectively
wrestle with him. But this is the sort
of fake solution airlines eagerly embrace – it costs nothing, and gives a false
sense of security.
Maybe it would be more
useful to provide a small toilet that can be accessed from within the cockpit, so that pilots would not need
to leave the space.
Don’t blame depression
There were many
comments in the media about the absence of a suicide note, but not all suicides
leave notes, and I have not found one instance of this form of air-crash
suicide-murder where a note was left.
It is extremely
important that this tragedy should not be in any way blamed on depression. Depression
does not do this. Depression may, sadly, render some people suicidal, in terms
of seeking their own end, but is not a cause of mass murder. Most cases of
suicide by plane happen in private planes and kill only the pilot. As a suicide
method, it might have some advantages: you may avoid the perceived shame for
yourself and your family, and the insurance may even pay out – perhaps this is
why they so rarely leave a suicide note.
Reducing the risks
No single method or
device can prevent a pilot from causing death and destruction. That will always
be possible. But there are ways to substantially reduce that risk.
The current system for
monitoring the mental health of pilots, though varying in detail across the
world, is highly unsatisfactory, as it relies almost entirely on self-reporting,
with a strong incentive not to be honest. Admitting to having problems,
including psychological ones, means you’re likely to be grounded. And if you lie,
it’s very unlikely that anyone will check.
Read: Could depression really be caused by inflammation?
A proper face-to-face
interview by a psychologist or psychiatrist is essential. The American FAA
requires the use of old-fashioned and ineffective psychological tests rather
than proper clinical assessments. There
can, however, be an exaggeration of the skills needed for this kind of
assessment. For instance, the Sunday Times lamented that “there is currently
not a single registered aviation psychologist to check on pilots' mental health”
– when no such specialist is needed at all, just a competent general
psychologist or psychiatrist. Similarly, undue reliance should not be placed on
“mandatory neuropsychological tests” which the SA CAA are said to have been
considering. They’re expensive and
unnecessary for this purpose.
It’s wiser to create a
company culture that attributes no stigma to stress or illness, making
psychological help readily available and regarding asking for help as a sign of
being a good pilot, not of weakness. We’re
far safer having a pilot who has been properly diagnosed and treated, than with
someone too scared to reveal any problems.
There’s also too much
reliance on colleagues to report signs of physical or mental disorder in a
pilot. Apart from the natural reluctance
to “snitch” on a co-worker, and not being trained what to look for, such reports
are of little value. We’re fortunate that most pilots are sensible and
responsible people who may well report any problems they might have.
authorities should require at least 1,500 hours of supervised flight time
before pilots can start to function independently in the air. The fact that
some people have been allowed to become first officers with as little as 250
hours, is absurd. It appears that Lubitz may have had unrealistic expectations
for promotion to independent and long-haul flights.
While clocking up hours,
one gains experience of the many expected and unexpected problems that may
arise. Practical experience teaches one how to cope in ways no lectures, seminars
or simulations could ever provide. It also gives one an extended period under
the scrutiny of senior colleagues, where strengths and weaknesses become
apparent to ourselves and everyone else, teaching us where we’re vulnerable and how to
compensate. The more experience you have, the less luck you need. The aim of screening, assessment
and assistance isn’t to prevent normal, flawed individuals from flying, but to
enable them to deal with their flaws and safely perform their job.
From what we have learned, this pilot should not have been hired or allowed to continue flying
until he was entirely well. If the
company and licensing authorities knew how unstable Lubitz was, it was irresponsible
of them to allow him into a cockpit – and if they didn’t know, then clearly
their assessment systems are useless.
As more evidence
becomes available, Carsten Spohr, CEO of Lufthansa, parent airline of
Germanwings may want to revise his statements to reporters that Lubitz was "100% qualified to fly the plane" and that "his flight performance
Some authorities like
the FAA are oddly ambiguous about medical treatment for pilots. Previously they
did not allow pilots to fly if they were taking antidepressants. Since 2010
they’ve been allowed to fly only if they’re taking one of four specific drugs (Fluoxetine,
Sertraline, Citalopram or Escitalopram), which is pointless if someone responds
badly to these drugs.
Read: Are antidepressants overused?
Apparently they’re worried that other drugs might have a
“distracting” effect, yet nothing stops a pilot from playing games on a laptop
in the cockpit, or playing cards. It may be OK if you’re diagnosed with ADHD,
but not if you’re taking any prescribed treatment for it. It therefore seems that the FAA is
uninterested in your illness or state of health, but very bothered about the
possible side-effects of the drugs you take for these conditions. This is absurd.
In this case, the
authorities have been inconsistent about disclosures. They rapidly accused him
of causing the crash, yet were strangely coy about his diagnoses and medical
records. What disease could be so horrific that its disclosure would be worse
than the disclosure that you murdered 150 people? Only today did they state
that he definitely had no physical illness whatever. Similarly, why did they
initially hide the names of pilot and co-pilot, when the public might have been
able to supply vital clues.
A hidden note is said
to have been signed by two doctors, stating he was “too ill” to work as a
pilot. There were multiple mental health
problems during his training, leading to downgrades and delays, which should
have caused alarm but seemingly did not. After his period in America, the Federal Aviation Authority endorsed him
as SIC, meaning a “special authoritative medical examination” was required
before he could fly again.
medication, including anti-depressants, though we don’t know if he took it as
prescribed, and apparently some years ago he received the anti-psychotic drug
Zyprexa by injection. What is clear is
that, unless all these reports are entirely false, he was a very sick and
disturbed young man, and Lufthansa’s initial insistence on how fit he was seems
There’s been much
gossip, exacerbated by a lack of information from the authorities. He’s said to
have been teased about his sexuality, and called “Tomato Andy” (a fruit mistakenly
assumed to be vegetable), indicating a person who is gay and pretends to be
straight. There are rumours that he made a girlfriend pregnant and that he
might be a Muslim convert. It appears
that since childhood flying had been his passion, his bedroom walls were covered with
pictures of planes of all sorts and the Lufthansa logo.
Read: Lesbian, gay and bi adults
By the way, neither I
nor any other trauma expert I know would consider it wise or kind to fly the
bereft relatives of the victims to view the crash site, like Lufthansa did.
Finally, of course, everyone
wants to know why he did it. We will never know. I think it is probable that not even he would
be able to coherently explain his motives if he were alive. He took his
unexplained fury with him down to the valley – where he smashed it along with everyone
else on the plane to smithereens.
A sane mass murderer?
Warning signs of suicide
Workplace suicides on the rise
Professor MA Simpson is Health24's CyberShrink. A South African psychiatrist, he qualified in medicine and in psychiatry in Britain. He has been a senior academic, researcher, and Professor in several countries. Read more of his columns.