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Geremanwings Flight 9525 has ample precedent: a recent history of pilot murder-suicides

03/28/2015

The words spoken by Marseille prosecutor Brice Robin were chilling. In the wake of the March 24 crash of Germanwings Flight 9525, which killed all 150 on board, the French legal official says it appears First Officer Andreas Lubitz’s “intention [was] to destroy this plane,” by locking the captain out of the cockpit and commanding the aircraft to descend on a bee-line into the Alps.

If this proves out it may well mark at the fourth instance in the past 21 years that a commercial airline pilot has purportedly purposely crashed his aircraft. The toll for the four crashes (although some label a few of these occurences “accidents”) is 504 souls on board.

Consider:

– November 29, 2013: LAM Mozambique Airlines Flight 470, with 33 on board, takes off from Maputo to Quatro de Fevereio Airport in Angola. The Embraer 190 regional jet crashes en route into a Namibian national park.

Although the weather was poor, a preliminary report by the Mozambican Civil Aviation Institute finds Captain Herminio do Santos Fernandes had (here’s that word again) a clear “intention” of crashing the aircraft, by changing the autopilot settings. More eerily, the Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) discloses successive loud bangs as the first officer tries to break down the locked cockpit door.

– October 31, 1999: EgyptAir Flight 990, with 217 aboard, crashes some 60 miles south of Nantucket, Massachusetts on a nonstop flight from New York JFK to Cairo. All on board die when the 767-366ER plummets into the North Atlantic. The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board rules the probable cause for the crash was “the airplane’s departure from normal cruise flight and subsequent impact with the Atlantic Ocean as the result of the relief first officer’s (second co-pilot’s) control inputs. The reason for the first officer’s actions was not determined.”

No, but we do know that that the CVR recorded relief first officer, Gameel Al-Batouti, twice calling out “Tawkalt ala Allah” (“I rely on God”) before pulling back the craft’s power levers and pointing the nose of the big Boeing towards the chilly North Atlantic.

The captain had been in the lavatory, returning aghast to the cockpit to ask, “What’s happening?”

The Egyptian Civil Aviation Authority, the (ECAA) didn’t agree with the NTSB’s conclusion. The ECAA pegged the crash to mechanical failure of the 767’s elevator system. The elevators are located on the horizontal stabilizers, on the tail of the aircraft. They control ascent and descent.

– December 19, 1997: SilkAir Flight 185. One-hundred-four souls are aboard the 737 as it lifts off from Jakarta, Indonesia. It crashes in a river in southern Sumatra.

Because the aircraft was built by Boeing, the U.S. NTSB participates in the investigation. It does not issue a probable cause, that’s up to the Indonesian National Transportation Safety Committee. But the NTSC was stumped. Because of inconclusive evidence it doesn’t determine the cause of the crash.

However, in a December 11, 2000 letter to the Indonesian NTSC the NTSB said, “The examination of all of the factual evidence is consistent with the conclusions that: 1) no airplane-related mechanical malfunctions or failures caused or contributed to the accident, and 2) the accident can be explained by intentional pilot action. Specifically, a) the accident airplane’s flight profile is consistent with sustained manual nose-down flight control inputs; b) the evidence suggests that the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) was intentionally disconnected; c) recovery of the airplane was possible but not attempted; and d) it is more likely that the nose-down flight control inputs were made by the captain than by the first officer.”

To this day, the cause of SilkAir 185’s demise remains controversial.

Psychological Autopsies
In the wake of an airline crash, authorities often perform so-called “psychological autopsies,” on the cockpit crew – especially if there are indications human factors are involved. Germanwings First Officer Andreas Lubitz’s life is coming in for minute scrutiny just now, this in an effort to determine why, if indeed that’s the case, he chose to lock that cockpit door and fly the A320 into the Alps.

Is there an effective way to cull out potential bad apples before they wreak havoc, a way that transcends the existing airline and regulatory scrutiny?

A noted former safety investigator once told this author that Aeroflot psychologists, back in the bad old days of the Soviet Union, used to examine crewmembers before each flight. The idea was to ferret out potential defectors, but psychologists were also out to determine who was fit to fly that day.

No one is suggesting that sort of approach today. The operational pace of today’s commercial airlines is just too fast, and the pilot’s unions might well object to the intrusiveness of such scrutiny.

But with a possible quartet of pilot murder-suicides in the past two decades it’s safe to say the problem is getting the industry’s attention as never before.

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