Are airline pilots more likely to commit suicide than other professionals? Statistics aren’t clear. But the subject took on a new urgency in 2015 with the crash of GermanWings Flight 9525 in the French Alps. Andreas Lubitz, a first officer flying in defiance of medical advice appears to have intentionally put the Airbus A320 into a descent on a flight from Barcelona to Dusseldorf, crashing the plane and killing all aboard.
Within days, reports of the 27-year old’s previously hidden mental health issues became public.
When my children were little and I worried about whether they were coming down with a cold, their pediatrician used to tell me, “Sick isn’t subtle.” And so it is with suicidal pilots.
I bring this up, because last week I attended an aviation safety conference sponsored by the engineering firm, RTI Forensics. The subject of pilot mental health was on the program with an intriguing panel of experts including Brian Alexander of Kreindler & Kreindler which has brought a case against Lufthansa, parent of GermanWings and Charlie Curreri a pilot with American Airlines. The Allied Pilots’ Association at American runs Wingman, a service where pilots, their family members or co-workers can confidentially report mental health difficulties.
“The average suicide victim in the United States is “white men aged 54,” Curreri told the conference audience, before concluding, this is the same as the typical demographic in the American Airlines pilot group. Curreri wasn’t suggesting that American’s pilots are at any greater risk than those at other carriers. But all four panelists agreed getting pilots to admit they need help when exposure threatens taking them out of the cockpit, is a difficult task, ridden with complexity and unintended consequences.
“There is a profound lack of recognition of mental health issues,” said Scott Brooksby, another panelist, a lawyer and a private pilot. “No one has a real handle on this.”
That much was clear by the end of the discussion. Because for all the subtle issues, pilots’ fear of self reporting, the risk of a career stalling or even ending, the most alarming story of all was the one we already heard. Despite everything known about Andreas Lubitz’s unsuitability for a career as an airline pilot, he slipped through the net and ended up in the cockpit.
Alexander’s play by play of the young man’s interrupted training, his falsification of documents to the FAA, and the requirement that his licence to fly would be subjected to ongoing scrutiny still failed to keep air travelers safe. “The causal chain could have stopped him in a number of places, ” the lawyer said.
This is the backstory to my conversation with John Hines at Minneapolis CBS Radio this morning. Hines wanted to talk to me about my just-released book, The Crash Detectives, in which I lay out my theory about what happened on the flight deck before the mysterious disappearance of MH370.
“Could it have been pilot suicide?”, he asked. To which I replied as my childrens’ doctor would, “Sick isn’t subtle.”
More than two years have passed since the disaster. No scrap of credible information has been found to suggest either of these two pilots were mentally or emotionally disturbed or financially troubled.
I have completely different scenario in my book; a detailed explanation of how a rapid decompression could have triggered the cascading series of inexplicable maneuvers which ended with the apparent ghost flight into the South Indian Ocean.
If this is the way it happened, it would not be the first loss-of-pressurization event to end in disaster. Though it would, thankfully, be a decidedly rare event.
But so too, was the GermanWings catastrophe. And what that has over MH370, is the movement is already underway to try and find out how to prevent the next one.
Would that we were that far along with Malaysia Flight 370.
Author of The New York Times bestseller, The Crash Detectives, I am also a journalist, public speaker and broadcaster specializing in aviation and travel.