According to data collected by Bloomberg, the leading cause of airline crashes is murder-suicides by pilots and has outnumbered all other causes since the beginning of 2021.

Murder-Suicides By Pilots Leading Cause Of Airline Crashes 1

Commercial airline travel has become increasingly safe over the years. However, one cause of death has persisted: pilots who deliberately crash in murder-suicides.

According to a source familiar with the investigation, preliminary evidence indicated that the March crash of a China Eastern Airlines Corp. jet was the latest such disaster. If confirmed, it will be the fourth since 2013, bringing the total number of those killed in these crashes to 554.

As airplanes become more reliable and pilots become less prone to errors, fatalities caused by murder-suicides will account for a growing percentage of total fatalities.

While purposeful acts aren’t generally included in air-crash statistics, according to Bloomberg data, they would be the second-largest category of deaths worldwide if they were. From 2012 through 2021, 1,745 persons died aboard Western-built jets as a consequence of pilot mistake, mechanical failures, or other causes.

“It’s scary,” said Malcolm Brenner, a former human-behaviour investigator for the US National Transportation Safety Board who participated on the investigation into the 1999 EgyptAir Flight 990 crash, which was determined to be a deliberate act. “It’s a major cause of concern.” It’s one the industry needs to address.”

Pilot Suicide Deaths

The death toll from purposeful acts has increased while the number of accidents has decreased.

However, easy solutions have so far eluded these rare but deadly acts. While increasing mental-health care is a necessity, people who chose to kill themselves and dozens of others on jetliners did not usually convey any signals to coworkers, acquaintances, or family before doing so.

Because suicide is such a taboo subject, the cases present particular political and cultural obstacles, sometimes shrouding such events in secrecy or leaving them open to debate. The Malaysian government’s assessment (pdf below) on Malaysia Airlines Flight 370’s disappearance over the Indian Ocean in 2014 revealed that it was likely flown there on purpose, but no information on who may have done so or why.

As a result of advancements in safety technology, aircraft reliability, and pilot training, the chance of dying on an airliner has decreased dramatically in recent decades. According to data provided by Boeing Co., AviationSafetyNetwork, and accident reports, 5,005 people died on Western-built jets from 2001 to 2010, but the number plummeted to 1,858 the next decade. According to Boeing, the chances of being aboard a plane involved in a tragic accident were roughly one in ten million.

Murder-Suicides By Pilots Leading Cause Of Airline Crashes 2
A woman writes a message on a banner for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang, Malaysia in 2014. 

However, according to Bloomberg data, deaths attributed to pilot suicides defied the trend, actually increasing. If the China Eastern crash is confirmed as the most recent suicide, deaths from intentional acts will have outnumbered all other causes since the beginning of 2021.

So yet, Chinese authorities have given few information on what caused the 132-person China Eastern flight to crash on March 21. According to Flightradar24 data, the airplane, a Boeing 737-800 from Kunming to Guangzhou, was travelling at roughly 29,000 feet when it suddenly plunged at great speed. Surveillance footage shows it racing toward the ground with its nose down.

Since then, neither the government nor Boeing have acknowledged any potential safety issues with the plane, implying that no systemic flaws have been discovered.

According to preliminary data from the jet’s crash-proof data recorder, someone in the cockpit triggered the dive, according to a source close with the investigation who wasn’t authorized to speak about it. The trade newspaper Leeham News and Analysis, as well as the Wall Street Journal, had previously reported on the possibility that the crash was planned.

The Chinese embassy in Washington did not explicitly answer to a question about whether the crash was intentional. The investigation is being conducted “in a science-based, meticulous, and orderly manner,” according to the embassy, and information will be released “in a timely and accurate fashion.”

As with any crash investigation, the tests and analysis required to determine a cause and rule out even the most remote system failures can take months or years.

A Lam-Mozambique Airlines plane with 33 people on board went down in Namibia in 2013 when the captain locked the copilot out of the cockpit, in addition to the Malaysian plane that was lost with 239 passengers on board. In 2015, a copilot with Germanwings GmbH locked out the captain before crashing into the side of a mountain in France, killing all 150 people on board.

According to AviationSafetyNetwork and accident data, four more intentional crashes occurred on airlines around the world previous to 2013, killing another 389 people. Terrorist acts, such as the planes that crashed on September 11, 2001, are not included in the incidents.

Following the Germanwings crash, which French investigators determined was caused by a copilot with mental health issues, US and European aviation regulators expanded programs to provide more psychological treatment to air crews and to encourage them to come forward without fear of losing their jobs.

According to surveys of airline pilots, between 4% to 8% had considered suicide, which is about the same rate as the general population. Far fewer people attempt to carry it out, and the number of successful pilot murder-suicides aboard airplanes is insignificant in contrast.

According to Quay Snyder, a doctor specializing in aviation medicine and co-leader of the US Aerospace Medical Association’s mental health working group, airline pilots must pass periodic medical exams to maintain their licenses and have been reluctant to report depression or other mental illness for fear of losing their jobs.

The group has teamed up with regulators, airlines, and unions to develop peer-to-peer counseling and other initiatives that will allow pilots to get therapy while keeping their licenses.

Safety Measures

However, in 2015, a panel advising the US Federal Aviation Administration concluded that screening for suicidal tendencies would not avoid incidents like Germanwings.

“It is quite difficult to predict who is going to commit a murder-suicide,” Snyder explained.

Other options for preventing pilot suicides go against long-standing safety and security protocols.

To avoid hijackings, sophisticated cockpit door locks that let pilots to keep other crew members out were installed. Following the Germanwings tragedy, French officials advised against modifying the door designs, claiming that doing so would jeopardize security.

Adding automated limits to a pilot’s actions in the cockpit, for example, would necessitate a significant shift in aviation safety philosophy.

“I’m a firm believer in the pilot who’s on the flight deck being the ultimate person or device in charge of the aircraft,” said Benjamin Berman, a former airline pilot who also worked as an accident investigator. “I don’t see technology supplanting that role. But that leaves the pilot in control, allowing him or her to do whatever they want.”

Multiple Pilots 

Even the basic solution of always having at least two people in the cockpit, which European regulators suggested after Germanwings, is no guarantee that someone intent on bringing a plane down couldn’t do it. While the specifics of what transpired aboard the China Eastern jet remain unknown, Chinese media accounts claim that there were three pilots in the cockpit: a captain, a copilot, and a trainee.

For the time being, aviation organizations are advocating for increased pilot access to mental-health services, while noting that ordinary psychological therapy may not make a difference in extreme murder-suicide situations.

“It’s so rare,” said David Schroeder, a former FAA psychologist who now leads the Aerospace Medical Association’s mental health work with Snyder. “That’s the difficulty. How do you try to predict that? How do you intervene when almost all flights are not like that?”

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