If the Germanwings crash was the result of a deliberate act on the part of the plane’s co-pilot, as French authorities think, it would join a disturbing list of pilot suicides and suspected suicides, including the disappearance of a Malaysia Airlines jet a year ago. Regulators seeking the cause might be tempted to see patterns in the data that suggest this was no isolated incident — that, instead, pilots commit suicide at a higher rate than people in other fields, as some statistics appear to suggest.
Knowing the scope of the problem could help aviation safety regulators decide how best to protect passengers, as they decide whether threats to the public are just as significant from within the cockpit as from outside it. It could also help them study their screening programs to ensure they are detecting pilots who pose risks, while not unduly discouraging pilots from disclosing depression, addiction and other risk factors.
But data limitations make it too difficult to say whether there really is a dangerous pattern of pilot suicides, partly because plane crashes of all kinds are rare. Many crashes have no clear cause. Pilots who are considering suicide have reasons not to tell their bosses or regulators. Some regulators around the globe, in turn, may hesitate to blame crashes on their nations’ airlines and pilots.
Rather than a clear picture, what we have is a series of cases of likely pilot suicide clouded by uncertainty, plus limited statistical evidence of an elevated rate.
According to records of U.S. suicides by occupation — which themselves have major data limitations — pilots die by suicide more often than the overall population of jobholders. But depending on how you look at the effect, it might just be a statistical fluke. When pilots are compared to others in their general age and racial group, their suicide rate is not that much higher.
Some statistics emerged earlier this month when researchers published a study of on-the-job suicide in the U.S., albeit using data that was at least five years old. The researchers, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, found that between 2003 and 2010, workers in transportation and material-moving occupations — of which airline pilots are a small subset — committed suicide on the job at an annual rate of 2.4 per million between 2003 and 2010, which is 60 percent higher than the overall worker rate. This group of workers had the fourth-highest workplace suicide rate, behind protective services; farming, fishing and forestry; and installation, maintenance and repair.
But it isn’t possible to conclude anything definitive about pilot suicides from this data set, since there were just 165 total suicides in the transportation group over seven years. Of course, considering the consequences of a pilot committing suicide while flying passengers, public-health and aviation officials should be very concerned about a suicide rate that is even well below that of jobs that are more solitary.
Looking at the numbers another way, the proportion of fatal crashes caused by suicide is very small. The Aviation Safety Network lists nine crashes of commercial aircraft over the last four decades believed to be caused by suicide, most recently a Mozambique Airlines flight that crashed in Namibia in 2013, killing all 33 people on board. The nine incidents together killed 449 people, less than 1 percent of all fatalities tracked by the safety network.
Even that count of deaths due to pilot suicide may be too high. Nearly half came in a 1999 crash of an EgyptAir flight that American safety investigators attributed to a deliberate act by a pilot. But Egyptian authorities disputed the finding.
In general aviation in the U.S. — the category of traffic that excludes scheduled commercial flights — fewer than one in 300 fatal pilot deaths between 2003 and 2012 was attributed to suicide, and the rate had declined sharply from the prior decade.
On the other hand, air deaths from pilot suicide could be underreported. Investigators don’t always determine what causes crashes. The count, for instance, doesn’t include the still-missing Malaysia Airlines flight from last March, though suicide is a plausible explanation in that case.
National officials often resist admitting that airlines and their pilots were responsible for a crash, creating a conflict of interest when they investigate air disasters within their borders, according to Guohua Li, an epidemiologist at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. That the Germanwings plane crashed in France, neither the origin nor the destination country of the Barcelona-Dusseldorf flight, “may have helped to make the determination of the cause much faster and easier,” Li said in a telephone interview.
Among his dozens of studies of aviation, Li co-wrote a 2005 paper on suicide by aircraft. He and his colleagues studied 37 accidents from 1983 to 2003 in which suicide or attempted suicide was listed as a probable cause by the National Transportation Safety Board. All were non-commercial general aviation flights.
Li said that when suicide is listed as a probable cause, it almost always is the cause.
“Without that high degree of certainty, an NTSB investigator usually would not list suicide as a probable cause,” Li said. Uncertain cases can include those in which a pilot took off in unsafe conditions, or while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. In a 1994 study, another author counted 10 pilot suicides in the U.S. between 1979 and 1989 — and twice as many “in which the intent of death could not be determined as either suicide, homicide, or accidental.”
In the suicide study, Li found that the risk factors for pilot suicide are the same as in the general population: alcohol, drugs, domestic problems, legal troubles and psychiatric conditions. That suggests flying itself wasn’t the primary cause. But the suicides he studied were mostly solo flights. Intentionally crashing a passenger jet is “an extreme act,” Li said. “If that person hasn’t reached a certain level of stress or determination, he wouldn’t really commit that kind of act.”
Li said the Federal Aviation Administration’s crackdown on alcohol use over the last two decades effectively has eliminated drinking on the job among commercial airline pilots. The FAA also requires medical exams at least annually, and these involve a mental-health component.
But as is the case with some doctors, some pilots might not disclose mental-health conditions out of fear they’ll lose their jobs, Li said. “Because of safety and the sensitivity of their occupation, they may be more inclined to underreport those kinds of issues,” he said. Underreporting of mental-health conditions could, in turn, lead to undercounting of pilot suicides, because without mental-health records investigators may be less likely to suspect suicide. (On Friday, German prosecutors said the Germanwings co-pilot they think crashed the jet had a medical condition he hid from the airline. It was unclear if this was a physical- or mental-health condition.)
One unnamed pilot told the Sydney Morning Herald, “Who willingly admits to anything that could lead to a suspension of their license? I won’t. I need my job.”
“The traveling public may have their aircraft piloted by a person who is severely depressed but masking his or her symptoms — or a person who is taking medication on the sly — in order to keep his or her job,” flight engineer Kenneth A. Cubbin wrote in 2000. “Under such circumstances, which flight will prove to be the last straw for the pilot who can see no light at the end of a tunnel?”
Until five years ago, the FAA barred pilots from flying if they had mild to moderate depression. In 2010, the agency removed that restriction for pilots who had been treated satisfactorily for at least a year with any of four antidepressant medications. It also gave pilots who hadn’t previously reported depression diagnoses or use of antidepressants a six-month amnesty period to come forward without risk of penalty. “We need to change the culture and remove the stigma associated with depression,” FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt said at the time. “Pilots should be able to get the medical treatment they need so they can safely perform their duties.”
This story has been updated to include information on the FAA’s handling of pilots with depression.