As if there weren’t enough to worry about these days, a new report from Bloomberg spotlights a persistently-lurking risk to air travelers: suicidal airline pilots.
That peril was underscored by the March crash of a China Eastern Airlines Flight 5735 that killed 132 people. The jet’s bizarre trajectory immediately prompted suspicions of murder-suicide: From cruising altitude, the Boeing 737-800 lurched into a near-vertical dive, plunging more than 25,000 feet in two terrifying minutes, and information from the flight data recorder shows the dive was initiated with the cockpit controls.
Video taken from the ground captured the jet hurtling nose-first to the earth like a dropped dart:
According to Bloomberg’s calculations, pilot murder-suicides represent the second-largest cause of civilian aviation deaths over the last decade—however, “if the China Eastern crash is confirmed as the latest such suicide, it will mean that deaths due to intentional acts have exceeded all other causes since the start of 2021.”
Of course, the smaller the time sample, the more likely one is to observe extraordinary results. Regardless, though, it’s clear that—with aircraft malfunctions and pilot errors happily causing far fewer deaths than just two decades ago—pilot murder-suicides account for an increasingly large proportion of fatalities.
Surveys of airline pilots show their rate of suicide contemplation mirrors the rate for the general public, with 4 to 8% having thought about it. Detection of such tendencies is exceedingly difficult, and past perpetrators of suicide flights generally gave no clue of what they were contemplating.
Notable confirmed or suspected pilot murder-suicide flights include:
- Germanwings Flight 9525 (2015). In a case where hindsight is agonizing, a copilot who was treated for suicidal ideation locked the pilot out of the cockpit and adjusted the autopilot to fly the Airbus 320-211 into a mountain in the French Alps northwest of Nice. The copilot had concealed his psychological problems from the airline.
- Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 (2014). A Boeing 777-200ER traveling from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing turned around just before reaching Vietnam and flew over the Indian Ocean, where it’s believed to have crashed. The airplane’s transponder was turned off around the time it deviated from the plan. Despite the most expensive search in aviation history, the airplane has never been found—only pieces that drifted great distances.
- LAM Mozambique Airlines Flight 470 (2013). Halfway to its destination, an Embraer E190 twinjet crashed into a national park in Namibia. Investigators determined that, after locking his copilot out of the cockpit, the pilot manually adjusted the autopilot settings. The cockpit voice recorder captured the sound of banging on the cockpit door.
- EgyptAir Flight 990 (1999). Thirty minutes after departing New York’s JFK airport, a Boeing 767-300 suddenly went into a rapid descent in which it approached the speed of sound. It then leveled and gained altitude before going into its final, fatal descent. NTSB investigators determined a copilot asked to take over the controls. When the captain went to the restroom, the autopilot was disconnected. When the pilot returned, he asked “What’s happening? What’s happening?” The copilot repeatedly replied, “I rely on God.”