Pilot Suicides: Fact vs Fiction
There’s been a lot of news reports about Ewan Wilson’s “breakthrough” that the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight 370 must have been a case of pilot suicide, specifically the Captain. The arguments in favour of this are poorly justified and Malaysia Airlines have already responded with a harsh rebuttal.
There is no evidence to support any of the claims made in the book, which is a product of pure conjecture for the purposes of profit by the authors and publishers.
Neither Wilson nor Taylor were involved in the investigation into the disappearance of MH370, yet they have offered an analysis beyond their knowledge and abilities.
They should both be ashamed of themselves for what is nothing more than a cheap and maligned publicity stunt.
One of the claims by Ewan Wilson which is making headlines is that he “found” five flights which he believes were also caused by suicidal pilots.
To clarify, to “find” these cases, you just need to go to the Aviation Safety Network, where there is a list of aircraft accidents caused by pilot suicide. ASN lists nine cases there but Wilson is clearly talking about commercial pilots carrying passengers. That leaves us with five cases, all totally documented.
Each of these five commercial pilots flying a scheduled passenger service is believed (by some investigating bodies, although not all) to have committed suicide, taking their aircraft and their passengers with them: an especially horrifying type of mass murder.
I considered this theory in The Mystery of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 but as this is currently in the headlines, I decided take a better look at the five cases in question.
1982: Japan Airlines Flight 350
The first example is at best a failed suicide although I’m not sure it’s fair to say that the Captain intended to kill himself or his passengers.
On the 9th of February in 1982, Japan Airlines Flight 350 departed nine minutes late for its scheduled domestic flight from Fukuoka to Tokyo. The aircraft, registered as JA8061, was a DC-8-61 with 166 passengers and 8 crew on board. The flight crew consisted of the 35-year-old Captain, the First Officer and the Flight Engineer.
The flight proceeded normally from there until the final approach.
08:35 Flight 350 was given clearance to land and the wheels were dropped and flaps set ready for landing.
08:44:01 At about two hundred feet above the ground, the Captain suddenly turned the autopilot off, pressed his controls forward and deliberately engaged the thrust reversers of two of the engines.
These means that he reversed the flow of the engines so that the exhaust is directed forward, which is used in combination with the brakes to slow the aircraft upon landing. Reverse thrust on a jet is always selected manually, usually immediately after touchdown. They are not normally ever used in flight and many modern commercial aircraft cannot use reverse thrust in flight.
The DC-8 was one of few aircraft designed to allow for reverse thrust in the air — some military aircraft have also been able to safely deploy thrust reversers in flight in order to increase manoeuvrability, however the Concorde and the DC-8 may have been the only commercial jets to allow this. On the DC-8, the thrust reversers could be fully engaged on engines 2 and 3 in flight once the gear was down but many (most?) airlines prohibit the use of in-flight reverse even when the aircraft is certified for it. The effect would be rapid deceleration and a rapid loss of altitude.
Passengers reported that the aircraft nose dropped suddenly.
The First Officer immediately pulled back on the stick and the flight engineer struggled to pull the Captain away from the controls. Japanese television reported that the First Officer shouted “Captain, what are you doing?” while the engineer fought to gain control of the thrust control lever. However, the lack of thrust put the aircraft into a nose dive and they were too close to the ground to regain control. Eight seconds later, the aircraft hit the water.
08:44:07 The aircraft crashed into Tokyo Bay 510 metres short of the runway threshold.
Twenty-four passengers died in the crash. Initially, it was reported that the Captain had been killed in the impact. However, soon after they discovered that he had discarded his uniform and had been picked up in one of the first rescue boats, telling rescuers that he was an office worker.
The news soon came out that he had been suffering from mental issues and had been put on leave for a year for for mental (“psychosomatic”) issues. After the event, his flight crew from the previous day reported that he had been acting oddly.
The revelations that appeared in the Japanese press last week painted a chilling portrait of a pilot with a troubled psyche. There were claims that Seiji Katagiri had been suffering from hallucinations and feelings of depression. He once summoned police to his two-story house near Tokyo because he was convinced it was bugged, but a thorough search turned up no eavesdropping devices. On three occasions, his employers had urged him to see a psychiatrist.
The Captain was arrested for “professional negligence resulting in deaths” but was found to be not guilty by reason of insanity.
1994: Royal Air Maroc Flight 630
This was the most difficult of the cases to research as there is very little information online.
On the 21st of August in 1994, Royal Air Maroc flight 630 departed Agadir Al Massira Airport on a scheduled domestic flight to Casablanca. The ATR 42/72 twin turboprop, registration CN-CDT, held 40 passengers and 4 crew.
The aircraft departed at 19:00 local time and began its climb. About ten minutes after the departure at 11,480 feet feet, the aircraft suddenly entered a steep dive and crashed into the Atlas Mountains about 30 kilometres (20 miles) north of the airfield.
The investigation concluded that the pilot disconnected the autopilot and then deliberately flew towards the ground. The First Officer made an immediate call on the radio, screaming “Help, help, the Captain is…” but her call was cut off as the aircraft impacted the ground.
A statement at the time by the Transport Minister stated that the accident was “due to the deliberate will of the pilot who wished to end his life.”
The Moroccan Pilot’s Union originally disputed the suicide explanation stating that there was no evidence that the pilot was disturbed or had any grounds to kill himself. The cockpit voice recorder was published in France and apparently confirms the initial reports of the sequence of events. The final investigation report was meant to explain this more thoroughly but there is no copy of the report online. However, the union did not make any further arguments after their initial statement and there appears to be no remaining doubt that the Captain of the flight deliberately took control of the aircraft in order to kill himself and everyone on board.
1997 SilkAir Flight 185
The next case has been the subject of two investigations and considerable controversy. The timeline below is taken from the official report released by the Indonesian National Transportation Safety Committee.
On the 19th December in 1997, SilkAir flight 185 departed for its scheduled flight from Jakarta, Indonesia to Singapore with 97 passengers and 7 crew members on board. The aircraft was a Boeing 737-300 registered as 9V-TRF. It was less than a year old and the newest aircraft in SilkAir’s fleet.
08:37 UTC (15:37 local time) SilkAir flight 185 departed Soekarno-Hatta airport in Jakarta for an 80-minute flight to Singapore and began its climb out. The Captain was the Pilot Flying.
08:53 The aircraft reached its cruising altitude of FL350 (35,000 feet) and the flight crew was cleared direct to waypoint PARDI and told to report when abeam Palembang.
09:04:57 The Captain stated that he was going to go to the passenger cabin. Several metallic snapping sounds were recorded, which the NTSB believe were sounds made by the seatbelt buckle.
09:05:15 The cockpit voice recorder stopped recording
09:10:18 ATC informed SilkAir flight 185 that they were abeam Palembang and to contact Singapore Control when at waypoint PARDI.
09:10:26 The First Officer acknowledged this call. This means we have confirmation that the First Officer was in the cockpit at this time. No distress call was ever made or any sign given that there might be an issue with the aircraft.
09:11:33 The Flight Data Recorder stopped recording.
This was 6 minutes and 18 seconds after the CVR stoppage and approximately 35.5 seconds before the aircraft started its descent. Up to the point at which it shut down, the FDR showed no indications of unusual disturbance or other events affecting the flight.
09:12:09 Jakarta ATC radar recording showed the aircraft still in the cruise at FL350
09:12:17 Jakarta ATC radar recording showed that the aircraft had descended by 400 feet. The aircraft then went into a nearly vertical dive.
09:12:41 Jakarta ATC radar recording showed the aircraft passing through FL195 – in less than thirty seconds, the aircraft had descended 15,500 feet. That averages to 645 feet per second or 38,750 feet per minute.
A normal descent in a Boeing 737 would be around 1,500-2,500 feet per minute. After twenty four seconds, the aircraft began to disintegrate.
In less than a minute, the aircraft crashed into the Musi River. In the final seconds before impact it was travelling faster than the speed of sound.
There was no evidence of any malfunction which would explain why the recorders stopped recording nor why the aircraft would go into such a steep and fast descent. The radio continued to work, showing that there was not a general power failure in the cockpit. However, without the Flight Data Recorder, we have no definitive proof of what happened on the aircraft.
The Indonesian National Transportation Safety Committee reported that it could not determine a cause of the crash due to inconclusive evidence.
The NTSB held its own unofficial investigation. US investigators concluded that the recorders were intentionally disabled to hide a deliberate action to crash the aircraft, most likely by the captain who left the cockpit to disable the circuit breakers and then returned and manually held down the control inputs for nose-down flight at full speed.
1999: EgyptAir Flight 990
EgyptAir flight 990 was a regularly scheduled flight from Los Angeles to Cairo with a stopover in New York. The aircraft was a Boeing 767-300ER, registration SU-GAP, with 203 passengers and 14 crew on board.
On the 31st of October 1999, the flight departed JFK airport in New York at 01:22 local time as a scheduled international flight.
Again, the situation on this flight is convoluted and there were two investigations. Initially the Egyptian Civil Aviation Authority, who had jurisdiction over the accident, delegated the investigation to the NTSB in the US. The NTSB began their investigation but then proposed handing the investigation to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, as their evidence suggested the aircraft crash was intentional rather than accidental. The Egyptian Civil Aviation Authority refused and the NTSB continued their investigation which continued to point to a deliberate action by a crew member. However, the Egyptian Civil Aviation Authority believed that the NTSB was not sharing information and stated that they often learned of the NTSB’s views in the press. The Egyptian investigators had access to the data collected by the NTSB and launched their own investigation which concluded that the crash was caused by mechanical failure.
This is the first accident ever where I’ve been unsure as to which report is the official investigation.
The general sequence of events on the flight is agreed by both parties and I have used both reports for reference.
01:26:35 EgyptAir flight 990 contacted New York Centre and continued to climb to FL230 as they flew out over the Atlantic.
01:35:52 EgyptAir flight 990 was cleared for a cruising altitude of FL330, roughly 33,000 feet above sea level.
01:40 The Relief First Officer suggested that he relieve the Command First Officer at the controls, stating “I’m not going to sleep at all. I might come and sit for two hours, and then…” that is, offering to fly his portion of the trip at that time. After some discussion and catty comments, they agreed that the Relief First Officer would get some food and then start his shift. The Relief Officer appeared to have taken the First Officer seat within the next few minutes.
01:41:52 An oceanic clearance was issued and acknowledged by the flight crew.
01:47:18 New York Centre requested that EgyptAir flight 990 change frequencies.
01:47:39 EgyptAir flight 990 changed frequencies and the Captain reported in with “EgyptAir ah, nine nine zero heavy, good morning” on the new frequency. This was the last transmission to ATC from the aircraft.
01:48:03 The Captain said to the Relief First Officer, “Excuse me [RFO nickname], while I take a quick trip to the toilet.” The Relief First Officer responded with “Go ahead please.”
After the Captain left the cockpit, sound was recorded in the cockpit which included human speech but it was not possible to identify who was speaking or what the words were.
01:48:34 A click and a thump was reported, followed by the Relief First Officer saying “I rely on God.”
10:49:45 EgyptAir flight 990 was cruising on a heading of 080 at 33,000 feet when the autopilot was disengaged, almost certainly manually and intentionally, as there was no aural warning. The aircraft remained in level flight for about eight seconds when the Relief First Officer said again, “I rely on God”.
01:49:53 The throttle levers were moved from cruise power to idle and an abrupt nose-down elevator movement was recorded. The aircraft pitched nose down and began a fast descent. The Relief First Officer repeated his statement of “I rely on God” another seven times.
01:50:06 The Captain returned to the cockpit and said “What’s happening? What’s happening?” The elevator movements continued and the aircraft began to pitch down.
01:50:08 The aircraft exceeded its maximum operating airspeed. The Relief Officer repeated again “I rely on God” and the Captain, “What’s happening?”
01:50:20 The aircraft descended to 21,000 feet and the elevator movements changed to a nose up direction, which the NTSB believes were the result of the captain making nose-up flight control inputs. The aircraft’s rate of descent began to decrease. That’s when the left and right elevator surfaces began to move in opposite directions. The aircraft’s elevator had split.
Up until this time, the elevator surface movements were slightly offset but consistent (that is, both were moved in the same direction at the same time). This is where the reports diverge: the Egyptian report concludes that the mechanical failure already existed before the aircraft left New York for Cairo and eventually caused the aircraft to go out of control. They state that the Relief First Officer disconnected the autopilot after observing some unusual movement of the column and throughout was trying to regain level flight. The US report concludes that the dive was initiated by the Relief First Officer and the resulting stresses on the aircraft, specifically the two pilots applying force on the control column in opposite directions, caused the elevator split.
01:50:35 At 16,000 feet, the Flight Data Recorder and the Cockpit Voice Recorder ceased recording. Radar recordings showed that the aircraft climbed again, this time to approx 24,000 feet and then entered a final dive into the ocean. During the dive, the aircraft reached an estimated airspeed of 0.99 Mach and experienced g-forces from +0.98 to -0.227 before it crashed into the ocean.
2013: Mozambique Airlines Flight 470
On the 29th of November in 2013, the regularly scheduled Mozambique Airlines flight departed from Maputo International Airport to Luanda, Angola with 6 crew and 28 passengers onboard. The flight progressed normally and the aircraft was in contact with Gaborone Area Air Traffic Control and cruising at 38,000 feet. Radar showed that the aircraft, an Embraer EMB-190, suddenly started descending at 6,000 feet per minute and then disappeared. The aircraft did not arrive at Luanda, where it was scheduled to arrive about 90 minutes later and there were no reports of unscheduled landings anywhere in the region of the route.
Search and Rescue teams found the wreckage in the Mbwabwata National Park the following day and recovered the black box with the flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder. The Flight Data Recorder revealed that the aircraft had no mechanical faults. However, it also showed unexpected configuration changes in the cockpit.
A few minutes before the crash, the First Officer left the cockpit and went to the washroom.
The captain, alone in the cockpit, manually selected the aircraft flight altitude three times. He changed the flight altitude from their cruising altitude of 38,000 feet to 592 feet. The elevation around this time was over 3,000 feet, making the final flight altitude selection below ground level.
Then the auto-throttle was re-engaged. With the steep descent, the throttle level automatically retarded, setting the power to idle. The Captain manually selected the airspeed and set it to the maximum operating speed of the aircraft.
There was no evidence of accidental configuration. All of these actions displayed a clear understanding of how the automatic flight systems worked and with clear intent.
The autopilot was on and the aircraft hurtled to the ground. During this time, various warnings and alarm chimes could be heard sounding in the cockpit but the Captain did not appear to take any notice of them. Then there was the loud sound of banging on the cockpit door with demands to be let into the cockpit. The spoilers were deployed and held until the end of the recordings, proving that the aircraft was under human control as it descended at 6,000 feet per minute.
From the preliminary report:
All action observed from the recorders requires knowledge of the aircraft’s automatic flight systems as the entire descent was performed with the autopilot engaged. This displays a clear intent. The reason for all these actions is unknown and the investigation is still ongoing.
The aircraft crashed into the border area between Botswana and Namibia at high speed. There were no survivors.
The final report has not yet been published but if it is not complete by the one year anniversary of the accident, an interim report should be released with updates as to their progress.
Note that in every instance, if we accept that each of these was in fact an intentional suicide, the pilot chose to take control of the aircraft and crash it immediately. This is a huge contrast to Wilson’s theory:
Mr Wilson believes that pilot Shah shut his co-pilot, Fariq Hamid, out of the cockpit on flight MH370, then shut off all communication and turned the aircraft around, veering off course.
He then depressurised the plane, and once the cabin crew and passengers’ oxygen had run out, they died from hypoxia.
The accident investigator believes that the pilot then made eight different course changes before finally allowing MH370 to fly on auto-pilot for the last few hours of its journey into the southern Indian Ocean.
The Australian Transport Safety Board published a report which is referenced as a part of the theory, because they stated that the final period of the flight appeared to fit the characteristics of an unresponsive crew/hypoxia event. However, the idea that the Captain was in control and deliberately disabled the passengers and crew in order to fly on autopilot until the aircraft ran out of fuel is quite a step beyond that and certainly not a theory that the ATSB, or any other investigating body, has put forward as viable.
The five pilot suicide/murder cases cited all show a clear course of action by the pilots: gain control of the aircraft and crash it as quickly as possible.
In no instance has a pilot ever tried to disable flight crew, cabin crew and hundreds of passengers and then fly the aircraft on autopilot until it ran out of fuel before gently guiding it into the water. It makes for a lovely Hollywood ending but in a real-world tragedy, it’s all plot and not enough facts.
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