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Pilot suicide a taboo topic in past crash probes

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) - As police investigate the two pilots of a Malaysian passenger jet that disappeared more than a week ago, a possibility they must consider is that one of them committed suicide by deliberately crashing the plane.

While such incidents have happened before, the topic remains almost taboo, with investigators and officials reluctant to conclude that a pilot purposely crashed a plane in order to commit suicide even when the evidence appears compelling.

A dozen years ago, U.S. investigators filed a final report into the 1999 crash of EgyptAir Flight 990, which plunged into the Atlantic Ocean near the Massachusetts island of Nantucket, killing all 217 aboard. They concluded that when co-pilot Gameel El-Batouty found himself alone on the flight deck, he switched off the auto-pilot, pointed the plane downward, and calmly repeated the phrase "I rely on God" over and over, 11 times in total.

Yet while the National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the co-pilot's actions caused the crash, they didn't use the word "suicide" in the main findings of their 160-page report, instead saying the reason for his actions "was not determined." Egyptian officials, meanwhile, rejected the notion of suicide altogether, insisting instead there was some mechanical reason for the crash.

There was also disagreement over the cause of the crash of SilkAir Flight 185, which plunged into a river in 1997 during a flight from Jakarta, Indonesia, to Singapore, killing all 104 passengers and crew. A U.S. investigation found that the Boeing 737 had been deliberately crashed, but an Indonesian investigation was inconclusive.

Mozambique officials have been investigating a crash that killed 33 people in November. They say preliminary investigations indicate that the pilot of the Mozambican Airline plane bound for Angola intentionally brought it down, and they're continuing to look into his possible motives.

A 2014 study by the Federal Aviation Administration indicates that in the U.S. at least, flying remains a remarkably safe mode of transport and pilot suicide is a rare occurrence.

The study found that during the 10 years ending in 2012, just eight of 2,758 fatal aviation accidents in the U.S. were caused by pilot suicide, a rate of 0.3 percent. The report found that all eight suicides were men, with four of them testing positive for alcohol and two for antidepressants.

The cases ranged from a pilot celebrating his 21st birthday who realized a woman didn't want a relationship with him, to a 69-year-old pilot with a history of drinking and threatening suicide by plane. Seven of the cases involved the death of only the pilot; in the eighth case, a passenger also died.

"Aircraft-assisted suicides are tragic, intentional events that are hard to predict and difficult to prevent," the FAA's report found, adding that such suicides "are most likely under-reported and under-recognized."

In at least one case, a major international airline allowed a pilot who had expressed suicidal thoughts to continue flying. He flew nearly three more years, without incident, before he resigned in 1982 with severe obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety and depression.

The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper reported that the Workers Compensation Commission heard that the Qantas pilot struggled several times to resist an overwhelming urge to switch off the plane's engines. Once during a flight to Singapore, the pilot's hand moved "involuntarily" toward the start levers and he was forced to "immobilize his left arm in order not to act on the compulsion."

"He left the flight deck and, once he felt calm enough, returned to his seat," the newspaper reported.

After telling his colleagues of his urges, the newspaper said, the pilot was examined by several doctors and ultimately declared fit to fly.

Malaysia's government said police on Saturday searched the homes of both the pilot and the co-pilot of the missing Malaysia Airlines jet. It said police were examining an elaborate flight simulator taken from the home of 59-year-old pilot Zaharie Ahmad Shah.

Police also are investigating engineers who may have had contact with the plane before it took off.

Mike Glynn, a committee member of the Australian and International Pilots Association, said Friday that he considers pilot suicide to be the most likely explanation for the plane's disappearance.

A pilot rather than a hijacker is more likely to be able to switch off the communications equipment, he said, adding that he thinks suicide was to blame in the EgyptAir and SilkAir crashes.

"The last thing that I, as a pilot, want is suspicion to fall on the crew, but it's happened twice before," Glynn said.

Join the discussion

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Cindy March 16 2014 at 4:52 PM

All pilots need to undergo psychological evaluation every 6 months. And if there is a hint that a pilot is depressed, he or she must undergo evaluation.
It is a matter of life and death for all passengers and crew.

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3 replies
shirleyburgoyne March 16 2014 at 7:55 PM

q? CAN THE pilot climb and let out the air to kill passengers and keep the cockpit OK for himself to continue flying?

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4 replies
Randy March 16 2014 at 8:42 PM

Isn't pilot suicide being a mass murderer? Doesn't qualify as a FBI serial killer due to definition as to amount of time-but a mass murder it is!l

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Joebudgie March 16 2014 at 9:00 PM

Do we have a bunch grade school boys working in the National Transportation Safety Board that they can's say certain words like suicide? How juvenile. Do the investigators spend most of the day chasing each other around their office desks and dipping little girls curls in the ink wells, too? Given the evidence it doesn't take a Sherlock Holmes to figure out the pilot of Egypt Air Flight 990 that crashed in 1999 nose dived the plane into the earth on purpose. Why is there a reluctance to tell the truth and report pilot suicide in that case? Seems stupid not to even consider suicide in the Malaysian passenger jet that disappeared more than a week ago.

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2 replies
Carolyn Joebudgie March 16 2014 at 9:15 PM

I think it likely that because our government will not say anything to offend Muslims, they are forbidden to even utter the word, or write it in reports. The most flagrant case is the Egypt Air pilot who plunged his plane and passengers into the ocean off New England while reciting Islamic prayers.

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East Coast Video Joebudgie March 17 2014 at 12:34 AM

There's no evidence of a crash.

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Raqi121 March 16 2014 at 3:48 PM

I am more concerned about the co-pilot and his history.

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Cesar March 17 2014 at 8:29 PM

being responsible to so many people, maybe it is high time to have psychological testing and compulsory check for alcohol and other substances on pilot and co-pilot before boarding a plane.

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Joebudgie March 16 2014 at 9:32 PM

One of the pilots may have been struggling with the thought of suicide for quite awhile and to avoid having to discuss it he continued to function as close to his normal routine as possible. In his mind crashing a plane would probably avoid the pain and discomfort of not being able to get a breath while drowning and the second thoughts that might occur since drowning isn't an instant death. Or he might have tried it and failed. With a plane crash he could have just closed his eyes and pushed the control into full dive without feeling any pain or discomfort. However there is still the question of all the locator devices being disabled. Why would someone bent on suicide bother. Personally, I think the pilot or pilots working together climbed to the higher altitude so the oxygen masks would drop. Then they made an announcement not to use cell phones because of the chance of fire or explosion in the presence of so much oxygen. Then they disabled the locator devices and landed the plane somewhere to be used as a weapon against some country they are politically opposed to.

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3 replies
dclady577 March 16 2014 at 2:56 PM

They need to investigate pilots before putting them on a plane with many people/. I JUST CAN'T BELEIVE WHAT IM READING HERE. DOESN'T ANYONE CARE ABOUT THE SAFETY OF PLANES ANYMORE....

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2 replies
fobesq dclady577 March 16 2014 at 6:34 PM

I know,,,,scary.

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connimit dclady577 March 17 2014 at 1:35 PM

Obviously Not!!!

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idekam March 16 2014 at 1:26 PM

How many pounds/Kilos of fuel were on the plane and whats the maximum range given the altitude the plane was at?

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1 reply
wlh1923 idekam March 16 2014 at 1:41 PM

Good grief. That has been reported upon endlessly since the disappearance. Or are you just making some sort of rhetorical statement?

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Jen March 16 2014 at 1:14 PM

If one of the pilots committed suicide, there is still the question of where is the plane?

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