What, exactly, are we talking about, when we talk about a man who deliberately flies a plane carrying 149 other human beings into the side of a mountain?
In a sense, we’re talking about a suicide. That’s a common enough thing. Plenty of people carry it out — 40,000 each year in the United States alone. You could also say we’re talking about murder, and that’s true, too. The other 149 people on board Germanwings 9525 had their lives taken from them, just as the 16,000 Americans murdered each year have.
Or you could invoke the specter of murder-suicide, that increasingly familiar explosion of self-consuming, purposeless annihilation — the disgruntled postal employee, the trench-coat-wearing high schooler, the well-armed moviegoer.
These violent acts strike seemingly indiscriminately. But they occur often enough that we can find a sense of understanding. We can draw up psychological profiles of attackers and study patterns of behavior to understand causes.
We know much less about pilots who fly their planes into the ground, because it’s so unusual.
Though pilots are under increasing stress, their mental health is carefully vetted. To become a commercial pilot, one must undergo physical and psychological screening. Additionally, pilots are a self-selecting group. They’ve earned their way to the cockpit through hard work, discipline and a willingness to take on as their regular daily routine an activity that many people consider too dangerous to do at all. In my experience interacting with pilots — I’m a recreational flier and an aviation journalist, so I run into quite a few — they tend to exhibit what psychologists call an “internal locus of control,” meaning that they believe that whatever obstacles lie before them can be tackled using their own resources.
How, then, could such a pilot kill himself along with all his passengers?
It’s almost impossible to say, because such a thing has only happened a very few times. And in none of them did the pilot leave behind a note, or offer any words of explanation to be picked up by the cockpit voice recorder.
In 2013, the captain of a plane flying from Mozambique to Angola waited until his co-pilot got up to go to the bathroom, locked the cockpit door, then set the autopilot to fly the plane into the ground. Rumors circulated that he had suffered marital problems, and that his son had recently died, but none have been verified, and the Mozambique authorities have failed to issue an official report.
In 1999, the first officer of an EgyptAir flight from New York to Cairo waited until the captain went to the bathroom, then disengaged the autopilot, throttled back the engine, and pointed the nose toward the ocean. The captain reappeared, asked “What’s happening?” and wrestled for control of the yoke until the plane struck the water, killing everyone aboard. It was later speculated that the first officer had been traumatized by his wartime experiences.
In 1997, the captain of a Silkair flight from Jakarta to Singapore disconnected the flight data recorder as the plane was cruising at 35,000 feet over Sumatra, then put it into a steep dive. Though he had apparently run up considerable debts, a Singaporean investigation subsequently found no evidence that he was suicidal.
Many suspect that MH370, which disappeared just over a year ago en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, was spirited away by a suicidal captain who also locked his first officer out of the cockpit. But Malaysian investigators found no evidence that the captain was suicidal, and with no debris found on the sea surface, and no wreckage on the seabed where experts calculated the plane should have wound up, that theory remains as tenuous as any other.
At the center of each of these cases hovers a black hole of unknowableness. There is no way to understand why these men did what they did, or even to verify that they did it. Indeed, Indonesian officials dispute that the SilkAir crash was a suicide, as do Egyptian officials in the case of EgyptAir.
Perhaps, then, we have been too quick to accept the proposition laid out this week by the French public prosecutor in Marseille: that 27-year-old first officer Andreas Lubitz, who came up through the ranks of a recreational gliding club as a teenager and had managed to secure his dream job as a first officer on a subsidiary of prestigious Lufthansa, would, calmly and without a word or even an exclamation of fear or rage, fly himself, his passengers and crewmates to their collective destruction.
I don’t mean to say that Lubitz did not carry out the deed that he stands accused of. He may well have. Recent reports in the German media indicate that he had been treated for psychiatric problems, and that he had a doctor’s note declaring him unfit for work on the day of the crash. Even so, that is a long way from explaining why he would commit mass murder. Until the evidence against him is fully revealed as absolutely rock-solid, we should retain a glimmer of doubt regarding his culpability.
Because what is being judged here isn’t just the guilt or innocence of one man. We are judging the validity of the premise that pilots are fundamentally trustworthy people. This notion has been the bedrock of world aviation since the first passenger took to the air. If we don’t trust pilots, we don’t trust the system itself. We should think carefully before we decide to take that step.
This article appeared in the Washington Post on March 27, 2015.