Pilots Purposely Destroying their Planes; Unusual but Not Unprecedented

More unsettling details are beginning to emerge in the investigation of this week’s Germanwings Flight 4U 9525 crash in the French Alps. It now appears that the co-pilot, 27-year-old Andreas Lubitz, deliberately destroyed the aircraft.

The cockpit voice recorder captured nothing but silence until seconds before the crash that killed 150 people. Air traffic controllers frantically tried to communicate with the cockpit but got no response. Lubitz, it appears, had locked the flight captain out of the cockpit and was alone at the controls. The last thing captured by the cockpit voice recorder was the sound of screams coming from the passenger cabin as the plane was about to hit a mountainside.

While tragic incidents like the Germanwings crash are unusual, they are not at all unprecedented. According to NPR, aviation investigators have found eight other instances since the 1970s in which it appears that a pilot or co-pilot was suspected of or confirmed to have deliberately brought down a plane. Aviation expert Keith Mackey says there is a great reluctance to characterize these incidents as “pilot suicide” in part because of an unwillingness to admit that a pilot flying a company plane is mentally unstable.

Here are four other crashes similar to the Germanwings tragedy that appear to have been caused by pilots deliberately downing planes:

November 29, 2013: Mozambican Airlines Flight TM470 crashes in Namibia leaving 33 dead. The ill-fated flight left the capital city of Maputo, Mozambique bound for Angola. The plane reached an altitude of 38,000 feet before it plummeted to the ground in Namibia’s Bwabwata National Park. Authorities said pilot Hermino dos Santos Fernandes had “clear intention” to down the plane when he locked himself in the cockpit, manually reset the plane’s altitude and refused to let his co-pilot back in. In the cockpit voice recording, alarms are blaring and the co-pilot is pounding against the door until moments before the airliner crashed.

October 31, 1999: EgyptAir Flight 990 crashes 60 miles outside of Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, killing 217 people. The Boeing 767 began its journey in Los Angeles, stopping briefly to refuel in New York. Not long after departing from JFK International Airport, Captain Gamil El Batouty, the relief first captain, asked to relieve the command first captain three hours before he was scheduled to begin his shift. His request was granted, and El Batouty leveled the plane at 33,000 feet.

A short time later, the command flight captain left the cockpit to use the restroom, leaving El Batouty alone at the controls. All of this was highly unusual, as EgyptAir policy for international flights required two flight crews; a command team and a relief team. The command team was responsible for departure and landing, along with the first and last three hours of flight.

The cockpit voice recorder captured El Batouty saying, “I rely on God” as he moved the throttle levers from cruise power to idle, sending the plane into a 40-degree dive. When the command captain returned to the cockpit, he asked over and again, “What is happening?” as he tried to stop the airliner from plummeting. All El Batouty kept saying was “I rely on God.” The plane crashed a short time later.

Egyptian investigators refused to label the crash a suicide.

December 19, 1997: SilkAir Flight 185 crashes in Indonesia, killing 104 people on board. After taking off from Jakarta bound for Singapore, the Boeing 737 reached a cruising altitude of 38,000 feet before it inexplicably entered a steep descent and crashed into a jungle in Palembang. Everyone on board perished in the crash.

Indonesian investigators never issued an official cause of the crash, rejecting the idea of pilot suicide. However, the National Transportation Safety Board concluded that there was nothing wrong with the plane, and the crash could be explained by “intentional pilot action.” The pilot of SilkAir Flight 185, Captain Tsu Way Ming, was in serious debt after losses sustained in financial market speculation, according to the NTSB.

February 9, 1982: Japan Airlines Flight 350 crashes in Tokyo Bay, killing 24 people. During the approach to Hanada Airport, 35-year-old flight captain Seiji Katagiri deliberately engaged the thrust reversers on the number 2 and 3 engines. The other pilots had to restrain Katagiri in order to regain control of the plane. In the end, the airliner crashed roughly 1000 feet short of the runway, killing 24 out of 174 on the plane.

Katagiri was later found to have been suffering from mental illness. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity.


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