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In-Flight Pilot Suicide Rare Due to Safeguards

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The airliner plummeted in a supersonic spiral, hurtling full power toward a river, carrying 104 people to their deaths.

Crash investigators were startled to discover that the plane’s “black boxes” had gone blank several minutes before the dive. One theory: Someone had pulled a circuit breaker in the cockpit and cut the power to them.

Investigators also learned that the pilot--a former star military flier--had been disciplined for deactivating the cockpit voice recorder on a previous flight and that he had been having financial problems.

Yet two years after the crash of SilkAir Flight MI 185 in Indonesia, the investigation remains open--with pilot suicide the leading suspicion. There is a strong circumstantial case, but officials are missing the final, clinching piece of evidence.

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Incidents Occur With No Clear Warning

In-flight suicide by a commercial pilot entrusted with the lives of innocent passengers is virtually unthinkable. It is the paramount violation of the primary mission, akin to a doctor poisoning patients or a police officer gunning down citizens. When such incidents have occurred, there has been no clear warning, only shock and disbelief afterward.

“You are talking about a loss of their concern for the safety of the people they fly,” said Dr. Richard Levy, a retired Air Force medical officer and psychiatrist from Portland, Maine. “In my mind, that would require an enormous degree of psychiatric disability.”

A pilot in such an unbalanced state, Levy added, likely would have given himself away long before he got the chance to carry out his intentions.

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Yet the unthinkable has happened--more than once. And in some cases, there is no disputing the evidence.

Investigators have blamed a 1982 Japan Air Lines crash that killed 24 people on a mentally unstable captain. He ditched his DC-8 in Tokyo Bay intentionally as other crew members struggled in vain to restrain him. The captain survived the crash and was placed in a mental institution.

In 1994, a Royal Air Maroc captain deliberately flew an ATR turboprop into a North African mountainside, killing all 44 aboard. The last radio transmission from the doomed plane captured the voice of the co-pilot, screaming: “Mayday, mayday, the pilot is . . .” before being cut off. Moroccan authorities concluded that the captain disconnected the autopilot and put the plane into a steep dive. Newspapers said he was distraught over a love affair.

Last month, an Air Botswana pilot suspended for medical reasons took off alone in an ATR and circled the Gabarone, Botswana, airport for two hours, threatening to kill himself. He died as he crashed his plane into two others sitting empty at the airport.

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As disturbing as they are, these incidents are statistically insignificant in the context of millions of airline flights each year.

No such case has occurred aboard a U.S. airline, and experts in aviation psychology say that reflects the rigorous selection and monitoring process that pilots must undergo. According to Levy, most airlines require a background check as well as psychological testing and interviews with mental health specialists.

Under Federal Aviation Administration rules, no one suffering from psychosis, severe personality disorder, manic-depressive illness or substance dependence can be issued the medical clearance to fly an airliner. Captains are required to renew their clearance every six months and first officers every year. Last year, 1,259 captains and first officers were denied medical approval for mental health reasons.

Despite all the safeguards, however, some pilots do keep their problems hidden.

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“Pilots are very much aware that . . . they risk losing their flying status if they develop something that is considered unsafe,” said Dr. Richard Rayman, executive director of the Aerospace Medical Assn. in Alexandria, Va. “There are some pilots who conceal illnesses--all types of illnesses. Somebody could have a heart attack that they don’t report.”

Pilot Considered One of the Best

In the case of the SilkAir crash, Capt. Tsu Way Ming was considered one of the best pilots in the small but economically powerful city-state of Singapore. According to the South China Morning Post, Tsu had been a top gun in the Singapore Air Force, a veteran whose flying ability was held in awe by younger pilots. He was 41, married and the father of three sons.

Yet there were shadows across his life. He was the sole survivor on a 1979 training mission of fighter pilots that ended in disaster. Their goal was to practice flying over mountain terrain in cloudy weather. Mechanical problems forced Tsu to return to base. The others flew into a mountain.

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Tsu left the Air Force in the early 1990s to embark on a career as a commercial pilot. At SilkAir, he rose to become an instructor. Then came problems that led to his demotion. Tsu was found to have deactivated a cockpit voice recorder on a June 1997 flight. He also had failed to file a report on an aborted landing attempt that resulted in a go-around on a flight that March. Tsu’s chances for advancement appeared dim.

Financial problems also loomed. He had lost a small fortune when the Asian economic crisis hit. A few days before the crash, he reportedly took out a large life insurance policy.

Officials also noted that the SilkAir crash occurred 18 years to the day after the military training mission went awry.

Investigators eventually ruled out mechanical problems, weather and air traffic control problems--much as National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Jim Hall has with EgyptAir Flight 990. Unlike the Egyptians, officials at SilkAir have agreed that suicide could be a possible explanation. But the case remains open. There was no suicide note, and in the final analysis, the evidence is circumstantial.

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Aviation psychologist Richard Jensen of Ohio State University said such cases pose a dilemma for his profession.

“We deal with things like . . . the development of crew training programs for people who exhibit normal human behavior,” Jensen said. “This kind of thing is so rare that in our field we assume we are dealing with normal human behavior.”


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