Suicide by airplane: a dark subject indeed

Inevitably, the tragedy of the airline pilot killing himself, the rest of the crew, and the passengers, prompted articles in the general media about suicides using private aircraft. There is actually no similarity because one is a murder/suicide, which usually has a motive, and the other is a matter of a person taking his own life. Still, the question was raised and to be honest I wasn’t too sure I wanted to explore this dark subject but in the end I decided to go ahead.

Germanwings crash
The Germanwings crash raised some uncomfortable questions about private airplanes.

There was general agreement in the articles that suicide by private airplane has been documented 44 times in the last 30 years and in only a few cases was someone other than the pilot in the airplane. There were isolated instances of a private airplane being used as an instrument to attack someone or something on the ground. The Cherokee that was used to assault an IRS office in Texas is an example of that. So was the Cessna that was flown into a building in Florida.

The information for these recent stories apparently came from the NTSB database where you can query a word, suicide in this case, and if it is found in the probable cause or in the narrative the accident is flagged.

The NTSB is not bashful about telling of legal, financial, relationship, health or other problems that a pilot might have been having at the time of an accident. Those things might be mentioned without any reference to a possible suicide. If a pilot leaves a note, says something on the radio, or tells someone he is going to do the deed, then suicide is likely included in the probable cause statement. Lacking that, any suicide mention by the pilot is covered in the narrative.

All that is the obvious part of the question and I think most pilots would agree that any answer on how many is incomplete. There have likely been more suicides by airplane than reported so the question becomes how many more? Any answer to that involves pure speculation. Pilots are pretty good at that so I’ll plow on and share some thoughts based on what I have seen over the years.

To begin, an airplane is probably the best way in the world for a person to do himself in if he does not want the stigma of suicide in his obituary. Just don’t tell anybody this is what you have in mind and then follow one of the tried and true paths that inept pilots go down and crash. Then your friends and family can say that you ran out of airspeed and altitude at the same time or that a big mean storm was too much for you and your little airplane.

He died in an airplane accident

reads better in a legacy than,

He committed suicide

Personally, I am working on

He died of old age

A glance at the calendar shows I just might succeed.

Cessna crash
An unlucky day or something intentional? In some cases, it’s hard to tell.

Once a pilot decides to use an airplane to commit suicide, and when he decides at the last minute to go all the way, then the attempt has an almost absolute probability of success. I think the records would show that it would be right up there with jumping off high buildings or bridges, or using a gun, in yielding the desired result.

There have been instances of airplanes just flying out to sea and disappearing. Lacking any evidence to the contrary, this is usually presumed to be either suicide or pilot incapacitation but there is no way to know which one without evidence.

So, if a pilot goes flying with the thought of suicide but leaves behind no note or thought of this with someone then it is likely to remain the pilot’s secret.

I remember from a long while back an event where a pilot did back out successfully but not without a lot of help and attention.

This is all from memory as I couldn’t find a file on it, but I think most of the facts are straight.

The pilot flew to JFK airport in New York and shot a touch and go landing without calling the tower. It was nighttime but he did have the navigation lights on.

From there, he headed out to sea. Apparently the airplane was being tracked on radar because when the pilot was a distance out and decided he really didn’t want to do it but realized he didn’t have enough fuel to get back to land his call for help was answered.

The Coast Guard sent a helicopter that found him and stayed with the airplane until it ran out of fuel. Then the helicopter followed the airplane down, presumably providing some illumination for the successful ditching. Then it was a matter of plucking the pilot from the sinking airplane and bringing him back to shore.

There was no way that could remain the pilot’s secret and I always thought the Coast Guard should have sent him a big bill.

There are a lot of accidents that are probably not suicides but that do make you wonder whether a pilot has a death wish. Every time I read of a pilot flying a light airplane into a strong thunderstorm I have to at least give a thought to the fact that it might have been done on purpose. The same is true of approaches below minimums, VFR flight into adverse weather, operations with defective equipment, flying over- or improperly loaded aircraft and flying with booze or drugs in the old system. In a lot of these cases there are passengers on board and while pilots might be reckless with passengers, I don’t think it is likely many are suicidal though the outcome might be the same.

This brings to mind one dark and stormy night in Kansas. A friend approached me and said a mutual acquaintance might be about to commit suicide with an airplane. I knew this person was self-destructive but never thought he was suicidal. He was from the generation that thought it was a sign of manhood to gallop to the edge of the cliff on a regular basis and brag about it. To them, narrow escapes, wreckage left behind and scars were badges of honor.

The reason my friend thought this person was suicidal was that he was flying an unfamiliar and suspect airplane and the weather was terrible. He proposed to take off and fly all night to a point 1,100 miles away after having been up all day and maybe after having a few drinks. I thought he was just being himself and said so though we did go together and talk the person out of flying until the next day. I somehow didn’t think he really intended to fly that flight. If he had flown it and died doing so I would have thought of it as him having done a really dumb thing, not committing suicide.

I have known pilots who accepted any stigma that might be attached to suicide rather than trying to disguise what they did as an airplane accident. Two I knew were responsible and professional in their flying and I am sure that neither wanted to destroy a perfectly good airplane for personal reasons. Both were terminally ill and used a gun.

One beautiful and clear day a pilot of my acquaintance dove vertically into the ground. No autopsy was possible because of the violence of the crash. The airplane was shattered so no determination of mechanical malfunction could be found. The cause of the accident was thus listed as “undetermined.”

All the person’s friends thought it was suicide. There were just subtle things that made us think that and the fact that the last trip was of a clandestine nature added to our suspicions. That was just best left as a tragic accident.

Bourbon glasses
Alcohol often plays a part in suicides, whether airplanes are involved or not.

Another pilot crashed on a beautiful clear day for no apparent reason save one. The pilot had seemed normal and in good spirits before takeoff. In the wreckage, though, an empty fifth bottle that had contained bourbon was found. The pilot’s blood alcohol level was off the chart, as might be expected.

This pilot had apparently taken off, started downing the fifth of bourbon soon after takeoff, and drank himself into a stupor. He might have died of alcohol poisoning if he had done the same thing sitting on a log by a creek bank but he did it in an airplane and left us all wondering whether it was a planned suicide or a binge gone bad. None of us had any knowledge of his having problems but he had always been a jolly good fellow and a lot of fun and apparently masked any problems with his demeanor.

Alcohol and/or drugs play a substantial role in suicides in general and there’s no reason to think this wouldn’t be true to some extent in airplanes.

I’ll relate a couple of other events that ended with more questions than answers. Both involved pilots that I knew, one well. Both pilots were experienced, had been flying for a long time, and were of the sort that I felt wouldn’t come up short in an airplane.

One had been hospitalized, suffering from cancer. I had a number of long talks with him and it was heartening that he sounded stronger every time.

The next time I was where he lived I got together with him and we had dinner. He looked great, was cheerful and upbeat, and talked a lot about things that he was planning. The only thing out of the ordinary was his appetite. He ate a full restaurant roast beef dinner and then had seconds on the roast beef and potatoes. It was like watching a football player eat. I later learned that some types of cancer can prompt things like that.

He was about my father’s age and they went way back. Both were in the private aviation business before it really became a business.

My father was extremely upset when he called me one evening and said that our friend had “killed himself in his airplane.” I later asked if he meant that he had used his airplane to kill himself and my father said he didn’t know.

I looked into the accident.

He was a bit off his usual track but he was en route to a location where he had arranged to have his airplane refurbished. I could never establish why he was at the airport of departure on what was a scuzzy spring day. It was not between his home base and his eventual destination.

A red flag was raised when the FSS person said he had abruptly ended a weather briefing that was describing weather conditions that were below VFR minimums. He was instrument rated and skilled and the only reason I could think of for him to go VFR, which was his plan, was the lack of a good instrument approach at his destination.

I talked on the phone with the FBO folks who had seen him at the point of departure and they suggested that he was anything but normal. They said he was distracted, almost uninterested in the weather, and acted as if he was in a terrible hurry to get going.

The terrain was mountainous and the ridges were obscured. He flew into one of those ridges just about 30 feet below the top of the ridge.

Tampa building plane crash
Some pilots make a very public exit, but such events rarely

The NTSB listed the probable cause as the pilot continuing VFR into adverse weather conditions. No mention was made of his health.

Did he do it on purpose? Most of his friends thought he might have but we really didn’t know. We did know that he was the type of guy who would rather go out in an airplane than a hospital bed.

In a similar event, an experienced pilot was also suffering from advanced cancer with a bleak prognosis. He flew an IFR flight without event but then was high on an ILS approach and had to circle for landing. From witness accounts, he made every mistake possible during the circle. He was too low and too close to the runway and he overshot the turn to final and spun-in trying to make it work.

He was just not a pilot who would botch an approach in that manner unless something was wrong. Whether he had reached a point where he didn’t care or was suddenly ill or affected by the drugs he was taking were possibilities not explored by the NTSB.

In both those accidents the pilot’s illness was not reported by the NTSB. Everyone who knew them also knew they were terminally ill and I guess the investigators didn’t ask the question. Both had current medicals.

I don’t think many of us would fault a terminally ill person for going their own way as long as innocent parties are not involved.

I said in the beginning that this is a dark subject and after working on this subject I have come to the conclusion that it is darker than dark. It is not related to aviation safety or flying technique or any of the other things that we frequently write about. I am sure, too, that a psychiatrist would tell you that only a qualified person should write about. It is, though, something that happens with pilots and airplanes and thus of interest to me.

Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U. S. and around the world and it is a certainty that a lot of people consider it but never go any farther. It is logical that any pilot who might consider it might also think about doing it in an airplane. Be that as it may, if the person decides to do it, and embarks on that last flight, he is no longer really a pilot. It has been said that in any accident the pilot becomes a passenger somewhere toward the last. That would be especially true here.

I do think it is safe to say that the general public has little to fear if a pilot decides to take his own life in a private airplane.

11 Comments

  • Suicide is darker than dark. It is also an impulsive act and one of opportunity. If a person has an impulse to commit suicide but hasn’t the means to commit it, the impulse will often pass and the person will live out his or her life and die of natural causes. Here in Portland, Oregon, the Vista bridge was a common place for people to jump to their deaths because the railing was low and people could just step out into space with no restriction. The city has now erected barriers effectively preventing people from jumping. I don’t know how many people have been saved by these barriers, but I wager it’s been more than just a few.

    The impulsivity of suicidal thinking makes it all the more difficult to tell whether a pilot killed him or herself because an airplane is always able to kill unless sitting on the ground with the engine off. The question in an accident will always be: what was really going through the pilot’s mind?

  • Around 6 years ago I was in college for aerospace manufacturing at a school that also had a commercial pilot program. We came to class one day to see a cluster of news vans in front of the building, reporters and cameras all over the place, and a few police officers as well. It turns out that one of the flying students had taken a plane with the intent of flying over Lake Superior and committing suicide, presumably be diving into the lake. It would have been an effective strategy – even if he survived the crash Superior is deep and cold; hypothermia would have been quick to finish the job. Apparently he wasn’t able to follow through with the act because he instead turned for the American border. Allegedly he was hoping for the military to shoot him down. Fortunately the two F-16 pilots and their superiors were smart enough to deduce that a 172 wasn’t dangerous enough to be blown out of the sky.

    In the end the student put the plane down on a dirt road and was apprehended by police. I don’t know what the eventual story is, whether he was treated for depression or not, but I hope he made a recovery.

  • Maybe it’s a dark subject because we make it so. Our society is set up such that if you are terminally ill and suffering constantly, the best we offer is a slow medicated end or other violent alternative of your own device. We treat dogs better than that.

  • Suicide is one of the great mysteries of the human state. It comes in many varieties and levels of severity, but most often results from the condition known commonly and medically as “depression.” Depression can result in impulsive suicides of opportunity (using the object or method at hand, most commonly a firearm), or quietly-planed, well-organized, even complex acts. Some of the episodes Dick describes could have been impulsive, others well planned. Recently, a pilot from the airport nearest my home disappeared in his Yak, and was only found days later after friends became concerned by his absence. An aerial photo of the crash site was one of the most remarkable I’ve seen: the airplane went straight in, leaving only a pattern of the wings and fuselage front profile, with the tail section being the only thing above ground. Could this really have been an accident? We may never know.

  • “I don’t think many of us would fault a terminally ill person for going their own way as long as innocent parties are not involved.”

    I wouldn’t. But if any of you are terminally ill, consider before you fly off to the great blue yonder, that any GA accident is likely to reinforce in the general public’s mind the myth that GA is unacceptably risky. And a death by airplane certainly won’t help the rest of our insurance rates even if that pilot canceled his policy before going.

  • The FAA was ahead of this one by a bit.

    See: http://www.faa.gov/data_research/research/med_humanfacs/oamtechreports/2010s/media/201402.pdf

    Suicide by airplane is rare, but this report suggests it is not unique. Most of these acts of self destruction just involved the pilot.

    Several airliners have also been brought to earth by pilots who were bent on self destruction. Egypt Air 990 was the first instance I recall reading about several years ago. There are earlier events, this one just burned itself into memory because of the volume of media attention, and my frequent airline trips after the event. This video of that event is really chilling. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=F8G08hwlDjQ

    I agree with Collins that pilots who commit mass murders are monsters. The co pilot of Egypt Air 990 deliberately committed mass murder, much like the co pilot of the Germanwings airliner just a few weeks ago. Maybe these ugly events are the strongest rationale for fully autonomous “drone” transport aircraft.

  • Well done article. Antidepressants often plays a part in suicides, too, whether airplanes are involved or not.

  • Thank you, Richard for having the courage to write on this subject. It is indeed very dark and difficult for anyone to talk about, but I think pilots in particular are pushed not to talk about the emotional state that can lead to suicide. If we have sought psychological or psychiatric treatment for depression, we are going to get a probe from the FAA rather than kudos for taking steps to care for ourselves. It seems that many of what the FAA calls hazardous attitudes we pilots take into many parts of our lives – not just flying. Admitting “weakness” is not our strong suit. I could go on.

    I did want to comment on something a responder said. Suicide CAN be impulsive, but more often than not it is approached slowly and painfully. Plans are often made well before the final decision is made. There are often warning signs.

    Finally, the rarity with which this happens means that pilots should not be required to undergo routine psychological evaluations. It would be great for my practice, but predicting very rare events is next to impossible. Instead it makes sense to focus on training fellow pilots, crew members, other aviation professionals, and even family and friends to recognize the signs of problems and how to get the person help. This won’t stop every instance, but it helps increase the recognition of acute distress… Something routine osychological evaluations are not likely to do.

  • I was chief flight instructor at a little ‘pea patch’ airport near a local college. “Ted” was scheduled for an hour of dual with me in the college ‘flying club’ Champ, toward his PPC. It was a Saturday morning and he showed up with a severe hangover and I told him to go back to the Frat House and sober up. I thought ‘that was that’, but when I landed with my next student I was told that Johnny, a ‘weekend’ instructor had taken him up for the hour of dual. Lesson that day was “turns about a point on the ground”, usually done at 600′ AGL.

    Johnny’s account was that Ted froze up on the controls (he was 6’2″ and 190 lbs) and just before impact he ‘let loose’ of the controls to cover his face, and Johnny was able to level out and pull the stick back just before impact. Somehow Johnny survived un-injured but Ted had two broken legs.

    Two of his friends and I drove to NJ from PA a few weeks later to visit him at his home. Still bedridden but of good humor. Last I heard of him was that he ‘fell’ down the steps and broke his legs all over again. Old but not-so-bold, jim

  • I am an “expert” (a psychiatrist) for whatever that’s worth (not a lot). There is little I can add, but I do have some thoughts:
    – The number of suicides that occur in all groups of people is still low, about 1-2 per 10,000 people per year. While some groups are double or even triple this rate, that still leaves 9,995 people out of every 10,000 people who DON’T kill themselves each year.
    – Suicide is (almost) the most common cause of death in younger people. Despite this, fewer young people die, so younger people do not have a higher suicide rate. In addition, there are fewer younger pilots in GA.
    – I suspect pilots DO have higher suicide rates than other groups, mainly because there are more white males over age 65 (a higher risk group).
    – In particular, people over the age of 65 with serious medical conditions are another higher risk group. I’m not sure how much this applies to pilots. On the one hand, you need to be relatively healthy to have a medical. On the other, you don’t need a medical to fly a plan (illegally with the intention of committing suicide).

    I am struck by Dick’s comment about his two pilot friends that did commit suicide, but did so by gun rather than by flying. Not to be insensitive, but I am curious as to whether they were physically of operating an aircraft at the time. From my experiences, I suspect that most witnessed deaths are probably unlikely to be suicides unless there was a large degree of hostility, resentment or entitlement. I would suspect any actual suicides to be away from the public eye (and they could be accidents as well). I’m not sure if I’m correct, however.

    My suspicion is that there are suicides that occur in GA, but that there are probably fewer than we speculate.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *