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How to avoid a pilot suicide


After 9/11 there was a lot of talk about how to prevent it, and the best method was to fortify the cockpit door and prevent unauthorized access. Every security system, however, sometimes prevents authorized people from getting access, and the tragic results of that are now clear to the world. This is likely a highly unusual event, and we should not go overboard, but it's still interesting to consider.

(I have an extra reason to take special interest here, I was boarding a flight out of Spain on Tuesday just before the Germanwings flight crashed.)

In 2001, it was very common to talk about how software systems, at least on fly-by-wire aircraft, might make it impossible for aircraft to do things like fly into buildings. Such modes might be enabled by remote command from air traffic control. Pilots resist this, they don't like the idea of a plane that might refuse to obey them at any time, because with some justification they worry that a situation could arise where the automated system is in error, and they need full manual control to do what needs to be done.

The cockpit access protocol on the Airbus allows flight crew to enter a code to unlock the door. Quite reasonably, the pilot in the cockpit can override that access, because an external bad guy might force a flight crew member to enter the code.

So here's an alternative -- a code that can be entered by a flight crew member which sends and emergency alert to air traffic control. ATC would then have the power to unlock the door with no possibility of pilot override. In extreme cases, ATC might even be able to put the plane in a safe mode, where it can only fly to a designated airport, and auto-land at that airport. In planes with sufficient bandwidth near an airport, the plane might actually be landed by remote pilots like a UAV, an entirely reasonable idea for newer aircraft. In case of real terrorist attack, ATC would need to be ready to refuse to open the door no matter what is threatened to the passengers.

If ATC is out of range (like over the deep ocean) then the remote console might allow the flight crew -- even a flight attendant -- to direct the aircraft to fly to pre-approved waypoints along the planned flight path where quality radio contact can be established.

Clearly there is a risk to putting a plane in this mode, though ATC or the flight crew who did it could always return control to the cockpit.

It might still be possible to commit suicide but it would take a lot more detailed planning. Indeed, there have been pilot suicides where the door was not locked, and the suicidal pilot just put the plane into a non-recoverable spin so quickly that nobody could stop it. Still, in many cases of suicide, any impediment can sometimes make the difference.

Update: I have learned the lock has a manual component, and so the pilot in the cockpit could prevent even a remote opening for now. Of course, current planes are not set to be remotely flown, though that has been discussed. It's non trivial (and would require lots of approval) but it could have other purposes.

A safe mode that prevents overt attempts to crash might be more effective than you think, in that with many suicides, even modest discouragement can make a difference. It's why they still want to put a fence on the Golden Gate Bridge had have other similar things elsewhere. You won't stop a determined suicide but it apparently does stop those who are still uncertain, which is lots of them.

The simpler solution -- already going into effect in countries that did not have this rule already -- is a regulation insisting that nobody is ever alone in the cockpit. Under this rule, if a pilot wants to go to the bathroom, a flight attendant waits in the cockpit. Of course, a determined suicidal pilot could disable this person, either because of physical power, or because sometimes there is a weapon available to pilots. That requires more resolve and planning, though.


Here's my counter-argument. We should do nothing.

Anybody who is suicidal can do tremendous amounts of damage to other life while they take their own life, this could be, for example, a single engine plane flying into a football stadium while a match is playing. This pilot did not intend to bring as many people with him as he could or he would have chosen a populated area to crash the plane. instead he took a direct controlled descent down to his death. 150 people lost their lives and that's tragic, but commercial pilot suicide is rare and ultimately I think trying to prevent this is going to cost the industry (and us) a lot of money and at best do very little to stop it, and worse, expose a loophole through which a genuine terrorist could gain access to the airplane.

Yes, the reason that I suggest that ATC be able to unlock the door and not the flight crew, is that they will not give in to a terrorist. But more refinement is needed, and I have learned the lock is physical on the airbus, ie. the pilot in the cockpit and physically block the lock.

However, I am not sure your supposition about choice of crash site is correct. It appears this pilot waited for his captain to go take a break, and then locked the door and dove. He just took the first (perhaps only) chance he had, which happened to be where it was.

I don't think you can stop every suicidal pilot, but you can work so that the cockpit access system doesn't make it easier.

"However, I am not sure your supposition about choice of crash site is correct. It appears this pilot waited for his captain to go take a break, and then locked the door and dove. He just took the first (perhaps only) chance he had, which happened to be where it was."

According to some reports, the pilot, when piloting a small aircraft on his own time, often flew over the region of the crash. Some people said that he was fascinated by the area.

Why not just get rid of the pilots and make the planes autonomous!

How about this as a counter argument... instead of treating the planes, treat the patients. Should it instead be a Doctor's DUTY to report any patients that he deems a danger to others or even to himself if he knows he's in the position to harm others in his job? If you ask me, that DR should have the ability and DUTY to notify authorities of a person in danger of harming himself, especially those in professions like this where the lives of others are at stake.

Just my two cents, from a victim of suicide... luckily my father didn't take anyone else with him. Either way, it is seldom victimless.

We usually strongly resist putting such duties on doctors. We do it sometimes, but we resist it because this makes people afraid to seek medical care if they think doing so will force the Doctor to report them and cause them to lose their job, or licence or other such things.

The problem is that if people have that fear, you may end up with more trouble as lots of people remain untreated, and in the end you end up worse than you did by not reporting the patient.

It's one of the reasons doctors, priests and lawyers get a privilege in the courts.

While I totally understand that point, it was my understanding that this was the only exception to privilege, if there was a risk to themselves or others.

I personally know of two times where a doctor has called the authorities, once where a friend threatened to commit suicide, the police showed up and took him for a mandatory psych evaluation while he was on the phone with his doctor. The second time, another friends daughter was in treatment for bipolar and made a comment about the ways shed thought of to get rid of her parents... She was locked down immediately, the police and her parents were notified.

I thought this was already the standard protocol which is why I believed it should be the doctors duty. I could be wrong, I'm not a lawyer, or a Dr.

I like your ideas though, and I'm glad you got safely to your destination!

Generally, cuz, if a doctor/lawyer/priest becomes aware of a future crime, they do have to act on it. So if you went to your doctor and said, "I plan to crash my plane" they can tell the authorities.

On the other hand, if you go to the doctor and say you are depressed, that's generally confidential as far as I know. You don't want people to be afraid to seek treatment.

Pilots are already strongly discouraged from treatment for depression - because nearly all antidepressants are disqualifying for an aviation medical. The FAA now allows a few, but only after a lengthy grounding period (career-ending for a proresdit all pilot)

Add to that the geberal stigma associated with mental illness, and we'll just get one of these every few years.

The fix is for it to be acceptable to discuss and be treated for mental illness.

Might stop school shootings too.

Difficult to see how to get there from here. If an airline allows a pilot to admit depression and seek treatment and still fly, and then that pilot does something like a suicide attempt, the airline is going to be very vulnerable. Our legal system needs to get better at encouraging approaches which have the best overall result even if there is a bad individual result.

Of course, perhaps a victim might sue and say, "Hey Germanwings, your policies pushed this pilot to hide his depression, so he didn't get enough treatment and it ended badly." I don't know what a court would say to that.

"So here’s an alternative — a code that can be entered by a flight crew member which sends and emergency alert to air traffic control. ATC would then have the power to unlock the door with no possibility of pilot override."

But then a terrorist could force someone to enter this code, which is the problem the locked door was trying to prevent in the first place.

Why does a terrorist want to send an emergency signal to ATC and give ATC control over the door or any other aspect of the plane? The last thing the terrorist wants is to let the flight crew send out a hijack alert. There would, of course, be multiple codes one can enter on the panel, and those codes will convey information to ATC, and the bad guys will have no idea which code you are entering. ATC will not open the door if it believes a hijacking is in progress.

As noted, it turns out the cockpit has a physical lock override.

Why? In order to get the door open. As soon as the plane leaves its planned route, it is obvious that something is wrong, so I don't think the hijacker would mind if ATC realized this a few seconds earlier.

If the bad guys are reasonably knowledgeable, then they will know that there are multiple codes. They might be able to threaten someone into entering one which opens the door. Why not? Much of that which they otherwise accomplished comes from threats. OK, maybe all will be noble and die before entering the code the hijackers want, but one shouldn't depend on that.

The physical lock override would prevent someone entering the cockpit, as indeed it did in this case. Good if a hijacker wants in, bad if there is a suicide pilot.

One probably needs a four-eyes principle for important commands. If a pilot is incapacitated, someone else will have to confirm (and it must be obvious what he is confirming). To keep a or hijacker from overpowering someone, one probably needs 3 armed guards on board. Then a disaster can only happen if two of them successfully collude.

As it turns out in the German Wings case like so many of the school, theater (you name it) mass shooting events the common denominator is 'young male + psychotropic drugs'. Unless you pay attention and read the factual reports that come out years later you don't know this. The media blames it on the implement and the political system demands technological solutions. I'm of the opinion that if you were to ban the outpatient prescription of psychotropic drugs to males under age 40 most of these problems would simply go away. That of course would be hugely unprofitable so it isn't likely to happen.

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