If there wasn’t enough reason to fear flying, the recent incident involving the Germanwings airliner introduces a new fear into the public psyche – deliberate plane crashes. However, we can breathe easy knowing that the occurrence of suicidal pilots intentionally crashing planes is incredibly rare. A study conducted by the FAA reports that out of the 2,758 plane crashes that have occurred over a ten year span, eight have been attributed to pilot suicide and in seven of the eight crashes, the pilot was the only passenger on board when the crash occurred. These are five of the most devastating intentional plane crashes since the inception of the airplane.
Germanwings Flight 9525
Although it is still under heavy investigation by German aviation officials, investigators believe that they have pieced together a fairly accurate account of the events that occurred the day that the 27-year-old co-pilot of Germanwings Flight 9525, Andreas Lubitz, was able to take over the control panel of the commercial flight and force it to crash into the French Alps.
On the morning of March 24th, 2015 the flight took off from Spain’s Barcelona-El Prat Airport, as scheduled, headed towards Dusseldorf, Germany. Airtraffic control radar indicated that at approximately 10:40 A.M. the airliner reached an altitude of 38,000ft. A short time later that altitude was reprogrammed by someone in the cockpit, forcing the plane descend to a dangerous 100ft, and ultimately causing the aircraft’s fatal crash into the French Alps. Of the 150 passengers and staff on the flight that day, there were no survivors.
USSR Aeroflot Incident
The Germanwings plane crash may have been a rare occurrence, but it is hardly the first time a plane has used a plane to commit suicide. Aside from the 9/11 attacks there has been at least a dozen other documented cases since the 1970s indicating that some aircraft disasters were due to intentional actions by the pilot. One of the first documented cases of this phenomena occurred in the former Soviet Union in 1976.
Similar to what has been speculated about Andreas Lubitz, Serkov hid his mental illness out of the fear that his job would be at stake. After a tumultuous divorce from his estranged wife, Serkov stole a commercial Aeroflot An-2 aircraft from his work site and directed it towards his former wife’s residence. Serkov was the only passenger on board when he crashed the airliner into a five-story apartment complex. Striking between the fourth and fifth floor stairwell, jet fuel leaked down the stairs to the bottom-most floors of the complex, and fire engulfed the building. To further complicate matters, a large portion of the plane fell and blocked the front entrance, trapping residents inside. The pilot, as well as four other victims died upon impact, while eleven more were hospitalized for injuries sustained as a result of the crash. Ironically, Serkov’s ex-wife was not among the dead or injured that day.
JAL Flight 350
Japanese airline pilot, Capt. Seiji Katagiri, had just returned to work after a year of being grounded due to psychological disturbances, including extreme paranoia, suicidal thoughts, and hallucinations. The domestic flight was set to depart Japan’s Fukuoka runway and arrive a short time later at Haneda airport in Tokyo. The flight went as expected with no major problems until it came time to land. As the plane descended to land on the airstrip at Haneda airport, Katagiri suddenly disabled the plane’s autopilot, pulled his controls forward, then placed the throttles into idle. The aircraft tilted forward into a sharp nosedive. The frantic co-pilot tried desperately to pull the controls forward to no avail. Flight 350 crashed into the Tokyo Bay, just 510m short of the airstrip. Of the eight crew members and 166 passengers aboard the flight that day, 24 of them died in the crash. Katagiri, his co-pilot, and the flight engineer all sustained serious injuries, but managed to survive. After a lengthy investigation, it was determined that Katagiri was “not of sound mind” and dismissed of all charges.
SilkAir Flight 185
What caused the 1997 crash of SilkAir Flight 185 is still shrouded in mystery. What is known is that the flight maintained a steady 350FL when suddenly it went into a near vertical nosedive, and crashing into the Musi River, just outside of Palembang, Sumatra. The aircraft began falling apart during the rapid descent, approaching speeds faster than the speed of sound. Wreckage was found embedded more than 15ft in the riverbank and shrapnel from the flight was recovered several kilometers away from the impact site. No bodies were ever recovered. All of those on board were believed to have been disintegrated upon impact. Due to the damage sustained to the aircraft, an investigation proved to be difficult. The final report was inconclusive on what exactly caused the crash, but it was determined that mechanical failure was highly unlikely. The only plausible explanation for the SilkAir disaster is pilot error.
EgyptAir Flight 990
Shortly after departing New York’s JFK airport, EgyptAir flight 990 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean on Halloween of 1999. Of the 214 passengers and crew aboard the flight, there were no survivors. The official report, finalized in 2002, explains that the captain of the flight briefly left the cockpit in order to take a bathroom break, leaving the co-pilot in charge. Similar to the events that occurred during the recent Germanwings crash, the co-pilot disabled the autopilot, shutdown the fuel to both engines, and allowed the craft to rapidly descend into the awaiting ocean below. What was not included within the official report is the events that lead up to the incident.
The co-pilot, Gamil el-Batouty, had recently been under investigation for a number of sexual offenses that occurred while staying in LA, prior to boarding the flight departing for Egypt. These offenses included exposing himself to teenage girls, stalking hotel guests, and propositioning the maids. Heading the investigation on el-Batouty’s less than professional conduct was Hatem Rushdy. Rushdy, who boarded the flight when it was forced to land at JFK International Airport, allegedly told el-Batouty that it would be his last trans-Atlantic flight. It is believed that el-Batouty crashed the plane in order to enact revenge on Rushdy.
1999 Air Botswana Incident
The EgyptAir crash wasn’t the only deliberate airliner crash to occur in 1999. Capt. Chris Phatswe commandeered a plane from a terminal at Sir Seretse Khama airport, departed the tarmac, and began circling the airport. While still in flight, Phatswe radioed the control tower in order to report his suicidal intentions. After two hours of flying in circles and many attempts made by control tower personnel to convince Phatswe to safely land the plane, the craft finally ran out of gas. Phatswe directed the flight straight towards the Air Botswana terminal at the airport. Although there were considerably less casualties involved in Phatswe’s Kamikaze mission than in the EgyptAir crash, the result was none the less devastating to Air Botswana. The three functional Aerospatiale ATR-42’s owned by Air Botswana were destroyed by fire, forcing all of the company’s flights to be canceled and leaving would-be passengers stranded. Phatswe was already determined “unfit to fly” prior to the incident and was not authorized to take the plane, but due to lax security measures he was easily able to sneak onto the airliner. Phatswe was the only casualty.