Eve of Destruction

Aviation psychologist Professor Robert Bor discusses Germanwings flight 4U 9525 and pilot suicide

A popular but dated image of pilots probably derives from war movies showing scenes in which they wrestle with the controls of a damaged aircraft to avoid catastrophe. Modern aviation is far removed from what are now outdated Hollywood depictions of pilots.

Wrestling at the controls to save the aircraft is hardly in a day’s work. Planes now fly via computers following the calm and well-rehearsed inputs from pilots. The recent Germanwings pilot suicide crash, however, highlights that there are a rare few pilots who do not wrestle with the flight controls to save their aircraft, but they may wrestle with very powerful and destructive forces within their minds.

Courtesy: FlightAware

Courtesy: FlightAware

As someone who has provided aviation clinical psychology services to the civilian and military aviation sectors for more than twenty-five years, I have gained some insight into some of the mental health issues that affect pilots (see ‘Aviation Mental Health’ and ‘Anxiety at 35 000 Feet’) as well as airline passengers (see ‘Passenger Behaviour’). I have been involved in pilot selections and mental health assessments, as well as being a general psychologist and a systemic psychotherapist.

I claim no special expertise in the area of suicidality. In my line of aviation psychology work it hardly ever features though I am familiar with half a dozen or so cases of pilot suicide on commercial aircraft in the last 25 years. However, I do supervise colleagues who very occasionally encounter patients whose inner turmoil is such that if it remains unexplored and unchecked, it can lead to catastrophic outcomes. Fortunately, it has never been with a pilot.

A question that is on all of our minds is ‘Could this horrendous event over the Alps have been prevented?’. Theoretically, yes if every pilot was subjected to an extensive psychological assessment, but of course the real answer is no, because it is inconceivable that such assessments could ever be undertaken on a mass scale and current psychological assessments (or tests) are far from 100 per cent accurate. Indeed to predict an exceptionally rare event would require a fantastically accurate psychological assessment device.

Lufthansa chief executive Carsten Spohr briefs the media following the Germanwings air disaster

Lufthansa chief executive Carsten Spohr briefs the media following the Germanwings air disaster

The only way that we could ever gain clear insight into the events that led up to the suicide of the German pilot, and the homicide of all those on board, would be to interview him in a context and manner that perhaps only clinical and forensic psychologists would be able to create. This will never happen of course.

Forensically, we can try to piece together some of what must have been going through his mind, both immediately before he crashed the aircraft, and in the years leading up to this heinous event by carrying out a ‘psychological autopsy’.

So what was it about Andreas Lubitz, the co-pilot’s state of mind that might have led to mass murder which will have a profound effect on the future of airline operations, in the same way as 9/11 did with regard to safety and security on board aircraft? We know only small snippets about his state of mind. In the coming days and weeks we will gain a clearer idea of many other aspects of his psychological profile.

As psychologists, we know that ‘footprints’ would have been left behind over a period of time reflecting his increasingly disturbed mind, although we have not yet been given definitive clues by the investigating authorities about his psychiatric history. We are beginning to hear evidence pointing to significant personality disturbance, coupled with deep rage and possible fear and despair over his future flying career, profound intrapsychic conflict, increasing feelings of aggression, disrupted personal relationships, depression and narcissism.

French prosecutor Brice Robin ascribed the blame for the Germanwings air disaster to the actions of co-pilot Andreas Lubitz

French prosecutor Brice Robin ascribed the blame for the Germanwings air disaster to the actions of co-pilot

This all culminated in an overtly aggressive act, reflecting in part perverse and misplaced vanity that he was making a stamp on the world such that his name would never be totally forgotten. The specific motive and trigger for his actions may never be known.

At the moment that he had committed himself to his suicidal and murderous act, he would have had to override every aspect of his training and experience that he had accumulated over all the years. Every pilot is taught how to safely control an aircraft and this learning, relearning, relearning again and constant checking ensures that it becomes second nature.

He would have had to literally hijack and override all of his instincts and learning. As someone who holds a pilot’s licence, I cannot begin to imagine how he did this. It would be akin to a therapist murdering by hand each of their patients. The developing conflicts in his mind must have been so powerful, however, that they could hardly have gone unnoticed in other areas of his life, though it is conceivable that no-one had any idea of what he was plotting.

Psychotherapy sadly will not be useful for preventing him, or indeed other pilots in carrying out these rare acts. It will now only be of help to the families and loved ones of those on board who died, those in the airline industry affected by this incident, people traumatised by his actions and especially anyone who suffers with a fear or flying (see ‘Psychological Perspectives on the Treatment of Fear of Flying’).

French air accident investigation chief Remi Jouty briefs journalists on preliminary findings. The accident investigation is ongoing.

French air accident investigation chief Remi Jouty discusses preliminary findings following the air disaster. The  investigation is ongoing.

Understandably the regulatory authorities will now closely address the immediate antecedents to pilots acting in destructive ways through acting out on suicidal and homicidal thoughts. Correctly they will require at least two members of crew to be present on the flight deck at any one time, although it is questionable whether this will improve safety or indeed even compromise it as passengers or terrorists with evil intent may use the opportunity to storm the flight deck when the door is open to rotate crew. The regulatory authorities will probably also increase psychological testing for air crew, although it is unlikely that this will help to identify those at risk of unusual and extreme acts of violence.

But these measures, as every therapist will understand, will not help us to access and understand the psyche of a pilot and most especially one who is committed to acts of such destruction. As we know, this tortured journey begins at a much earlier stage in the individual’s life and whilst their internal struggles may go under the metaphoric radar, it is probably only through the patience and skills of a therapist that they may be revealed and understood, when they do occur in these freak circumstances.

“the public will not forgive mental health professionals who work in aviation if we do not show more diligence and concern about the mental welfare of pilots. We are entering an age where therapists will metaphorically be more present on the flight deck”

In hindsight, could anything better have been done to predict this outcome? I would argue, no. In such rare events, and there are many others that precede although fortunately not in aviation (Edward Snowdon who was subjected to vetting by the American security authorities managed to breach the fundamental terms of his employment and Harold Shipman, a trusted British doctor succeeded in murdering many of his own patients) they are characterised by common personality flaws among the perpetrators as well as events lining up in the moment and protective ‘gates’ being breached unchecked. Professor James Reason has provided one of the most comprehensive accounts of how errors and faults build up in complex systems resulting in catastrophic outcomes (‘see ‘Human Error).

germanwingsThe public will not forgive mental health professionals who work in aviation if we do not show more diligence and concern about the mental welfare of pilots. We are entering an age where therapists will metaphorically be more present on the flight deck as airlines and the regulatory authorities come to terms with something many of us have always known. That is, there are individuals who wrestle with destructive forces in their minds and that some, and thankfully very few, have access to jobs and responsibilities that can wreak havoc unless they are identified and selected out of their roles, or at the very least helped to manage their destructive urges.

Professor Robert Bor DPhil CPsychol CSci FBPsS UKCP Reg FRAeS
HCPC Registered and BPS Chartered Clinical, Counselling & Health Psychologist

UKCP Registered Systemic Psychotherapist
Registered Aviation Psychologist (European Association of Aviation Psychology)
Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust, and
Co-Director Dynamic Change Consultants Ltd

Honorary Civilian Psychologist to the Royal Air Force

Bor, R. and Hubbard, T. (Eds.) (2006) Aviation Mental Health. Hampshire. Ashgate.

Bor, R. (Ed.) (2003) Passenger Behaviour. Hampshire. Ashgate.

Bor, R. and Van Gerwen, L. (Eds.) (2003) Psychological Perspectives on the Treatment of Fear of Flying. Hampshire. Ashgate.

Bor, R. (2003) Anxiety at 35,000 feet: An Introduction to Clinical Aviation Psychology. London. Karnac.

Reason, J. (1990) Human Error. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press.

Posted in Airlines, Features, People, Safety, Security

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