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Pilot suicide emerges as possibility in MAS mystery

March 18, 2014 Aviation, Headline News No Comments Email Email

egtmedia59Investigators are increasingly considering the possibility of pilot suicide as they work to find what happened to Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 and the 239 people aboard it.

Malaysian investigators confirmed on Saturday that the the B777-200ER’s communications instruments had been deliberately shut down, apparently in an attempt to conceal the plane’s location. This has fuelled suspicion that one or both of the pilots may have been involved in its bizarre disappearance.

The sequence of events happened like this:PTM_250-x-250

  1.  About 40 minutes after take-off, someone aboard the plane disables one of its communications systems – the Aircraft and Communications Addressing and Reporting System, or ACARS, a technical system that transmits information about the plane’s engines and other data to the airline.
  2. The final words from the cockpit – “All right, good night” – are spoken in a relaxed tone to air traffic controllers after the ACARS system is shut off. Whoever speaks (and the speaker is believed to be the co-pilot, First Officer Fariq Abdul Hamid) makes no mention of any trouble aboard.
  3. Two minutes later, the transponder, identifying the plane to commercial radar systems, is switched off.

The fact that ACARS and the transponder are shut down separately suggests that the plane’s disappearance was deliberate. Investigators are examining a flight simulator confiscated from the home of one of the MAS pilots, reports said last night. They are probing the backgrounds of everyone aboard as well as the ground crew that serviced the plane.

Although Malaysia keeps issuing contradictory statements on matters surrounding the investigation, some senior aviation sources consider pilot suicide – a topic which, for obvious reasons, airlines are reluctant to discuss – may be the most probable explanation. They point out that a pilot, rather than a hijacker, is likely to know how to switch off all the communications systems. The transponder is easy to switch off but other shut-downs that occurred require a greater degree of technical know-how.

While the MH370 investigation is in its early stages, cases of pilot suicide, or at least suspected pilot suicide, have happened before. Tragically, any suicide by a pilot while on duty often involves mass homicide.

Last November, a commercial airline flight plunged into a swamp, killing everyone  aboard, after the captain formed a “clear intention” to crash the aircraft, a preliminary investigation reported.

The flight went down with the loss of 33 lives after Captain Herminio dos Santos Fernandes manipulated the Embraer 190’s autopilot in a way clearly aimed at causing the plane to crash, investigators said.

As a result, Mozambican Airlines flight TM470 crashed on 29 November 2013 on a flight from the Mozambican capital Maputo to Luanda in Angola. The plane suddenly dived into the rain-soaked swamps of Namibia’s Bwabwata National Park, killing its six crew and 27 passengers.

Mozambican Civil Aviation Institute (IACM) head Joao Abreu told a news conference that Captain dos Santos Fernandes locked himself inside the cockpit, ignored warning signals and did not allow his co-pilot back in moments before the plane hit the ground.

“During these actions you can hear low and high-intensity alarm signals and repeated beating against the door with demands to come into the cockpit,” Abreu was quoted as saying.

While such action by an apparently deranged pilot is extremely unusual, pilots going insane in the cockpit, or near it, is a scenario that has happened previously.

In March 2012 in the US, a crazed JetBlue pilot shrieking “They’re going to take us down!” charged around the aircraft he was meant to be flying, while ranting about bombs and threats from Iraq. Passengers seized him and wrestled him to the ground as he tried to storm his way back into the cockpit.

That flight, heading to Las Vegas, made an emergency landing after the co-pilot took over the controls. The deranged pilot, Clayton Osbon, was later found to have suffered a catastrophic psychotic episode and to have gone completely insane. Osbon was charged in a Texas court with endangering the aircraft but found not guilty by reason of insanity.

In 1999, EgyptAir Flight 990, a B767-300ER aircraft making a regular scheduled flight from Los Angeles International Airport to Cairo in Egypt, crashed off the US coast, killing all 217 people aboard. It happened after the First Officer, in charge of the aircraft and at the controls at the time of crash, apparently went mad.

While the conclusions of American and Egyptian investigators differed, the American investigation determined that no mechanical failure could have resulted in the aircraft movements recorded by the plane’s flight data recorder.

More disturbingly, the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) recorded the EgyptAir Captain excusing himself to go to the toilet, followed thirty seconds later by the First Officer saying in Egyptian Arabic “Tawkalt ala Allah”, which translates to “I rely on God”.

A minute later, the autopilot was disengaged, immediately followed by the First Officer again saying, “I rely on God.” Three seconds later, the throttles for both engines were reduced to idle, and both elevators were moved three degrees nose down. The First Officer repeated “I rely on God” seven more times before the Captain suddenly asked repeatedly, “What’s happening? What’s happening?!”

The flight data recorder then showed the EgyptAir controls were moved in so bizarre and inexplicable a manner that the plane plunged into the ocean.

Another fatal accident strongly believed to have been caused by pilot suicide or mental derangment was the loss of SilkAir flight 185, a scheduled passenger flight from Jakarta to Singapore, which crashed into the Musi River near Palembang in southern Sumatra in December 1997, killing all 97 passengers and 7 crew aboard.

The SilkAir B737-300 reported reaching its cruise altitude – and then the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) was sabotaged and the flight went into a rapid and nearly vertical dive at almost supersonic speed, partially disintegrating the aircraft before it slammed into the river.

According to the Canadian television series Mayday, 41-year-old Singaporean captain Tsu Way Ming left the cockpit; five seconds later, the CVR stopped recording and the plane then went into its dive. It’s considered that Tsu manually disconnected the CVR.

Written by : Peter Needham

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