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Pilot suicide raised in French Alps crash, but data show it’s rare

Brice Robin (center), the prosecutor of Marseille, said the co-pilot intentionally downed the plane in the French Alps crash.
Brice Robin (center), the prosecutor of Marseille, said the co-pilot intentionally downed the plane in the French Alps crash.(FRANCK PENNANT/AFP/Getty Images)

As evidence suggests that the co-pilot of a Germanwings intentionally flew the plane into a mountain in the French Alps on Tuesday, one possibility being considered is that he wanted to commit suicide.

Pilot suicides are extremely rare, according to records collected by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Over the past two decades, aircraft-assisted suicides, as the incidents are called, have accounted for less than one percent of all fatal accidents among general aviation flights in the United States, which include all civilian flying except scheduled passenger airlines.

There were no records of suicides by US pilots who were flying large passenger aircraft. But pilot suicide is suspected in several major crashes in the past few decades, including a Mozambique Airlines flight that went down in Namibia two years ago, an EgyptAir flight that crashed into the Atlantic Ocean about 60 miles southeast of Nantucket in 1999, and a SilkAir flight that crashed in Indonesia in 1997.

Pilot suicide is also a theory behind the Malaysia Airlines flight that disappeared last March.

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Out of the 6,406 fatal general aviation accidents in the United States between 1993 and 2012, two dozen of the accidents were believed to have been the result of pilot suicide, according to a pair of FAA reports that each analyzed a decade of data.

The pilot was the sole occupant of the aircraft in all but one case, in which there was one passenger on board. All pilots were male and all were adults, except for one 15-year-old student pilot.

The reports found that most of the pilots were experiencing significant stress in their personal lives, including domestic and criminal difficulties. Some of the pilots suffered from depression and had thought of suicide before, had attempted killing themselves, or had even left behind a message about their suicide. Some were found to have been under the influence of alcohol or were taking tranquilizers or antidepressants.

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“Aircraft-assisted suicides are tragic, intentional events that are hard to predict and difficult to prevent,” said the latest of the two FAA reports. “Factors involved in aircraft-assisted suicides may be depression, social relationships, and financial difficulties, just to name a few problems.

“Suicide attempts using an aircraft almost always result in pilot fatality; they also have the unfortunate potential to cause collateral damage to property and life,” the report said.

Carsten Spohr, chief executive of Lufthansa, Germanwings’ parent company, said Thursday that all Lufthansa staff receive psychological training.

He said the co-pilot of Fight 9525, Andreas Lubitz, had passed his medical and psychological tests “with flying colors,” but noted that there was an interruption in Lubitz’s training that lasted “a few months. Spohr said he did not know why or whether it was related to a medical issue.

Spohr said the company would review its screening procedures for pilots, even as he emphasized he had full confidence in the company’s current policies.

Aircraft-assisted suicides between 1993-2012
There have been 24 cases out of 6,406 fatal general aviation accidents in the United States.
Case Age Domestic issues Criminal issues Depression Prior talk/thoughts of suicide Prior suicide attempt Left suicide note/letter Events preceding suicide Substances found from toxicology test
1 45 - Y - Y - Y Father of 4; arrested; worried about jail; lewd behavior w/ minor Alcohol
2 38 Y - - - Y - Negative publicity; order of protection; extramarital affair None
3 20 Y Y - - - - Worried about jail; found guilty of pyramid scheme THC (marijuana)
4 32 Y - - Y - - Fight with spouse; police intervene None
5 38 - Y - - - - Fatal hit and run; warrant for arrest Alcohol
6 67 - - Y Y - Y Mother's death; worried about deteriorating health and FAA license None
7 26 - - - - - Y Spent previous night drinking Alcohol
8 41 Y - - - - - Marriage proposal declined Diazepam, Nordiazepam (anti-anxiety)
9 40 - Y Y Y - Y Criminal history; suspect of arson Alcohol, Cocaine, Diazepam & Nordiazepam (anti-anxiety), Temazepam (insomnia), Oxazepam (anti-anxiety/depression)
10 22 - - - - - - Undetermined None
11 43 Y - - - - - Restraining order; escorted away from home N/A
12 40 Y Y - - - - Subject of criminal investigation; estranged from adopted daughter None
13 15 - - - - - Y Undetermined None
14 54 - - Y Y - - Under therapy for severe depression Venlafaxine, Desmethylvenalfaxine (depression)
15 43 - Y - Y - - Undergoing criminal investigation None
16 47 - - Y Y Y Y Ongoing treatment for depression N/A
17 26 - - - - - - Undetermined None
18 44 Y - Y Y Y - History of depression w/ hospitalizations; shortly before the event, he was in hospital for attempted suicide Fluoxetine & Citalopram (depression), Diphenhydramine (allergic reactions/motion sickness), Alcohol
19 68 Y - - Y - - History of drinking & suicide threats; alcohol consumption prior to accident Alcohol
20 20 Y - - Y - Y Distraught over relationship w/ friend; alcohol consumption prior to accident; beer recovered at accident site Alcohol, Diphenhydramine (allergic reactions/motion sickness)
21 46 Y - - - - - Bitter child custody dispute None
22 25 Y - Y Y - Y Distraught over breakup with girlfriend; alcohol and medication consumption prior to accident Alcohol, Citalopram (depression), Clonazepam (anti-anxiety)
23 52 Y Y - - - Y Personal & business trouble w/ government agencies None
24 48 Y - - Y - Y Difficulties in personal life; joked about suicide N/A
Total 40.5 (median) 13 7 6 12 3 10 - 11
DATA: Federal Aviation Administration
Matt Rocheleau/Globe Staff

Material from The New York Times was used in this report. Matt Rocheleau can be reached at matthew.rocheleau@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mrochele