Part 1: Aviation Security After Germanwings Crash

Preventing Single Point Aviation Murders

Mar 26, 2015

by John Ogle, MD, MPH, FACEP

Commercial Pilot / USAF Flight Surgeon


The Germanwings crash series highlights single point mass murder from an aviation medicine perspective. Commercial aviation is remarkably safe in 2015, and security measures continually improve. Nevertheless, the apparently deliberate crash of Flight 9525 prompts review of aircrafted-assisted suicide and homicide. This introductory article outlines the upcoming preventive policy debate from medical and psychological perspectives.

Part 1: Aviation security and the unique problem of preventing a single point mass murder.

The deliberate crash of the Germanwings A320 in France shocked the aviation community and the world. Single-location, single-person mass murder-suicides are particularly gruesome. Many ask why dramatic crimes are not foreseen and prevented by a better combination of technology, policy or psychiatric screening. Because of our interest and experience in aviation and pilot medical screening, is sponsoring the Germanwings Crash Series. Part 1 reviews preliminary aviation security implications with respect to detection and prevention of single point aviation crimes.

Forensic Aviation Question:

Prior to a single point mass murder is it possible to actionably and confidently identify risk factors and dismantle the capability of a prospective perpetrator?

Medical, psychiatric, criminal and aviation history suggests that mental instability in extreme cases may remain undetectable in advance of the defining moment. Flawless mental health screening is not possible; therefore single-perpetrator, single-event crime prevention is problematic in freedom-craving societies. The flying public wants solutions; however, rare or isolated events like this are not readily analyzed with statistical methodology. Aviation policymakers know that extrapolated conclusions or patterns are only partly generalizable to the future. Measured dialog without overreaction is encouraged. This series presents a review of historical precedent for aircraft-assisted suicide and homicide with a frank discussion about public policy relevant to the Germanwings crash.

Evolution of Aviation Security

Unlawful aircraft seizures, known as hijackings or "skyjackings" are not new. Aircraft piracy has been recorded since the 1930's. Traditionally, skyjackings are focused on holding passengers as hostages to extort ransom or political concessions. Since September 11, 2001, homicidal motivations are more broadly considered, so aircrews are no longer trained to reflexively cooperate with all hijackers' demands. Reinforced cockpit doors soon became mandatory in many nations.

The post-911 reinforced cockpit door is a well-intentioned safeguard meant to protect an airliner's flight deck. Fortified doors have likely deterred or prevented hijacking for decades, but this countermeasure apparently backfired aboard the ill-fated Germanwings airliner. Worldwide aviation medical communities are reviewing policy and considering what if any role is feasible for routine mental health screening of airline transport pilots.

Airline Transport Remains the Safest Mode of Travel

General aviation safety has continually improved since the 1920's due to better engineering, maintenance, navigation aids, training, pilot selection, medical certification, monitoring and procedures. Notwithstanding the Germanwings disaster, post-911 aviation safety records are impressive. Pilot-assisted suicides account for less than one-half of 1 percent of all fatal aviation accidents per the FAA, and single pilot murder-suicides are rarer still.

Compared to general aviation, commercial aviation is even safer. In 2014, 3 billion passengers flew safely on 38.0 million flights according to the International Air Transport Association. The Insurance Information Institute cites an international accident rate for western airliners (such as the Germanwings Airbus 320), as one accident for every 4.4 million flights -- the lowest in history.

Precedent for Deliberate Suicide by Aircraft

Aircraft-assisted suicide accounted for less than 0.3% of U.S. aircraft fatalities over the last decade. In Feb 2014, the FAA's Civil Aerospace Medical Institute (CAMI) released a case series summarizing Aircraft-Assisted Pilot Suicide events recorded from 2003-2012. Suicide by aircraft caused only 8 out of 2,758 of those aviation fatalities. That was a decrease of 50% from the prior decade. In contrast to the Germanwings crash, all of the CAMI reported aircraft-assisted suicides involved general (non-commercial) aviation operations under 14 CFR Part 91.

Unsurprisingly, the CAMI report noted that most of the suicidal pilots were experiencing significant stressors in their lives at the time of their aviation suicides. Half of them tested positive for disqualifying drugs or alcohol in their systems at crash time based on postmortem toxicology analysis. It is unclear whether toxicologic data will be conclusive for the Germanwings co-pilot because of the intensity of the crash, recovery delays and obliteration/co-mingling of tissue.

Researchers at CAMI conceded in the 2014 report that it would have been difficult to predict or prevent suicide by aircraft, and any similarities should be interpreted with caution. Common features of the 8 aircraft suicides were that all of the pilots were male, and most (7 out of 8) were solo. The only non-solo crash was caused by a student pilot in a Cessna 150. This crash has few parallels to the Germanwings crash, but a summary of Cessna 150 crash is presented because of the rarity of post-911 aviation homicide-suicides for which any data are available.

Precedent for Homicide by Aircraft

The only suicidal-homicidal pilot in the large United States CAMI series was a 47-year-old student pilot embattled in a bitter custody dispute over a minor child following a recent divorce. Per witnesses, the pilot and his minor child departed an airport, flew locally for over an hour then entered a steep dive into the ground crashing into the pilot's ex-mother-in-law's house. The toxicology report revealed no drugs or alcohol in the pilot's system, and the murder did not involve victims unknown to the pilot.

Large scale, international mass murder airline crashes have some precedent. The SilkAir Flight 185 (1997) and EgyptAir Flight 990 (1999) crashes were likely caused by deliberate crew action. Some suspect that the yet unsolved disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 (2014) was the result of premeditated actions taken by a crewmember. It is unlikely that we will ever know those homicidal pilots' motivations, but mental health screening policies will be reviewed.

Next Waypoint - Examining the Appropriate Duty to Detect and Warn

Although airline tragedies are devastatingly dramatic, intentional airline crashes are vanishingly rare and morbid headlines should not deter rational passengers. As Germanwings conclusions emerge, findings will slowly inform the aviation safety debate. If intentional human input is found to be the proximate cause, then the dialog among aviation medical professionals will take a unique course. How do doctors determine which pilots fall within some agreed upon range of mentally normal and declare them fit to fly?

Physicians, airlines and lawmakers are tasked with balancing public safety while allowing for variability among pilot personalities and affording reasonable privacy. This series explores current policy with comparisons to the Aurora, Colorado mass movie theater murder and the general duty to pre-identify potential killers. Limitations and capabilities of psychiatric profiling policies will be examined with an aim to predict or prevent single point mass murder. Continue to Part 2: Medicolegal Duty to Detect... →

→ Continue to Part 2: Medicolegal Duty to Detect and Warn →

Author: John Ogle, MD, MPH, FACEP is one of our senior flight surgeons. An Emergency Physician and commercial pilot himself, the author holds degrees in aerospace engineering, medicine and epidemiology. He is an experienced Air Force crash investigator and former AME.

Editor's Disclaimer: This series contains Dr Ogle's personal and professional opinions. His preliminary ideas may or may not reflect those of the FAA, the US Air Force or Details of the horrific crash are still emerging at the time of publication.

— Editorial Staff

Germanwings Crash Series

  1. Part 1: Aviation Security & Murder-Suicide (This Page)
  2. Part 2: Duty to Screen Pilot Health
  3. Part 3: Screening Limitations for Commercial Pilots.
  4. Part 4: Privacy Protections: Pilot Medical Records.
  5. Part 5: Doctor's Duty to Warn
  6. Part 6: Germanwings crash vs Aurora Mass Movie Shooting

Reminder: use to familiarize yourself with aviation medical regulations and guidelines, but always discuss your specific situation with one or more AMEs before dedicating resources toward expensive clinical workups. Find an AME now