After an “unauthorized takeoff” late Friday night, a 29-year-old man stole an Alaska Airlines plane and crashed it nearby into Ketron Island.
The apparent suicide of a Horizon Air employee on an unauthorized flight with no passengers aboard Friday marked an exceedingly rare crash for an airliner, according to government regulators and industry experts.
Only a handful of airline-pilot suicides were reported among airlines worldwide in recent decades. The Federal Aviation Administration guides 42,000 airline and private flights each day, or nearly 16 million in 2016.
But when they happen, as with the fiery crash near Seattle, they gain widespread attention. A prominent example was Germanwings Flight 9525, which crashed into the Alps in March 2015 with 150 people aboard. French investigators ruled the crash “was due to the deliberate and planned action of the co-pilot, who decided to commit suicide while alone in the cockpit.”
Other incidents have been ruled suicides but disputed, including Egypt Air Flight 990 near New York in October 1999 with 217 people aboard and Silk Air Flight 185 crash in Indonesia in December 1997 with 104 people aboard. The reason for the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in March 2014 with 239 people aboard remains a mystery.
With no passengers aboard, the Seattle incident was similar to a general-aviation accident, where a single pilot crashes a private plane alone. But even those accidents are declining.
An FAA report in February 2014 checked 2,758 aviation fatalities during a 10-year period and found eight cases of probable suicide. Five of those pilots had commercial licenses, two of whom had a history of suicide threats or joking about suicide. But all the incidents happened in small propeller planes or a helicopter.
Despite the rarity, government regulators and industry officials have studied whether to adjust medical exams because psychological problems are essentially self-reported.
“Airline crews are just like the rest of us. Sometimes they have mental illnesses, and those need to be identified and treated, and done so in a way that doesn’t risk the flying public,” said Greg Raiff, CEO of Private Jet Services, which lines up charter flights for clients. “Nobody wants to let one slip by, and the current system doesn’t do enough to prevent that.”
The 29-year-old Horizon employee took the Bombardier Q400 turboprop from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport about 8 p.m. and performed dangerous maneuvers, authorities said. The employee was initially identified as a mechanic, but might instead have been a ground-services agent, authorities said. Two F-15 fighter jets pursued the plane before it crashed into Ketron Island.
The public information officer for Pierce County, Washington, Ed Troyer, described the pilot as a “suicidal male,” but not a terrorist.
“I’ve got a lot of people that care about me. It’s going to disappoint them to hear that I did this,” the pilot said in recorded comments to air-traffic controllers. “Just a broken guy, got a few screws loose, I guess.”
Brad Tilden, CEO of Alaska Airlines, which includes Horizon, said an employee took an unauthorized flight and that the company was cooperating with investigators.
“I want to share how incredibly sad all of us at Alaska are about this incident,” Tilden said. “We’re working to find out everything we possibly can about what happened, working with the Federal Aviation Administration, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the National Transportation Safety Board.”
The U.S. policy to always have two people in the cockpit is intended to protect against health problems. Before a passenger flight, airline crew members evaluate each other for their readiness to fly.
Under FAA rules, commercial passenger pilots under age 40 have physical exams every year and those older every six months to keep their certificates to fly.
The pilot fills out a medical history through part of the FAA’s website called MedXPress before visiting the doctor. Besides typical physical characteristics, the questions ask about medications, ailments such as vision or heart problems, and mental disorders such as depression or anxiety.
Computerization, both of the medical histories and prescriptions, helps prevent a pilot who fails a medical exam from applying to a different doctor. The 15- to 20-minute meeting between the pilot and doctor also involves asking questions about the pilot’s mental status for depression or suicidal feelings, and about medication such as anti-depressants.
“The doctor can ask if you have any problems at home. You can say no, even if the answer is yes, and that’s a reason somebody can steal a plane and crash it,” Raiff said. “The FAA regulations provide for a strong level of mental health. The challenge is they don’t require a strong level of auditing and enforcement.”
Contributing: The Associated Press
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