Opinion » Comment

Updated: March 26, 2014 21:33 IST

The possibility of pilot suicide

A. Ranganathan
Comment (20)   ·   print   ·   T  T  

The similarities between the crash of SilkAir flight MI 185 and the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight MH 370 point to deliberate and skilled human intervention

On the 17th day after the strange disappearance of the Malaysian Airlines flight MH 370, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak announced that the plane may have crashed into the southern Indian Ocean. His announcement was based on the analysis of eight satellite “pings” sent by the aircraft between 1.11 a.m. and 8.11 a.m. Malaysian time to the satellite company Inmarsat and the UK CAA Air Accidents Investigation Branch. AAIB and Inmarsat concluded that the plane plunged into the Indian Ocean to the west of Perth, Australia. The investigators indicated that the flight was deliberately diverted west and all communication systems disabled.

‘Unlawful intervention’

The sequence of events that unfolded and news broadcast has an eerie similarity to another fatal tragedy that killed 104 persons 17 years back. SilkAir flight MI 185 dived into the Musi river in Sumatra, Indonesia. The difference was that the recorders on board were recovered as the point where the aircraft crashed was not deep, but the recorders had stopped functioning just prior to the point where the aircraft started the dive from 35,000ft. On August 25 1999, the Aircraft Accident Investigation Commission of Indonesia released a finding that “unlawful human intervention” may have been a factor in the SilkAir crash. However, they backtracked on this and covered up the truth when the final report came out. The National Transportation Safety Board of the U.S. (NTSB) brought out its own report disputing the AAIC’s report and stated that the accident pointed to pilot suicide by the captain.

On October 31 1999, EgyptAir flight 990 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean when the pilot flew the aircraft deliberately into the sea, killing all 217 on board. The Egyptian government denied it was a case of pilot suicide but the NTSB report clearly established that it was deliberate human intervention that caused the crash. Then we had the four 9/11 attacks where suicidal action by pilot terrorists killed several thousands. But one among them, United Airlines flight 93, may have a bearing on the MH 370 flight. In UA 93, passenger intervention prevented the hijackers from taking the aircraft down in a populated area.

Taking MI 185 and MH 370, what stands out are the initial sequences which are similar. The Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) had stopped in MI 185 before the co-pilot had reported his position to Jakarta radar control. In MH 370, the ACARs had stopped before the co-pilot reported “all right, goodnight” to Air Traffic Control. While the SilkAir co-pilot was highly experienced, the Malaysian co-pilot was new to Boeing 777. This was his first flight without a safety pilot on board. There is a likelihood that the Digital Flight Data Recorder (DFDR) was turned off on MH 370, soon after the CVR was turned off, as it happened in MI 185.

Both flights were cruising at 35,000ft before the crashes took place. In the MI 185 flight, the captain forgot to turn off the transponder which resulted in the final path of the aircraft being tracked by the Palembang Air Force radar all the way down to a point where radar signals were no longer visible. The radar tracked the near vertical descent of the SilkAir flight. An aircraft falling out of the sky cannot fly that profile unless manually forced to maintain that profile. This would have resulted in extreme forces on the controls and that can only be relieved by using the Stabiliser trimmers. What the investigators found was that the Stabiliser trim position indicated ZERO while the assumption of an electric trim motor malfunction would move it only to around 2 units. It was clearly evident that there was manual intervention and that was the reason Aircraft Accident Safety Commission concluded that there was “unlawful human intervention.”

Why did the co-pilot of the Silkair flight not intervene? Whether the co-pilot was present in the cockpit at that time or locked out of it will never be known as all recorders were switched off before the tragic dive. Ironically, the circuit breakers for the recorders are located just behind the captain’s seat. The force required to fly the profile and hold it down can only be done by an extremely experienced pilot and the captain was a former fighter pilot who was well trained in aerobatics.

Let us look at the data of MH 370 that was revealed in the initial days following the flight’s disappearance. The ACARs stopped at 1.07 a.m. and the co-pilot reported that everything was normal. A few minutes later, the aircraft made a sharp turn towards Kuala Lumpur (as reported by the Thai radar) and then a further turn toward the west across the Malaysian peninsula. There are reports that the aircraft climbed to as high as 45,000ft and later descended rapidly to 12,000ft. Thereafter it joined an airway that would have taken it towards the Andaman Islands.

Why would the aircraft climb to 45,000ft, that is 2,000ft above the maximum altitude for a Boeing 777? Only an experienced captain who has also carried out test flights would know that this manoeuvre is done during certification flights and there is no danger to the structure. What is more significant is that in the event of a depressurisation, the Time of Useful Consciousness (TUC) at 45,000ft is a mere 9-15 seconds. If the oxygen masks are not donned and used within that time, the person becomes brain dead. In the middle of the night, when most people are likely to be fast asleep, there is every possibility that the masks would not have been worn within 15 seconds. The aircraft could have been easily depressurised from the cockpit, where the pilot would have had access to unlimited oxygen. If warning systems were deactivated, everyone in the cabin would have been brain dead within a very short span of time. There would have been no threat of human intervention from the cabin like what happened in UA 93.

A rapid descent to 12,000ft normally takes places in the event of depressurisation. If this was done after ensuring that all on board are brain dead, it would have also misled the military radar into believing that the aircraft was carrying out an emergency descent and so they would not have interfered during this manoeuvre. Crossing over to the west and following the airway, maybe tucked in behind a scheduled flight on that route, would have further dulled the air force radar into complacency. Turning off the transponder would have ensured that the Traffic Collision Avoidance System was off and would have prevented detection of the aircraft on TCAS by any other aircraft flying in the sky.

Well-planned move

Assuming this, following the airway to the waypoint IGREX (a geographical position on the track) is an extremely well-planned move. The radars in Air Force station at Car Nicobar and the Navy station at Port Blair have a range of just 75 nautical miles (nm). IGREX is 152 nm from Port Blair and is out of range of the radar, even if it is functioning. Shockingly, the radars at Car Nicobar and Port Blair function only during the day and the MH 370 flight was travelling at night.

Taking that southern path from IGREX — maybe even a detour to fly low over the Maldives — and then to the final point for an end in the deep ocean would have ensured that no evidence was available except conjectures. This flight path could only have been flown deliberately and by someone who was highly experienced and skilled.

The three tragedies spoken of have resulted in the loss of lives of several passengers. It is time for the international aviation community and governments to realise that pilot suicide is a potential threat that needs urgent attention.

(Capt. A. Ranganathan is a former airline instructor pilot and aviation safety expert.)

Correction and clarification

A sentence read: “On October 31, 2009, EgyptAir flight 990 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean when the pilot flew the aircraft deliberately into the sea, killing all 217 on board.” The correct year is 1999.

More In: Comment | Opinion

On Silk Air MI 185, The jury under the Superior Court in Los Angeles decided that the crash was caused by a prominent issue inherent in other 737 crashes: a defective servo valve inside the Power Control Unit (PCU) which controls the aircraft's rudder, causing a rudder hard-over and a subsequent uncontrollable crash. The manufacturer of the aircraft's rudder controls and the families later reached an out of court settlement.[4]

Though I have no idea on what could be the reason. We know about Private company govt nexus in disasters to save each other. NTSB a US govt agency will never say Boeing made a defective aircraft, as it is a huge exporter and earn billions for US. Another conspiracy theory ;) ....

This writing looks judgemental, picking up favorable information/half information to conclude... Pity...

from:  Sathish
Posted on: Mar 27, 2014 at 22:11 IST

The thinking seems to be too rational for a man contemplating suicide. If the pilot was ordinarily stable, at the time of attempting suicide he must have gone temporarily insane. All that you say is theoretically possible, but unlikely. I personally believe in the suicide theory, but I doubt the events occured as meticulously planned as are described here.

from:  Suneet Sood
Posted on: Mar 27, 2014 at 04:36 IST

The truth would be much stranger than fiction.

It is scary to note that while trillions are spent on defence, international community
doesn't have the means to keep track of all the civilian aircraft all through their

In this modern era of satellites and global communications, it should be possible to
track all the flights all the time, independent of the pilots, and introduce logarithms
to spot erratic behaviour and pass on alerts.

All the tracking devices on Air Force '1', should be provided to all commercial flights.

Life of each and every air passenger is as precious as that of the US president who
travels on Air Force '1'.

from:  RKRAO
Posted on: Mar 27, 2014 at 03:48 IST

Hmmm...Boeing lists the service ceiling of the 777 as 38,000 ft. I am
curious why the author believes that flight MH370 would be able to
reach 45,000 ft. Considering that it was 2 hours into it's flight and
would still be heavy with fuel.

from:  Sunil Motwani
Posted on: Mar 26, 2014 at 16:12 IST

Silk Air crash was not an act of pilot suicide. It was later proven in court that the crash occured due to a malfunction in the rudders. NGC's "Air crash investigation" aired an episode regarding this.

from:  Nikhil
Posted on: Mar 26, 2014 at 14:57 IST

A Great article. It looks like with New 777 flight experience for Captain and co-pilot, they want to perform some kind simulation test and proof of concept, using flight management program. That would have caused flight sudden rise, sudden fall and in addition to what ever worst functions have taken place. Might be the way of testing that included wrong logical methods for simulation testing hence the flight would have met horrible disaster.In order to things bring back they would have switched off every thing to prevent further disaster. Under what ever circumstance like decompression, less oxygen etc. all would have not impacted due human different tolerance level. Also it looks like no body should hear what ever they perform simulator test etc. probably that's why they switched off every thing. When they capable of saying GOOD Night All right can't they say one word fire or snag to ATC or airlines official.

from:  sudhir
Posted on: Mar 26, 2014 at 14:24 IST

Thanks Capt Ranganathan. What you have written is possible. Now
whether this is a suicide and why crash site was so chosen so far
away is a matter of speculation. But if it is a terror act, motive is
clear to attract maximum attention and the remoteness of crash site ,
perhaps to foil retrieval of black box and "be in news" for maximum
45 K height and the flight path after responder switch off probably
could be determined by piecing together satelleite signatures of the
Aircraft if they exist and are available. Also does the similator
picked up from pilots home have tell tale flight profiles ? How about
quizz results of immediate contacts of the crew?

Coming to lessons learnt. All international Pilots and crew should be
security cleared and should under surveillance. Frequent, Random
psychological tests should be mandated for all air crew. Although a
bit far fetched, we need to examine the possibility of locking the on
board computers to such manouveres

from:  Job Mathew
Posted on: Mar 26, 2014 at 13:37 IST

Possibly the pilots could have jumped to safety using life jackets etc
at the way point IGREX as an extremely well-planned move,after
intentionally killing all outside the cockpit by deliberate
depressurization at 45,000 ft altitude.The plane then could have flown
south without any one at the controls and crashed into the sea after
fuel is exhausted. Pilots could have been rescued by accomplices.Since
the plane crashed into the sea about 4 hours later, the Black box
(CVR&FDR) even if found will not have the recording that is needed to
fix pilots as it stores only 2 hrs data before crash.This is a terror
act experimented for the first time.

from:  B.Krishnakumar
Posted on: Mar 26, 2014 at 11:22 IST

Dear Captain. A. Ranganathan,
I am a regular reader of your columns on air safety. I have been closely following this news and all the theories surrounding this case. I have a simple question - If it was a suicide, why go all the way to southern Indian ocean dodging all the radar detection?

from:  Sriram Vanamamalai
Posted on: Mar 26, 2014 at 10:57 IST

I wonder how choking to death over 200 foreign nationals and burying them inside deep waters, from where recovery of mortal remains would never be possible, amounts to suicide in the first place. Furthermore, the pilot who presumably planned and executed his plan to a kind of ruthless perfection, is a political activist. As there is nothing like a suicide theory - interviewing the dead is impossible - we should learn to place the entire event from all possible angles and decode what message the pilot was trying to convey. To me, the messages appear as (a) tourism pollutes natural resources, and corrupts governance, causing them to ignore the needs of indigenous inhabitants, (b) Malaysia should be freed from foreign nationals, or Malaysia should belong to Malaysians, (c) international fronts engaged in counter-terrorism should learn to respect enemies as humans having a different view of life, (d) mortal remains of humans should never be dumped in oceans or high seas.

from:  RA Jumes
Posted on: Mar 26, 2014 at 09:39 IST

So far the pilot suicide theories have been debunked with the theory that if suicide was the
reason, then why not plunge into the South China Sea or even the Strait of Malacca - why fly
all the way to the south Indian Ocean? Capt. Ranganathan has left that thread unexplained,
but is probably inferring that it was not simple suicide but one where great lengths were gone
through to cover the tracks, for whatever reasons. We will probably never know, because the
final answer still could be hypoxia / anoxemia which theory could also fit most of the puzzle
pieces as aptly as the pilot suicide theory does.

from:  Rajeev Iyer
Posted on: Mar 26, 2014 at 09:26 IST

Several gaps in the story. I am surprised to see that the author is a pilot. First, we
are not sure that the plane climbed to 45K feet - remember distant radar
measurements are not very good at height determination. Further at 45,000 feet,
the passengers would likely feel the same cabin pressure as at normal cruise
altitude. These aircrafts are pressurized to mimic the pressure experienced by the
human body at an altitude of less than 8,000 feet. There is no reason to believe
that supplemental oxygen would have been required - unless the pilot made a
hole in the fuselage. The author also mentions Maldives. Maldives is about 1000
Km west from the possible southern route.

from:  Manoj
Posted on: Mar 26, 2014 at 08:38 IST

Capt.Ranganathan postulated this theory even before Aussie satelite's
spotting of the plane's debris in deep south of Indian Ocean. With the
background of the Malaysian senior pilot's psychological trauma as
stated in media, the accident might have happened as per the sequences
narrated by the expert.
It is unfortunate that the presence of copilot also could not prevent
such incidents.

Posted on: Mar 26, 2014 at 08:32 IST

Egypt Air flight 990 (Boeing 767-300ER) was crashed into the Atlantic by its pilot on 31 October 1999 and not 31 October 2009 as mentioned in the article.
William Langewiesche's article titled "The Crash of EgyptAir 990" that appeared in the The Atlantic (November 2001) is the best piece of investigative journalism on that sorry episode.

from:  Ravi
Posted on: Mar 26, 2014 at 08:32 IST

We should thank Mr.Capt. A. Ranganathan for this very useful analysis and the detailed explanation for a layman like me to understand the possible actions of the pilots and its results. This sure should be a eye opener to all to understand the need of safety in aviation and brainstorm for the best possible ways to improve. Now is also the time to pray for the lost souls due to this gruesome act of the humans for some silly fanatical ideology. May God bless this world.

from:  Kris
Posted on: Mar 26, 2014 at 08:28 IST

After hearing this and flight
185, I won't say I am not
scared of flying. Rail is an
option, but burning train in
the middle of the night has
become a habit now for the
indian railways. Road
transport may be
unintentional suicide. It
seems we have plenty of an
option to perish.

from:  A.Manimaran
Posted on: Mar 26, 2014 at 07:59 IST

The explanation about happenings in MH 370 that are very likely is technical.
However it is not clear why a suicide committed pilot should have flown the plane to extended distance till its fuel tank was practically empty instead of ditching in ocean near Malayasia itself? This doubt is dominant particularly when all the passengers were already and intentionally made brain dead by climbing to 45000 ft. It is hard to believe that the pilot had the thinking to ensure non detectability of the debris as this did not serve any purpose for him

from:  Krishnaswami K.R.
Posted on: Mar 26, 2014 at 07:01 IST

This explanation is more likely but will be denied by the Malaysian authorities.At
least pilots should undergo immediate psychological testing before they fly.

from:  isahbiazhar
Posted on: Mar 26, 2014 at 05:20 IST

The NTSB report on the Egypt Air crash has a critical error in my
opinion. It refers to the pilot invoking arabic phrase "Tawakkalt Ala
Allah", meaning "I put my faith in God", during the final minutes of
the flight. The NTSB then concluded that the pilot meant to commit
suicide. This is a serious mis-interpretation, based on a flawed
understanding of Egyptian culture.

It is common in many cultures and religions to invoke the Lord when
faced with a serious emergency or crisis. In my view, the NTSB
conclusion is foolish, and shows a lack of understanding that ought
to have been corrected long ago.

Without more evidence, we cannot conclude anything about MH-370.
Until the black boxes are found and analyzed, the pilots motives
cannot be questioned.

from:  CS Venkat
Posted on: Mar 26, 2014 at 05:03 IST

Nice speculation. However, everybody speculating mention that, "In the middle of the night, when most people are likely to be fast asleep...".

I have difficulty in comprehending this. All this 'middle of the night' story is in a time frame of 45 minutes to 1 hour after departure from KL. In an international flight, I thought that is the time (about 60 minutes from departure) when the crew will be serving dinner. Within 60 minutes of departure in an international flight, will most people be 'fast asleep'?

from:  Muthu
Posted on: Mar 26, 2014 at 03:52 IST
Show all comments
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

The then Pakistan President Ayub Khan said in a broadcast that India’s "threats against Pakistan" could lead to "general and total war".

Read more »



Recent Article in Comment

TRANSITION: “Is Britain moving from one, stable, mode of politics to another, less familiar, and more unpredictable kind?” Picture shows cardboard cutouts of Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron (right) and leader of the opposition Labour Party Ed Miliband, in London.

Unsure times ahead for Britain

The rapid growth of new parties in the U.K. is disorienting, but voters appear to have understood and rejected the traditional parties’ appeal to familiarity and stability. »