Dr Raj Persaud in conversation with Professor Robert Bor - a
Professor of Aviation Psychology
Pilot suicide has been implicated in the controversy surrounding
the missing Malaysian Airlines Jet and one of the foremost world
authorities on pilot psychology, Professor Robert Bor, discusses
with Raj Persaud the nature of Pilot Suicide.
The current theory apparently being promoted by officials is that
the crash of the Malaysian plane may have been an act of suicide,
most probably by a pilot.
But do mental health experts agree that this is the most likely
explanation of this deepening mystery?
Professor Robert Bor is a Clinical and Specialist Aviation
psychologist, co-editing with Todd Hubbard, the key book on the
subject of pilot mental health: entitled 'Aviation Mental Health'.
It is published by Ashgate.
The book considers the psychological assessment, management,
treatment and care of pilots as well as other professional groups
Professor Bor, in response to the latest theory of pilot suicide in
the case of the Malaysian Airlines Jet, is careful not to rule out
the suicide possibility, but cautions that this is incredibly rare.
When it happens, it is much more commonly in private pilots, who
are not licensed to carry passengers.
But Professor Bor concedes that incidents involving commercial
pilots are not unknown, and he points to the example of an Air
Botswana pilot, who in 1999 crashed his plane into other aircraft
on the ground of an airport in an apparent suicide mission.
The act appeared to be by a disgruntled employee, angry with the
airline and his employers, wanting to take revenge. This suggests
that if a commercial pilot kills themselves in this way, grievance
towards the airline could be a key motivation.
This is probably being covertly investigated right now in the
Malaysian Airlines case.
The Air Botswana pilot flew a commercial plane without permission
and without passengers. He may have been angry and despairing that
he had been grounded due to ill health. He may have thought he was
never going to fly again. During negotiations with the tower, as he
flew around the airport, he was said to have threatened to fly into
the Air Botswana Office Building.
Within 24 hours of the Air Malaysian Flight going missing,
Professor Bor explains that inquiries into the backgrounds of the
two pilots would have been initiated, to investigate a similar
He elaborates that investigations into the pilots' mental health
profiles would review spending patterns, possible relationship
difficulties, drug use and any other behavioural disturbances.
But the Air Botswana incident involved a key life event, being
grounded and discovery of a career-threatening health problem, none
of which appears to have yet emerged in the Malaysian scenario.
This reduces the possible likelihood of suicide, in Professor Bor's
opinion. However, he concedes anything, at this stage, is
Another problem with the suicide theory is that, in the Air
Botswana case, as reported by sources quoted by Reuters news
agency, the pilot threatened suicide not just during the flight
itself: he had repeatedly warned authorities that he was going to
Professor Bor points out, 'no one wakes up one morning and suddenly
decides to kill themselves', usually the intent emerges over a
longer time. Yet given pilots are probably the most scrutinised
profession on earth, it seems unlikely that even minor aberrations
would have gone undetected before.
Commercial pilots don't just have frequent medical checks, they are
being closely observed by colleagues on the flight deck as well as
by other professionals, during, before and after flights. (Some
planes haven't been allowed to leave the ground because the
dispatcher smelt alcohol on the breath of a pilot.)
Professor Bor points to another case which may provide clues as to
In 1994, a Federal Express cargo Flight flying across the USA
became the victim of an attempted hi-jacking by an employee facing
dismissal. He boarded as a passenger with a case hiding several
hammers. He intended to disable the aircraft's systems so that
events were not properly recorded and, once airborne, to kill the
crew using the hammers so injuries would appear caused by the
crash. The plan was then to collide the aircraft, so the
perpetrator would appear just another employee killed in an
accident. His family would become eligible for a $2.5 million
Federal Express life insurance policy.
But despite severe injuries, the crew fought back, restrained the
perpetrator and landed the plane safely.
Dr Jennifer Morse, a consultant in Aerospace Psychiatry and
Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at University of
California San Diego Medical School, co-authored with Professor
Robert Bor the chapter on the mental health of pilots in the book
'Aviation Mental Health'.
In their joint chapter they draw attention to Egypt Air Flight 990
which crashed in 1990, and where the relief first officer was
recorded as saying 'I rely on God' just before disengaging the
autopilot. He then went on to make the statement 11 times during
the plane's impending crash, without any apparent emotion. While
suicide seems the most likely cause, the precise motive remains
Morse and Bor report an estimate between 0.72% and 2.4% of general
aviation accidents are as a result of pilot suicide, and a history
of psychiatric or domestic problems have been found in such
post-crash inquiries and investigations.
Morse and Bor point out that one possible reason why a commercial
suicidal pilot might choose to crash their plane, is that the
evidence it was a suicide might be thus destroyed, so protecting
their family, and the memory of the pilot, from the 'shame' of
Using the plane as the instrument of death might also be
psychologically entwined with resentment against the stress of the
job, or grudges against the airline employer.
But Professor Bor also points out that psychology is crucially
involved in the search for the plane and investigation of the
cause, given the danger of a psychological phenomenon termed
Confirmation Bias occurs when you've already made your mind up and
this biases the way you approach the evidence. The search for this
plane may have been fatally hampered by a series of 'confirmation
It's vital, Professor Bor argues, that crash investigators remain
open-minded and don't start looking merely for confirmation of a
prior held theory.