Germanwings Flight 4U9525: the latest act of aircraft-assisted suicide?

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by Philip Baum

On 17th February 2014, Hailemedhin Abera Tegegn hijacked an Ethiopian Airlines flight, on which he was serving as First Officer, to Geneva. Tegegn exploited the window of opportunity afforded him when the Captain exited the flight deck for a toilet break, bolting the flight deck door closed from the inside in order that he could take complete command of the aircraft. When the Captain tried to return to the flight deck, he found that he was locked out; he, the rest of the crew and passengers, simply prayed that Tegegn was not suicidal as they banged on the door hoping to gain access. They were lucky that Tegegn was simply seeking asylum. On 20th March this year, in absentia, Tegegn was sentenced to 19 years and 6 months in prison by the Ethiopian courts for the hijacking.

The incident highlighted three security challenges the industry faces. Firstly, the fact that the enhanced flight deck door, designed to keep potential hijackers outside the cockpit, can also prevent crew and passengers overpowering an intruder, or pilot, should they manage to lock themselves inside. Secondly, the reality of the ‘insider threat’ whereby a, presumably, ‘trusted’ and vetted individual can become the assailant. And, thirdly, that we have to start to acknowledge that aviation security is not just a counterterrorist operation and that, as such, we need to be able to identify negative intent of whatever kind and wherever it can impact upon the safety and security of our operations.

Granted that the Ethiopian Airlines incident ended without loss of life, procedures did not change as a result. I believe that the fact that it was an Ethiopian airliner (as opposed to a European or American carrier), en route to Rome from Addis Ababa, resulted in less media interest and industry disregard. The end result could have been so different; the Ethiopian hijacking took place only three months after Captain Hermino dos Santos Fernandes crashed the Mozambique Airlines aircraft he was piloting (from Maputo to Luanda, Angola) in Namibia. The cockpit voice recorder showed that the co-pilot had been locked outside the flight deck and was desperately trying to get into the cockpit when the aircraft impacted with the ground, killing all on board. Sound familiar?

What was the global response to that incident? None. Why? Probably because it was an African carrier flying between Mozambique and Angola.

Pilot suicide is not commonplace, but it is not unheard of. The frequency is, however, certainly far greater than the number of times suicidal terrorists have commandeered aircraft and flown them into population centres. The higher profile incidents of Royal Air Maroc, SilkAir, and EgyptAir are often cited as the rare examples of such action impacting commercial aviation, whilst unstable pilots operating in the General Aviation or recreational arena, have often chosen to perform acts termed ‘aircraft-assisted suicide’. According to a Federal Aviation Administration report on the phenomena in the United States, published in February 2014, “From 2003-2012, there were 2,758 fatal aviation accidents; the NTSB determined that 8 were aircraft-assisted suicides (all involving the intentional crashing of an aircraft)”.

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