The Germanwings Airbus A320 loss, it seems, was another deliberate act by a pilot. That statement is not intended to imply that this is becoming commonplace – because that is far from true – but the very fact that there have been several deliberate acts of destruction by pilots, even if over many years, makes it clear that the issue needs to be addressed.

Recent events in which a pilot suicide or revenge motive are either known or believed to have been present include the Linhas Aéreas de Mocambique Embraer 190 captain who, in November 2013, locked the co-pilot out of the cockpit and programmed the autopilot into a ­continuous descent remarkably like the Germanwings case. In both cases the non-flying pilot was clamouring for access, but ignored. That is an official verdict in the published report. The disappearance of Malaysia ­Airlines MH370 is believed by most serious experts in the industry to have been a deliberate act by a captain who had planned the action meticulously, but this is ­unproven and may remain so.

Earlier events include two where the results are ­disputed: the loss of an Egyptain Boeing 767 and of a Silk Air 737. The US National Transportation Safety Board says both were deliberate acts by pilots, but the Egyptian and Indonesian authorities disagree. There are others. The detail is rather less important than the simple fact that these events happened.

Psychologist James N Butcher, writing in the ­International Journal of Selection and Assessment, says: “Personality and emotional factors have been found to impact [pilot] job performance; however, most airlines do little in the way of psychological assessment at the initial hiring stage or throughout the pilot’s career to detect potential personality problems or emotional ­disorders. Much is known about the personality and mental health factors that could affect performance of pilots, but little of this information has been incorporated in pilot screening programmes.”

The best existing system is simply for a company to have good employee relationships, and to agree with its pilot association a system of peer checking. Pilots who appear to be under stress are approached by their colleagues to see if they need help or advice.

Pilots work in one of the most checked and tested of professions. More checks might add to stress, which is harmful in itself. And things change quickly. A stable pilot one day can, after a family or career misfortune, be under severe stress the next. But improved assessment may be possible, so this needs careful study.

Source: Flight International