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Pilot suicides – scare story of the week?

December 15, 2016

Debris from Germanwings Flight 9525

There are fake news stories and there are true ones. You will be more likely to pick up a fake one from Facebook than by reading the online version of an established national newspaper, right?

But what about stories designed to grab your attention by scaring the life out of you? Research data, out of context and selected for maximum impact, comes our way almost every day via news aggregators like MSN. It’s not just creepy websites in Macedonia that use clickbait.

I came across a good one today. Microsoft Edge gives me all manner of tempting stuff when I open a new tab. Splits emerge in EU over Brexit; Minister refuses to wear headscarf; Cheryl’s ex on her baby; Dad’s cute call to girl as Santa Claus. Mouth-watering stuff.

But the headline that really grabbed my attention was this one from the Daily Telegraph: “Thousands of airline pilots flying with suicidal thoughts – Harvard”.

Holy Moses! One depressive German pilot flying an A320 full of passengers into a mountain is bad enough. But thousands of those ubermenschen in their glamorous uniforms just waiting for the opportunity to bring our holidays to a fiery end? And Harvard says so? Something we really want to know at time of year when half of my fellow Brits seem to be heading for a ski resort, to visit cousins in Australia or granny in Ireland.

The Telegraph tells us that:

More than 4,000 commercial flights on any given day are being flown by pilots who have experienced suicidal thoughts, a landmark study on the airline industry suggests.

An international survey of pilots by Harvard University found 4.1 per cent had contemplated killing themselves at least once in the previous fortnight, and 12.6 per cent met the criteria for depression.

Pilots diagnosed with acute depression are automatically deemed unfit to fly, but experts have warned many cover up their symptoms for fear of losing their careers.

Let’s look at this story a bit more closely. I’m deliberately not going to the source because most Telegraph readers are unlikely to do so. My conclusions might therefore be wrong, and the same goes for my fellow readers.

First, note the weasel word in the first sentence: “suggests”. Not states. Did we pick that up? I didn’t on the first reading. It’s a survey, dummy. It uses a sample. No researcher in the world can climb into the mental cockpit of all those pilots and work out what’s going on at the controls.

The sample in the Harvard survey is quite large, as you would expect from such an august institution. They did an anonymous survey of 3,000 pilots. Using the percentage quoted we can conclude that they came across 123 pilots who had contemplated killing themselves in the past two weeks. No mention of whether they had thought of taking their passengers with them.

And then comes the “suggestion” that every day there are 4,000 flights with suicidal pilots at the controls. Without thinking about it, you might believe that this means there are 4,000 suicidal pilots out there. But what we don’t know how many of those flights are piloted by the same people. Take a pilot doing the London-Dublin run. Let’s say the person does six flights a day. Apply that assumption to the 4,000 flights and we’re down to 660 suicidal pilots – presumably across the world. Scary enough, to be sure. So, given that across the globe, according to one estimate, there are 98,000 flights a day, there is just over a half of one percent chance that your pilot is a suicidal maniac.

Now let’s think for a minute about that unhappy pilot. Suicide by airplane is extremely rare. Aside from the 9/11 “pilots”, I’m only aware of six incidents involving commercial airliners over the past forty years that may have been the result of pilot suicide. The most recent occurrence was through the action of the GermanWings pilot, Andreas Lubitz.

Lubitz was able to bring down the plain because he persuaded his co-pilot to take a toilet break, then locked the door and flew the plain into the Alps. Without the procedural weakness that allowed him to be alone in the cockpit with the co-pilot unable to get back in and stop him, he wouldn’t have been able carry out his plan.

After each such incident lessons are learned and fail-safe measures introduced to prevent a recurrence. It’s probably fair to say that the only way a pilot can be certain they can bring down their aircraft is if both pilots agree on the same plan.

What, then, are the chances of your being unfortunate enough to find yourself on a flight piloted by not one but two of those 660 suicidal depressives? The Telegraph doesn’t tell us, but my guess would be vanishingly small if previous incidents involving lone suicides are anything to go by.

Is the Telegraph piece a fake story? No. But is it seriously out of context  – and likely to send us flocking to the website, scaring the hell out of us? I would have thought so.

I personally would worry more about depressive US presidents with their fingers on the nuclear button (as in Nixon). I would also be far more concerned about the person in the car driving towards me on the other side of the road. I worry about train drivers asked to take responsibility for hundreds of people without a single colleague to watch over the train itself and those who are riding in it (would you fly in an aircraft without cabin crew?).

For me, the real issue raised in the Telegraph piece and in thousands of studies is depression. Depressives are not necessarily suicidal, but depression can blunt performance. An aircraft maintenance engineer who suffers from depression, by ignoring a vital safety check, or an air traffic controller standing in for a sick colleague on a night shift, can be just as lethal as a suicidal pilot. Depression can cause tiredness, and vice versa. You are far more likely to be flown by a knackered pilot, to ride in a train driven by a knackered driver, and to share a road with a knackered motorist.

As for suicide, I nearly lost the will to live the other day when for some reason all our computing devices simultaneously stopped sending email, even though they run on three different platforms. The headbanging stress of dealing with multiple call centres and waiting hours to fix each problem sent me close to the edge.

Hardly an existential crisis, I know. But when you then learn that a billion customer records – including your own, have been stolen from Yahoo, not yesterday, but since 2014, and that the Russians might well be responsible for foisting Donald Trump on all of us, a sense that things are slipping out of control might be enough to tip many people into a state of gloom and depression.

We have much more to be scared of than a few depressed pilots. Which leads me to look forward to my upcoming flights safe in the knowledge that a bunch of very scared newspaper readers will not be joining me. More elbow room for me then.

From → Business, Travel, UK

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