Mass homicide by pilots who crash their aircraft, killing the passengers who trusted them, is the dark underbelly of modern aviation.
Suspected cases are rare, but hardly unprecedented. And, given how safe flying has become in recent decades, deliberate pilot action would account for a significant percentage of passenger deaths.
Andreas Lubitz – the 27-year-old relatively junior co-pilot of the Germanwings flight from Barcelona to Dusseldorf that slammed into a French mountainside on Tuesday, killing all 150 on board – locked the captain out of the cockpit, Marseilles prosecutor Brice Robin said Thursday.
Mr. Lubitz then deliberately flew the Airbus A320 in a steep but controlled eight-minute dive, ending in a horrific high-speed crash that obliterated the aircraft, Mr. Robin added.
Terrified passengers knew the end was coming; the cockpit voice recorder captured their screams in the doomed flight's final seconds.
Mr. Lubitz's motivation is not yet known.
Pilot suicide is hard to prove because those so inclined often go to great lengths to cover their intentions, sometimes because insurance payouts are at stake.
In at least three other major crashes over the past two decades – in which more than 700 passengers were killed – deliberate pilot action is suspected.
By comparison, the al-Qaeda hijackings of four U.S. airliners on Sept. 11, 2001, killed 226 passengers and crew members. Nineteen terrorists also died. Those attacks led to armoured cockpit doors and elaborate measures that allow pilots to thwart access to the cockpit, which apparently allowed the Germanwings co-pilot to crash his plane.
Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
Before Germanwings, the most recent example – and not yet proved because the aircraft is still missing and only circumstantial, albeit powerful, evidence indicates deliberate pilot action – was Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.
Someone in the cockpit of the big Boeing 777 turned off the aircraft's identifying transponder shortly after leaving one air traffic-control zone high above the South China Sea during an overnight flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8, 2014. Minutes later, the now hard-to-detect jetliner, with 239 people on board, abruptly left its intended flight path.
It flew west, skirting the limits of military radar and then turned south and flew steadily for hours toward Antarctica, thousands of kilometres from any airport, until, its fuel exhausted, it crashed in the South Indian Ocean in one of the planet's most remote areas.
Despite radio silence and the sudden disabling of the aircraft's required identifying transmissions, investigators have managed to track roughly the Boeing 777's seven-hour flight to nowhere with the hourly, automatic – and unknown to the pilots – satellite communications "handshake."
With the aircraft somewhere on the bottom of the Indian Ocean, no official finding as to cause of the crash has yet been made, but, whatever the motivation, an evidently flyable aircraft went silent, suddenly deviated from its course and was flown far from any possible place to land.
EgyptAir Flight 990
More convincing evidence points to mass homicide in the 1999 crash of a Cairo-bound EgyptAir Boeing 767 with 217 on board that flew into the Atlantic Ocean off Nantucket Island after a cockpit struggle. Less than an hour after the flight took off from New York, the captain left the cockpit to go to the lavatory. Co-pilot GamilGameel al-Batouti, alone in control, repeatedly intoned, "I entrust myself to God," and switched off the autopilot. Then he pulled back the throttles, reducing both engines to idle, and pushed the aircraft into a dive.
The cockpit voice recorder – eventually recovered after a difficult salvage operation – revealed a desperate struggle for control as the captain, who had returned to the cockpit, attempted to pull the aircraft out of its dive and screamed to know from the co-pilot why "did you shut the engines?"
Then the captain begged, "Pull with me," to stop the dive, but the control column in Mr. al-Batouti's hands remained pushed forward, dooming the aircraft.
Both the Egyptian government and Mr. al-Batouti's family have vigorously rejected the U.S. investigation finding that the co-pilot deliberately crashed the aircraft.
SilkAir Flight 185
Two years earlier, in another crash that would produce sharply disputed findings, a SilkAir flight from Jakarta to Singapore killed all 104 people on board.
Soon after the Boeing 737 reached cruising altitude, the cockpit voice recorder suddenly stopped working. Investigators later determined that power to the recorder had been cut off, consistent with a circuit breaker being pulled. Six minutes later, the flight data recorder was similarly switched off.
Less than a minute later, the aircraft nosed over into a near-vertical dive, reaching supersonic speeds and starting to break up before impact into the Musi River in Indonesia.
U.S. investigators found no aircraft malfunction and concluded that "the accident can be explained by intentional pilot action," after the recorders were intentionally disconnected.
"It is more likely that the nose-down flight control inputs were made by the Captain [Tsu Way Ming] than the co-pilot."
It was later determined that Capt. Tsu had suffered major stock-market losses and, days before the crash, bought a new life insurance policy.