When Perfect isn’t Perfect, the Germanwings Crash Revisited.

The following post was written the morning CNN announced that the crash in the French Alps was deliberate  and after the Crasten Spohr, CEO of Luftansa said that the co-pilots health was perfect.  As an op-ed submission, it was rejected by the New York Times and CNN, and published here this morning. My predictions have all come true.

A few years ago a human resources official of a major U.S. commercial airline contacted the QPR Institute to ask, and I quote, “Do you have any posters to prevent suicide?”

I assured the gentleman that if posters could prevent suicide, one of the most challenging public health problems in the world would have been solved decades ago. I did, however, suggest training might be of value, and then added, “I’m guessing you’ve lost an employee to suicide?”

No one calls the QPR Institute when things are just dandy.

“Yes,” he said, but did not elaborate. My thought: probably not a ticket agent.

“A pilot?” I asked.

“Yes, but he wasn’t flying at the time.”

I asked if they were interested in training just pilots and their families or everyone.  Since suicidal male pilots would be very unlikely to self-report suicidal desire or intent (and ever hope to fly again), I suggested gatekeeper training to identify possible at-risk pilots using a well-researched program that was safe and effective and inexpensive if delivered online.  Since a broad-band connection was available everywhere for their global workforce, we could train everyone at low cost.

“Send me some numbers,” he said.

I did.  I said we could train every stakeholder in their company concerned with customer safety, and recommended annual psychological screenings to detect any developing risk among their pilots. Everyone in the company would be trained in QPR – a basic recognition and referral intervention. Our cost per family trained was less than a Starbuck’s tall mocha and a scone ($5).

I also sent him a file on pilot suicide — just to make sure he knew that I knew that pilot suicide, while rare, could have terrible consequences. A few weeks after I’d made the proposal, the official emailed me and said, in effect, “Leadership has no appetite for suicide prevention training at this time.”

I followed up with email that said, in effect, “I pray that if you should have another pilot suicide he or she is not in the cockpit with passengers on board.”

There was no response. Since the Buddha said to recognize all danger and avoid it, I stopped booking flights on this particular airline.

The morning after the tragedy in the French Alps I listened to the CEO of the Lufthansa explain that their pilot selection process would not change.  The airline was “speechless” about what had happened, and the public was assured that things like this simply cannot be prevented.

If a commercial flight takes off every two seconds, how many pilots are in the air right now thinking about suicide? Something tells me it is not zero.

In fact, the Centers for Disease Control reports that among adults in the United States, roughly 5 percent of us think about suicide seriously each year.  I’m betting pilots are not somehow magically protected from such despair and mental anguish.

Back to the horror of this murder-suicide. Yes, there will be an autopsy and analysis of the co-pilot’s blood, but no mention was made of a psychological autopsy – as if the state of this man’s mind had no bearing on what had just happened.

Psychology is a silly profession until your brother dies by suicide, or the pilot of the plane you are flying decides that auguring in is the way out.  People use methods of suicide with which they are familiar, that are available, and that “make sense” to them as a person. This is called “ego-syntonic means selection.” Police officers use guns, medical people prefer drugs, and pilots choose airplanes.  Not always of course, but with enough frequency that leadership should always be alert to this data and act with some foresight about recognizing and reducing known risks.

Suicide is only inexplicable if you choose to remain ignorant.  Some in leadership positions choose to remain ignorant longer than others, even when it is in their job description to protect the flying public from these rare but horrific events.

Already, as we all follow this story, we learn the usual suspects were at work. No one dies by suicide for no reason.  Reasons emerge. Untreated mental disorder? Relationship problem? Threat of some unavoidable humiliation? Somehow a burden on loved ones?  Recent severe losses?

Then the warning signs emerge, too.  And unless I am much mistaken, actionable warning signs.

While nobody is asking for my suggestions, I would ask the CEO – not just of Lufthansa but every CEO of every airline in the world today – to ask themselves the same questions Winston Churchill asked himself after the Japanese took Singapore by land.

Remember, Singapore was considered “impregnable” – just about as perfect a defensive military position as God ever made, and certainly as easy to defend as a perfect pilot training system.

In the brutal audit after the loss of Singapore, Churchill’s four questions have been codified as follows:

Why didn’t I know? Why didn’t my advisers know? Why wasn’t I told? Why didn’t I ask?”

Organizational leadership believes their employees will not die by suicide, including those in perfect physical health like commercial airline pilots. Organizational leadership is often mistaken.

If public safety matters, suicide prevention matters; sometimes it matters more than we can bear.

My condolences to all those families whose lives have been undone by this horrific – and quite possibly preventable – tragedy.

Dr. Paul


3 thoughts on “When Perfect isn’t Perfect, the Germanwings Crash Revisited.”

  1. very well stated Paul. I caught a panel discussion on CNN a few days ago which included Richard Quest, it was about the need for regular pilot psychological testing, Quest and other experts started to argue, it got interesting…ah but times up, time for a commercial break, and move on to another story …

  2. Paul,
    I remain amazed and frustrated leaders in all professions decide to “remain ignorant.” Why would the FAA not respond to your clear admonition when it is “in their job description to protect the flying public from these rare but horrific events?” They’ve done such a good job as industry leader in preventing other accidents from occurring, why would they not add this ‘checklist’ item to their plan?

    As you reminded us – “No one dies by suicide for no reason.” Our society has the symptom of the most severe mental illnesses – “anosognosia.” They choose to remain blind to their disorder, allowing needless loss of life saying, and apparently believing, it isn’t preventable in face of all the data to the contrary.

    Keep on keeping on, Paul. I’ll do the same.

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