In 1997, La Jolla, California, Howard Mitchell, a 67 year old commercial pilot and former naval aviator took his Cessna out for one last flight. He had recently experienced a series of personal calamities: his friend had become paralyzed in a hang gliding accident, a hobby that Mitchell had introduced to him; his mother had just died, and he himself had just survived a heart attack, which was likely going to cause him to lose his FAA medical clearance. Mitchell first circled Mount Soledad, a prominent San-Diego war-memorial-landmark with a giant white cross on the top. Then he steered the plane out into the Pacific. As Charles O’Rourke reports: “[He] performed some aerobatic maneuvers, and then nosed over in a steep dive and crashed into the Pacific Ocean about one mile from the coastline.”
Mitchell’s case is not unique. Pilots who become stressed, despondent, resentful or mentally unbalanced will occasionally decide to leave this world doing what they love. Sometimes, they crash into something that has symbolic significance to them – a mountain they know or a building relevant to their life. Other times, they will fly until they run out of fuel. Frequently, they try dangerous maneuvers. That freedom and exhilaration that accompanies the act of piloting would only ignite and blaze in a pilot’s last suicidal flight – when all aviation rules may be discarded and danger is no object.
Even after the first two days of the disappearance of Malaysia Flight 370, it became obvious to many that the most probable explanation was pilot-culpability. And the reason is simply that all other possible alternatives — whether a sudden, massive catastrophe or a terrorist-hijacking — had soon become wildly improbable. Typically during emergencies, pilots can always communicate some sort of problem – and it is rare that so many communication systems would break down at nearly the same time. If one assumes an explosive calamity then investigators knew exactly when and where it happened and it should have been raining aluminum all over South China Sea. The longer it took to find any debris, the more likely it was that someone deliberately flew the plane somewhere else.
But if these nefarious-pilots were terrorist- hijackers, then where were they? Why didn’t they immediately crash into any one of the many cities in the region? If they managed a successful kidnapping, where are the demands? And if they crashed somewhere else, why? Why would they go through the trouble of secretly taking over a flight only to change its crash location? A terrorist’s main goal, of course, is to terrorize not mystify. Perhaps, most significantly, the plane diverged right after leaving Malaysian air-space, right in the dead-space between Malaysian and Vietnamese air-traffic-controller responsibility. This would give maximum time before controllers would realize there is a problem, but how could the hypothetical hijackers have known when the pilot signed off with Malaysia?
This is why some who are familiar with pilot-suicides happened upon the likely explanation within two days. So while the media was focusing on lithium batteries, stolen passports, cabin depressurization, cockpit takeovers and hidden runways – and as the Malaysian, Chinese, and U.S. Navies were searching the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca – there were a few who argued, bluntly: “It’s suicide-by-joyriding-pilot; he went deep into the Indian.”
What were the passengers doing or copilot? Well, the pilot may may have simply asked the copilot to check something in the cabin, perhaps claiming there was a suspicious passenger, and then locked him out. The cockpit door is essentially unbreakable. Also, the plane apparently went up to 45000 feet very quickly. If the pilot depressurized the cabin too, the passengers all would have died soon of hypoxia.
Most aviation experts, at least those interviewed by newspapers and news shows, likely did not foresee this explanation because of the circumstances of the two other known pilot-suicides on commercial airlines. In both the 1997 SilkAir crash in a flight between Singapore and Jakarta and in a 1999 EgyptAir flight 990 that plunged into the Atlantic, there was no wandering. The pilots in each case just forced the jet into an uncontrolled dive. But this was pre-9/11, when cockpit doors were not reinforced and the possibility of a single pilot taking complete control of a plane was implausible. Today, it is possible. And in other instances, desperate and suicidal pilots, and particularly those obsessed with flying, have wanted to take that one last journey and control the skies. Perhaps, they want to try some extreme maneuvers and push the plane while freeing themselves from pre-determined flight-plans and the watchful gaze of flight-controllers. Mitchell was not only a prior naval aviator and a commercial airline pilot but flew Cessnas as a hobby. Captain Zaharie not only flies for a living, but had built himself a massive and intricate, three-screen flight simulator — essentially an entire, fully loaded cockpit — so he could fly while at home too. Of course, there is an oceanic difference between Mitchell and the mass-murderer responsible for Malaysia Flight 370, but the relevant point here is the “one last flight” mentality among some suicidal pilots obsessed with flying. The MH370 vehicle was, after all, a world-class $200 million Boeing 777 — and Zaharie wanted to die with it.
In 1997, Captain Craig D. Button, a United States Air Force pilot flying an A-10 “Warthog” in Arizona unexpectedly “vanished.” He broke a three-plane V-formation and just flew away. And he turned his transponder off. Investigators and the press were mystified for a few days, but eventually they were able to determine what happened. Radar picked up his plane flying northeast toward Colorado. He maneuvered around weather and zig-zagged for a bit, flying till he was almost out of gas. He chose a scenic spot to die, crashing into Gold Dust Peak, in the mountainous ski-resorts near Eagle Colorado. He had been travelling with four live 500 pound bombs but they were never found. William Cohen, then Secretary of Defense, said about the disappearance that it was “a mystery, inside an enigma, wrapped in a riddle.”
When we learn more about these situations, they will cease to become so mysterious. And certainly from now on, aviation investigators will never again neglect for so long the possibility that a similar vanishing may be the result of “suicide-by-joyriding-pilot.”
— Dennis McCarthy is the author of “Here Be Dragons.”