Dr Robert Bor
Professor Robert Bor is a Clinical and Specialist Aviation
psychologist, co-editing with Todd Hubbard, the key book on the
subject of pilot mental health: entitled 'Aviation Mental
Health'. It is published by Ashgate. The book considers
the psychological assessment, management, treatment and care of
pilots as well as other professional groups within aviation.
Professor Bor, in response to the latest
theory of pilot suicide in the case of the Malaysian Airlines Jet,
is careful not to rule out the suicide possibility, but cautions
that this is incredibly rare. When it happens, it is much more
commonly in private pilots, who are not licensed to carry
But Professor Bor concedes that incidents
involving commercial pilots are not unknown, and he points to the
example of an Air Botswana pilot, who in 1999 crashed his plane
into other aircraft on the ground of an airport in an apparent
The act appeared to be by a disgruntled
employee, angry with the airline and his employers, wanting to take
revenge. This suggests that if a commercial pilot kills themselves
in this way, grievance towards the airline could be a key
This is probably being covertly
investigated right now in the Malaysian Airlines case.
The Air Botswana pilot flew a commercial
plane without permission and without passengers. He may have
been angry and despairing that he had been grounded due to ill
health. He may have thought he was never going to fly again.
During negotiations with the tower, as he flew around the
airport, he was said to have threatened to fly into the Air
Botswana Office Building.
Within 24 hours of the Air Malaysian Flight
going missing, Professor Bor explains that inquiries into the
backgrounds of the two pilots would have been initiated, to
investigate a similar suicide motive.
He elaborates that investigations into the
pilots' mental health profiles would review spending patterns,
possible relationship difficulties, drug use and any other
But the Air Botswana incident involved a
key life event, being grounded and discovery of a
career-threatening health problem, none of which appears to have
yet emerged in the Malaysian scenario. This reduces the possible
likelihood of suicide, in Professor Bor's opinion. However, he
concedes anything, at this stage, is possible.
Another problem with the suicide theory is
that, in the Air Botswana case, as reported by sources quoted by
Reuters news agency, the pilot threatened suicide not just during
the flight itself: he had repeatedly warned authorities that
he was going to kill himself.
Professor Bor points out, 'no one wakes up
one morning and suddenly decides to kill themselves', usually the
intent emerges over a longer time. Yet given pilots are probably
the most scrutinised profession on earth, it seems unlikely that
even minor aberrations would have gone undetected before.
Commercial pilots don't just have frequent
medical checks, they are being closely observed by colleagues on
the flight deck as well as by other professionals, during, before
and after flights. (Some planes haven't been allowed to leave the
ground because the dispatcher smelt alcohol on the breath of a
Professor Bor points to another case which
may provide clues as to what happened.
In 1994, a Federal Express
cargo Flight flying across the USA
became the victim of an attempted hi-jacking by an employee facing
dismissal. He boarded as a passenger with a case hiding
several hammers. He intended to disable the aircraft's systems so
that events were not properly recorded and, once airborne, to kill
the crew using the hammers so injuries would appear caused by the
crash. The plan was then to collide the aircraft, so the
perpetrator would appear just another employee killed in an
accident. His family would become eligible for a $2.5 million
Federal Express life insurance policy.
But despite severe injuries, the crew
fought back, restrained the perpetrator and landed the plane
Dr Jennifer Morse, a consultant in
Aerospace Psychiatry and Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry
at University of California San Diego Medical School, co-authored
with Professor Robert Bor the chapter on the mental health of
pilots in the book 'Aviation Mental Health'.
In their joint chapter they draw attention
to Egypt Air Flight 990 which crashed in 1990, and where the relief
first officer was recorded as saying 'I rely on God' just before
disengaging the autopilot. He then went on to make the statement 11
times during the plane's impending crash, without any apparent
emotion. While suicide seems the most likely cause, the precise
motive remains mysterious.
Morse and Bor report an estimate between
0.72% and 2.4% of general aviation accidents are as a result of
pilot suicide, and a history of psychiatric or domestic problems
have been found in such post-crash inquiries and
Morse and Bor point out that one possible
reason why a commercial suicidal pilot might choose to crash their
plane, is that the evidence it was a suicide might be thus
destroyed, so protecting their family, and the memory of the pilot,
from the 'shame' of suicide.
Using the plane as the instrument of death
might also be psychologically entwined with resentment against the
stress of the job, or grudges against the airline employer.
But Professor Bor also points out that
psychology is crucially involved in the search for the plane and
investigation of the cause, given the danger of a psychological
phenomenon termed 'confirmation bias'.
Confirmation Bias occurs when you've
already made your mind up and this biases the way you approach the
evidence. The search for this plane may have been fatally hampered
by a series of 'confirmation biases'.
It's vital, Professor Bor argues, that
crash investigators remain open-minded and don't start looking
merely for confirmation of a prior held theory.
Here, Dr Bor discusses the issues with Dr Raj Persaud.