'My Final Landing:' Suicide by Airplane

An NTSB report on a Oct. 2, 2000, pilot suicide at the Rapid City (S.D.) Regional Airport. Among the pilot's final words: "Tell my family and friends that I love them very much." hide caption

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The U.S. government estimates that about 31,000 Americans die each year as a result of suicide.

Methods of suicide vary widely. But in the February issue of Flying mgazine, contributing editor Peter Garrison writes about the relatively rare phenomenon of suicide by airplane, based on incident reports by the National Transportation Safety Board.

'My Final Landing'

In a Sept. 6, 1998, suicide at the Daytona Beach International Airport, the pilot reportedly told the controller: "This will be my final landing."

Garrison, himself a pilot, estimates that an average of two or three pilots a year use an airplane to commit suicide. These final flights are often — though not always — made in small planes.

Some of the pilots carried on long conversations with air traffic controllers before crashing their planes. "It's a curious thing that whereas some people want to just slip away into silence, others seem to want to carry on a kind of chat," Garrison says.

In an Oct. 2, 2000, incident at the Rapid City (S.D.) Regional Airport, a pilot practiced a series of landings in his Piper airplane, then gave a telephone number and asked the controller to tell his family and friends that he loved them. The pilot, who was flying alone, then suggested that the controller order fire and emergency trucks. The controller, thinking there was something wrong with the airplane, asked the pilot if he was declaring an emergency. "The pilot didn't answer but instead made a low approach to the runway, pulled up in a vertical climb, pushed over into a dive and crashed in the middle of the runway," Garrison says.

The pilots rarely hurt anyone other than themselves. While they will occasionally fly into a building out of anger or a desire for revenge, "on the whole this is quite a private act and people tend to crash their planes somewhere where it doesn't do any harm to anybody else," Garrison says.

Below is Garrison's column from the February issue of Flying magazine.

This Will Be My Final Landing

Suicide is the official probable cause of perhaps two accidents a year. It is also implicated, but not blamed, in a few unexplained collisions with terrain involving pilots with histories of depression or previous suicide attempts, but who did not leave notes or otherwise express an intention to take their lives.

There are as many motives—rage, despondency, depression, shame—as there are suicidal pilots. Some end their lives with a kamikaze attack on their own home or an estranged wife or girlfriend's. (In the past 15 years all the pilots who have committed suicide by flying into buildings have been men.) One man, for example, abruptly quit his job and left home. He returned to the house a week later to leave a suicide note, apparently with the intention of discomfiting his wife. Three days later, he took off in a Cherokee Arrow and flew the tanks almost empty—he was airborne for five hours and 20 minutes—before diving into his house. Since there was no fuel left to speak of, there was no fire. Another man, having been barred from his residence by a court restraining order, came back in his Trinidad. Another crashed his airplane beside a church in which a woman who had declined his proposal of marriage was attending a service.

In a variation upon this theme, another pilot, who crashed a Cessna 120 into a forest, first shot his wife, who was in the right seat. Ten days after the accident they were found, her body still in her seat, his beside the airplane. The medical examiner attributed his death to "acute ethanol intoxication," a conclusion that implies, perhaps unintentionally, a bizarre scenario: he survived the accident and then drank himself to death.

A number of suicides were associated with legal troubles. One pilot, who had been charged with "lewd and lascivious conduct with a minor," fell to drinking heavily and spoke of intentionally crashing his Malibu. The next day he did just that, while in radio communication with approach control. He reported descending through 11,000 feet, then through 6,000 just 38 seconds later. He encountered the ground at 4,650 feet.

Another pilot, having been found guilty for the second time of running an illegal pyramid scheme, and apprehensive about the possibility of being sentenced to jail, flew a rented 152 straight into a mountain.

Another, a TV weather presenter whose alleged extramarital affair and harassment of a woman had been the subject of local news reports, told coworkers that he had attempted suicide twice in recent days, once in an airplane. He then took off in an Archer and plunged vertically into the runway at full power.

A pilot who was both a minister and an insurance agent, and who had owned a 1960 Bonanza for two years, was indicted for felony theft in connection with his insurance business. Released on bail, he wrote e-mails to several members of his congregation begging their forgiveness and then departed in his Bonanza, which crashed in level high desert terrain. The coroner ruled the death a suicide, but the National Transportation Safety Board confined itself to "controlled descent into terrain for reasons undetermined."

Another pilot who was the subject of a criminal investigation told numerous friends that he would kill himself by intentionally crashing an airplane before he would go to jail. True to his word, he rented a 152, sat in it for half an hour prior to taking off, and then departed never to return.

Another, who had a history of drug use and had been previously convicted of arson, was being sought by police in connection with another arson. Having left behind a power of attorney for his brother, he rented an airplane, buzzed a number of boats, and then crashed into the ocean. The airplane sank, but the pilot's floating body was recovered and tested positive for alcohol, cocaine and Valium.

Feelings of despair or grief drove others to a fatal flight. A pilot whose wife had left him the day before dove into terrain after leaving on an answering machine a message desiring to "see my son… one more time." The pilot had methodically collected the titles to the family vehicles, signed and notarized them, and left them for his wife. Another, despondent over the death of his mother and concerned that he might lose his FAA medical because of his deteriorating coronary condition, wrote out a will leaving his new sports car to his girlfriend, rented a 172, flew out over the ocean, did a loop—perhaps something he had always wanted to do in a 172—and plunged into the water.

Some pilots seem to call for help at the same time as they pass beyond it. One made a distress call saying that he was "going in" before flying into a rock cliff in VFR weather. By way of explaining himself, he had left his autobiography, his medical history, and his wife's death certificate in his parked car. Another changed his transponder squawk to 7700, the emergency code, before flying straight and level into a mountain. Another, who also squawked 7700 and transmitted a distress call saying that his airplane had fuel pressure problems, then parachuted from his airplane, of which he was the only occupant. He did not survive the jump, but it was almost a year before his body was found. The NTSB's oddly-phrased probable cause was "the pilot's intentional decision to abandon the airplane and allow it to fly unattended," but the accident report noted that the pilot had earlier left his wife a message saying that "I don't want to live any more."

Some pilots have engaged in poignantly ambiguous dialogues with controllers. One took off at night in a 182 and climbed past 21,000 feet before reporting to an ATC controller that he was out of fuel. The controller directed him to an airport, but the pilot remarked, "I prefer water." As he glided down, the pilot, whose use of language is endearing, continued to speak of a water landing: "All things considered," he said, "I think that would be the best place to go." At another point he said, "As you might have guessed, I have not had a good day… I'm going swimming tonight." Indeed, he had not had a good day; he had been involved in a fatal hit-and-run accident the night before, and there was a warrant out for his arrest. He crashed in darkness into a frozen reservoir.

Another pilot was doing touch-and-goes in a Seminole when he suddenly asked the tower controller to copy down a phone number. "You don't need to use it…yet," he said. "It looks like one more option and then a full stop." He flew another circuit, then asked the controller to call the number and "let them know where I'm at, also, if you could, tell my family and friends that I love them very much."

"Were you going to depart out of here or stay the night?" the controller asked, still unaware of the double meaning of the conversation.

"I'll stay the night," the pilot said, and added a few seconds later, "It would be a good idea to get airport rescue and fire fighting out here too please."

"Are you declaring an emergency?" the controller asked.

There was no reply. The airplane made a low approach, increased speed, pulled nearly straight up, stalled at 1,000 feet, and crashed on the runway.

A more laconic pilot, also in a Seminole, having left a note saying, "I do not want to live," approached his home runway very high. The tower controller asked whether he would be able to get down and land, and the pilot replied, "This will be my final landing." He pushed the nose over, increased power, and dove into the runway.

The most famous suicide flights in recent memory were those of September 11, 2001. Their motive, of course, was not personal extinction, but a political and religious mission.

The horrifying possibility that at the controls of a commercial airliner could sit a pilot bent on death had been strangely foreshadowed three years earlier, when the first officer of an EgyptAir flight from New York to Cairo dove a Boeing 767 into the Atlantic south of Nantucket, taking 216 other souls with him. His motive has never been known, and in fact the Egyptian government, vigorously denying that the crash had been a deliberate act at all, blamed it on defects in the control system of the 767. The cockpit voice recorder tape, however, was scarcely consistent with the theory that the first officer was trying to save rather than destroy the airplane. The dispute, like the first officer's incessant repetition of an Arabic phrase, translated as, "I rely on God," but evidently having cultural connotations that non-Muslims could not hope to grasp, left many Americans ominously bewildered. Yet the mystery of that crash was, in a way, not so different from those of other suicide flights. All death-bent pilots seem, when their wheels leave the ground on their final flights, already to have passed over into a foreign land whose language and customs we who have not visited it can only guess at.

This article is based solely on the National Transportation Safety Board's report of the accidents and is intended to bring the issues raised to the attention of our readers. It is not intended to judge or to reach any definitive conclusions about the ability or capacity of any person, living or dead, or any aircraft or accessory.

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