One day last autumn Qantas pilot Paul Whyte hired a single-engine Cessna 172 airplane from the Northern Rivers Aero Club in Lismore and flew out to sea.
He disappeared off the radar about 11 kilometres north east of Byron Bay.
The 46-year-old Mr Whyte was a regular at the club and, to begin with, there was nothing particularly unusual about that day. Except that he never came back, crashing the plane into the sea at an estimated speed of 200 kilometres per hour.
Police concluded there were no suspicious circumstances. Mr Whyte’s death was a suspected suicide. Wreckage of the plane was only found two months later during a naval search. There was no sign of his body.
In photographs, Mr Whyte presents as a cheerful, pleasant-looking man with seemingly everything to live for.
There were news reports that he was struggling with a broken marriage. Males in the divorce-age bracket top statistics for suicide and unexplained accidents, including drownings.
Despite his personal struggles, Mr Whyte passed a mental health test one month before his death; and had recently flown a passenger plane from Brisbane to Los Angeles with a capacity of 467 people.
Mr Whyte made a final call to his daughters before his death.
There is a long history of pilots taking their own lives, from Japan’s Kamikazes to the September 11 Twin Towers attacks that transformed travel and security in the modern era.
Outside of the military or ideological-driven, however, most suicides by pilot are lonely affairs. One lone pilot flying out to sea or into a mountain, decisively ending his or her own life. And Mr Whyte’s sad story is a classic case.
Not all pilots with a determination to leave their mortal coil do so on their own.
Mr Whyte’s death came a year and a half after Germanwings co-pilot Andreas Lubitz, who suffered from depression, deliberately crashed a plane into the French Alps killing all 150 people on board.
That incident brought worldwide attention to the screening processes for pilots and their incidence of suicide and depression.
Now a new study from Harvard School of Public Health, the first to describe airline pilot mental health independent of the industry, with a focus on depression and suicidal thoughts, shows that a significant number – 4.1 per cent of pilots – have recurring feelings that life is not worth living.
On March 24 2015, Germanwings Flight 9525 was scheduled to fly from Barcelona to Dusseldorf.
Shortly after making final contact with air traffic control at 9:30am, the pilot left the cockpit. At this point, with the plane flying at an altitude of 12,000 metres, co-pilot Lubitz locked himself in the cockpit and changed the flight monitoring system in order to put the aircraft into descent.
German prosecutors investigating the case revealed that before acquiring his pilot’s licence, Mr Lubitz received prolonged treatment for major psychological problems and had received therapy for suicidal tendencies.
Just days before the crash, Mr Lubitz conducted internet searches on the terms “cockpit doors” and “suicide”.
Lufthansa, Germanwings’ parent company, said it had no idea the pilot had been treated for suicidal tendencies because of Germany’s strict privacy laws forbidding access to his medical records.
The black box recorder revealed the pilot screaming at Mr Lubitz to open the door moments before the plane plunged into the Alps.
It was Mr Lubitz’s fateful decision that day to end not just his own life but all those on board, that led to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s study.
The study found that hundreds of commercial airline pilots currently flying may be clinically depressed.
It is the first to describe airline pilot mental health, with a focus on depression and suicidal thoughts, outside of the information derived from aircraft accident investigations, regulated health examinations, or identifiable self-reports, all of which are records protected by civil aviation authorities and airline companies.
For those sources of information, there is a strong disincentive for pilots to accurately report if they are suffering from depressive symptoms. Pilots are justifiably worried about their careers if word gets out that they are struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts.
The Harvard study used an anonymous survey to overcome these concerns, with respondents recruited from unions, airline companies and airports via email, newsletters, word-of-mouth, handing postcards to pilots and aviation publication advertisements.
Pilots from more than 50 different countries participated in the web-based survey, with 11.1 per cent from Australia. Questions concerning depression and mental health were hidden within the questionnaire so as not to reveal that the main focus was mental health.
Lead author of the study, Professor Joseph Allen, said globally some 350 million people suffer from depression, but less than half receive treatment, with social stigma being one of the main barriers to seeking care.
“There is a veil of secrecy around mental health issues in the cockpit,” Prof Allen said.
We found that many pilots currently flying are managing depressive symptoms, and it may be that they are not seeking treatment due to the fear of negative career impacts.
“By using an anonymous survey, we were able to guard against people’s fears of reporting due to stigma and job discrimination.”
Prof Allen told The New Daily: “Since the Germanwings crash there have been many groups actively working on enhancing mental health support services for pilots.
“We support the efforts by unions, pilots, airlines and regulators. Our study was designed to obtain a more accurate picture of the extent of this issue in the pilot workforce in order to assist these efforts.”
A greater proportion of male than female pilots reported that they had experiences nearly every day of loss of interest, feeling like a failure, trouble concentrating and thinking they would be better off dead.
The older the better
In general terms, pilots over 60 years of age showed the best mental health, reporting less depression than any other age group, with 85.2 per cent reporting not feeling depressed or hopeless on a single day in the previous two weeks.
They also reported similar high percentages for not feeling bad about themselves or having trouble concentrating.
Fortunately, most pilots – on average 95.8 per cent across all age groups – do not report they feeling that they would be better off dead or hurting themselves.
However, an average of 3.1 per cent (3.3 per cent in the age group 41-50 and 3.7 per cent in the age group 60-plus), reported feeling they would be better off dead on several days in the previous two weeks.
Of all pilots, 0.6 per cent have thoughts of self-harm or being better off dead nearly every day.
In all, 33.9 per cent of pilots report that mental health issues impact on their ability to do their work, take care of things at home and to get along with others. These problems included poor appetite, having little energy, restlessness, trouble concentrating and feeling bad about themselves.
David Booth, president of the Australian Federation of Air Pilots (AFAP), which represents nearly 4500 pilots, told The New Daily the Germanwings incident was the catalyst for a greater focus on the mental health of pilots.
The AFAP offers free, confidential psychological counselling 24 hours, seven days a week from specialised occupational psychologists trained in pilot specific issues, an initiative well supported by members.
Mr Booth, a 737 captain with a major Australian airline, said many pilots were attracted to the profession as children, enraptured by the sense of adventure, the purity, uniqueness and romance of flight.
But the realities and stress of a job as a commercial pilot did not always live up to the fantasy.
“Mental health is no longer a taboo issue, which has historically been the case in aviation,” he said.
Similar to other professions such as medicine, flying is seen as glamorous and exciting. But it is a high-pressure job.
“You are coming to work every day knowing that if you make an error the consequences can be very severe.
“And you are being monitored on many levels: your peers are watching you, you’re being recorded on the flight deck by the cockpit voice recorder while everything the plane does is digitally recorded and vetted by the company.”
Mr Booth said the annual medical examination added stress, because to fail the medical could mean loss of your livelihood. As well there was a simulator review every six months, where the pilot’s proficiency was assessed. A bad day in the simulator puts your employment under review.
An additional new pressure comes from the digital age.
“If anything goes down it will be recorded and posted on social media, so you are being monitored not just by your peers and the company but by every last passenger on board, who now have power through social media,” Mr Booth said.
The Harvard study found not only that 4.1 per cent of pilots reported suicidal thoughts, but that a total of 12.6 per cent reached the threshold for being diagnosed with depression.
Using US figures, this was comparable with other high-stress occupations.
Twelve per cent of deployed military officers were either experiencing major depressive disorder or displaying related symptoms, with the figure rising to 13 per cent for veterans. Serving police officers ranged from 10-17 per cent, depending on the study.
Dr Stephen Carbone, spokesman for leading mental health organisation Beyond Blue, told The New Daily untreated mental health conditions were costing Australian employers $10.9 billion a year.
“Beyond Blue is working with businesses across Australia to promote the importance of a mentally healthy workplace and providing the resources to help them create such environments,” Dr Carbone said.
“We emphasise the need for employers and employees to work together to develop and implement changes to prevent work-related mental health conditions by addressing bullying, harassment, job stress and other factors known to contribute to work related mental health conditions,” he said.
“Most people with depression and anxiety will recover with effective treatment and so creating a supportive workplace becomes a win-win situation.”
If the Harvard study’s findings that four out of every 100 pilots have experienced suicidal thoughts within the past fortnight holds true across the 140,000 commercial pilots worldwide, then more than 5000 pilots have had feelings that life is not worth living in the past fortnight.
Anyone who might be feelings symptoms of depression, anxiety or mental illness should contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.