germanwingspilot_leadingedgestrategiesCan I trust my pilot?

After 9/11, cockpit doors were reinforced to keep the bad people out. But what happens when they are already inside.

The details of the Germanwings 9525 crash are still filtering out but from what appears to have happened, is that the co-pilot, due to mental issues or whatever, put the plane into the ground. Now, we commence with doing what we always do after a tragedy, we try to figure out what can prevent it from happening again so that those of us remaining here on planet Earth, can avoid a similar fate.

There has been some talk about technological solutions to the problem of when the pilot decides to crash the plane (which is very rare), but there are several problems that technology actually creates – and there are easier solutions. In the U.S. it is required that the flight attendant be in the cockpit when one of the pilots is out. While its usually perceived that this is so that if the remaining pilot goes rogue there’s someone there to stop them, it’s also a safety issue – someone needs to let the other pilot back in. We don’t want the pilot-flying to leave the controls. While the plane predominantly flies on autopilot at cruise altitudes mechanical things have been known to fail. You don’t want the software to glitch and tell the plane to put itself into a dive that pushes the pilots back against the cockpit door while one trying to let the other back in. Murphy’s law says it’s bound to happen and at the worst time.

Also, don’t tell me about the numerous systems that are in place to prevent the plane from crashing itself. The most common asked question when the auto-pilot is on, is: what’s it doing now?

But what about technology to enable a ground operator to take control of the plane in case its hijacked or the pilot “goes rogue.” That was suggested after 9/11 and we already have the technology capability to do that if we wanted to, but the problems just get bigger. How will you prevent hackers from hacking into the system that controls the planes? How will you protect the ground facility that can access the aircraft and take them over? How can you ensure the controller on the ground doesn’t take over the plane and crash it. With cybersecurity so porous right now, there’s a higher chance some nut will hack into a plane’s guidance system and take everyone on a joyride, or crash them into the ground. Check out the book “Crashers,” by Dana Haynes for that nightmare scenario (thanks to my mom for that recommendation – I think I need to monitor more what she’s reading these days, but I digress).

That said, think of the billions it would take to install all of the technology to actually take over the plane, into thousands of civil aircraft (there’s an FAA nightmare certification for you), then maintain those systems, then hope there isn’t a system failure and the plane takes itself over and puts the flight into the ground. Even with CAT III auto land instrument landing systems, the pilot still has to keep their hands ready to grab the stick just in case the plane’s guidance system and software screws up. What if they can’t override it?

That’s a lot of risk to take and a lot of money to spend, when we could just change a flight procedure and for five minutes, have a flight attendant step into the cockpit.

Now let’s ask the next natural question. What about if the pilot decides to kill or attack the flight attendant while the other pilot is out and then take over the plane. There are a few problems with this scenario as well. First, toss out the sexist and wrongheaded assumption that the flight attendant is somehow weaker than the pilot – man or woman in either case. The ability to fly a plane doesn’t magically make one stronger, tougher and faster than anyone else.

Second, let’s talk about the willingness to do violence. Despite what you see on TV and in movies, the vast majority of the populace is not willing to do violence, particularly the kind necessary to put someone out of commission while they crash a plane. Many who are willing to do violence (to the point of death) are behind bars not cockpit doors. And, crashing a plane that you are in control of with everyone else locked out is not like slamming your fist into someone’s throat or gouging their eyes out, then stomping on their head until they are out of action. Just ask the military – it’s easier to sit at the controls of a jet at 30,000 feet or a drone in an air conditioned facility in Nevada and launch a missile than it is to stand toe to toe with them and kill them by hand.

But there are some those who do fly planes and will do violence – pilots aren’t somehow immune from domestic abuse and there are unfortunately a few out there who aren’t above hurting others. Even if the person is willing to do violence though, ANYTHING can happen in a physical confrontation. Getting into a fight with someone presents huge variables. I’ve seen the weakest of the weak absolutely layout some tough guy with a lucky punch.

Putting a flight attendant in the cockpit when the pilot is out is an easy fix. It’s affordable, it’s sustainable and it makes sense. But what about if the pilots or the pilot and flight attendant are in collusion? Well, you can’t prevent everything.

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