Germanwings 9525

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.


5 Responses to Germanwings 9525

  1. “Some risks are too expensive to mitigate – even paying $25,000 to fly on a private jet doesn’t guarantee the pilot didn’t just have a bad breakup with his girlfriend and decides to commit suicide and take you along for the ride. Maybe you should have checked his relationship status on Facebook first – if it says, “it’s complicated,” then ask for another pilot.”

    Just quoting from your previous article. In this case your assumption was justified. It was reported by the pilot’s lover that he was on psychological treatment and might want to show a remarkable moment to be remembered by the world…

    Such unpredictable behaviour that lead to unprecedented incident can be rather complicated for us to understand. Let pray we are not caught in these kind of horrible moment although by right we are actually in a right time and place.

  2. The hardened cockpit door was a knee-jerk, reactionary solution to a problem. No matter how thought out a solution may be, they often have hidden flaws that are only exposed under careful scrutiny or, in situations such as this, the exposure of weaknesses. Any solution that comes out of this tragic incident is bound to be fraught with workarounds that will render them ineffective at best or detrimental at worst. Life is filled with risk. We simply cannot eliminate the risk we face on a day to day basis.

    There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the unpredictability of the Human Animal. To attempt to predict every possibility is an exercise in futility. With each iteration of mousetrap, there is a more intelligent, or cunning, mouse.

    Questioning the integrity of the professionals who move millions of people on a daily basis, in an effort to increase readership, really seems quite shallow. Any attempt to gain notoriety through fear, is as repulsive to me as notoriety through tragedy; and yet you’ve used both to your perceived advantage.

    • Hi Dennis. My intention here was not to impugned the reputation of pilots as I am one and have dozens of airline pilot friends as well. The article then spoke to the fact that you can trust them and there are simple fixes here that will make it more difficult to have this happen again, but never impossible. As always I do appreciate your feedback.

  3. Please accept my deep appreciation for this amazing blog, which goes deep into addressing the situation. The appended comments further add to the sentiment..

    Valuing Integrity –

    The crashing of germanwings aircraft, probably by one of its pilot has come heavy on civil aviation. In most ways it is unmatched since by now the underlying trust among flying crew was as “given”. After this tragic episode there are calls for two pilots be present rule in cockpit at all times.

    Could anyone analyze the serious implications in terms of psychological pressure at back of mind this rule going to create among cockpit crew? As in simple words it says “don’t trust each other”. Period.

    Let’s try to pay attention to various scenarios in case one of cockpit crew member wants to crash the air craft. Is it possible that he may try to physically attack the fellow pilot with some object, try to strangulate, put sleeping pills in a coffee, or poison the fellow pilot with some chocolate or sweet etc.? Then what happens?

    Let’s expand the horizon a bit more and include the cabin crew in this scenario. What if one of them gives poison or sleeping pills to cockpit crew? Or ignite the fire in one of service galleys, lavatories etc.

    What about Flight Engineer and Mechanics if they wish to play some mischief?

    And the Security staff that checks the flight? What if one of them with free access plant an explosive charge on board?

    The Cargo staff could plant an explosive or incendiary charge in cargo, and likewise a disgruntled catering staff may wish to do sabotage by planting IED in one of food trolleys?

    What if any of above possibilities may come true? Could we then do away with these personnel?

    The question also arises have these personnel living up to the call of duty so far? And are there requisite checks and balances that worked all the while for countless aircraft operations across the globe? If so what is the reason to be panicky and create hysteria among the flying crew members to such an extent that very basis of their mutual trust lies shattered in pieces?

    So we do nothing?

    Absolutely we do, but smartly. Our options are well defined.

    First and foremost policy announcement by a company if someone comes forward and declare symptoms of depression, not go overboard in dealing with him. The very fact he has come forward means he trusted you. It’s your time now to do same.

    Keep the matter confidential and not disclose to one and all by anyone dealing with such employee. Failing to do so must attract penalty.

    Review HR policies to see if they are putting undue pressure on employees. If so immediately correct them. HR are many times rigid people and therefore involve outside experts and social scientists to review the policies.

    After above mentioned measures executed there is no guarantee that there will not be repetition of germanwings type incident. But there is no guarantee either if two pilots in cockpit rule implemented. Though such rule will surely have cascading effect among flight personnel whether in air or on ground.

    Do we want something like that?

    Instead of it being imposed as rule, the air carriers will do themselves lot of good if they were to issue advise not keeping security but safety angle on top. Like what if one of pilot suffering stroke etc. This way all pilots will happily come forward to cooperate not doubting their fellow flying officer’s integrity.

    And integrity is what really matters in this affair..

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