I Have So Many Questions About the Germanwings Crash

It’s such a heartbreaking story and it leaves me with many questions. The announcement that officials believe the co-pilot deliberately crashed the plane is sobering and opens up more questions.

 

I don’t profess to be an expert on anything below. I’m posing these questions and week start looking for answers. But, in certain ways, this has cast a deeper pit in my stomach than the MH 370 disappearance.

Here are my questions and rambling thoughts. I hope you’ll join the discussion of you have your own questions or thoughts.  All I ask is that you keep your comments constructive.

1.  Why did a member of the flight crew leave the cockpit?  It was initially reported as the co-pilot and now seems to be reported as the captain who left the cockpit.

2.  Is it safe for airlines to allow only one person in the cockpit?  At first blush, it appears the airline has the authority in Europe to decide whether two members of the flight crew need to be in the cockpit at all times.  It’s standard operating procedure in the US to always have two people in the cockpit (not immediately clear to me if it’s an FAA regulation).

3.  Are cockpit doors designed incorrectly?  Cockpit doors were redesigned after 9/11 to prevent unauthorized access. They were reinforced to keep someone from breaking it down.  There are specific reports that the security features Airbus offers on their doors is the ability for the occupant of the cockpit to override the keypad for a few minutes, potentially  to allow a pilot time to land the plane or otherwise figure out how to deal with an unauthorized person trying to access the cockpit.  It seems these precautions may have contributed to the co-pilot being able to deliberately crash the plane without intervention.

4.  Should pilots be subject to mental health evaluations?  Should they be allowed to carry guns on board?  These are questions that have come up in the past without a consensus.

5. What else could have been done to prevent this type of tragedy?

I recall when Malaysia Airlines flight 370 went missing and there was an outcry for change that would allow for constant tracking of planes. There was strong, sensible push-back against radical change. Ultimately, there was no short-term knee-jerk reaction.

Flight 9525 should spur a discussion.  But, it should be evolution, not revolution.  I’m sure someone contemplated a situation like 9525 when decisions were made to collectively reinforce the doors and increase access control. It seems the fear of an attack similar to 9/11 outweighed the fear of a rogue pilot.

But, pilots are human.  Things like this can happen. More benign things can happen as well, such as a single occupant losing consciousness in the cockpit and the door jamming (both of these have happened independently of each other).

This incident is a chilling one for me. Every airline crash is, but this one has left me with more questions than answers.

What are your questions?

 

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18 Comments

  1. Everyone has jumped to the conclusion that it was intentional. Could the co-pilot have died? Sudden cardiac arrest, just dropped dead and fell on the controls? I am a novice so this may not be plausible based on actions taken to implement the landing sequence. Maybe the main pilot killed the other pilot then left the cockpit? Was there anyone else in the cockpit?

    1. Nothing conclusive, but they did say they heard breathing until the plane crashed, drawing the conclusion someone was alive at the controls.

    2. Kevin, the Airbus uses a side stick controller, (basically a joystick located to the pilot’s side) so if he had some kind of health issue it would be his hand twitching would would result in far more extreme control inputs than were seen.

  2. Why in this day and age when cockpit doors are reinforced any airline or regulatory body would not have a law requiring 2 people to be in the cockpit at all times is mind numbingly stupid and utterly irresponsible and indefensible. To answer your second question on whether is safe for only one person to be inside, we clearly have an answer after this tragedy. Unfortunately 150 people had to die a horrible death to answer that question.

    1. FTG, I was surprised to hear 2 ppl in the cockpit wasn’t SOP. I could see where maybe a policy like that gets ignored from time to time, but it just seems like a smart idea.

      1. Like I said, it’s so mindnumbingly stupid that it didn’t even enter my mind this was even possible or was going on since I see it all the time on domestic flights. Pilots go to such great lengths for redundant security such as not sharing meals to avoid dual food poisoning that I can’t just wrap my head around an airline allowing one person to be by themselves inside the cockpit. The scary part is that someone I’m sure considered this possibility when writing SOPs and they decided it just wasn’t important enough and this is the result.

  3. TWO in the cockpit IS standard operating procedure. Someone else is supposed to stand in the cockpit while the pilot goes out.

    It appears they did not follow procedure.

    1. Joseph, with the obvious caveat that everything we read on the Internet isn’t true, I read a couple articles that say it’s not required by law in Europe. Could be that Germanwings required it anyway?

      1. I phrased that poorly. By “they” I meant the eu regulators. I did not mean the captain on this plane, or the airline, were screwing up.

        True, the EU-wide rules do not require the Airbus (let’s call it a) suggestion that the new breakdown-proof, lockoutable cockpit doors be combined with a 2nd employee standing in the cockpit.

        The US carriers do follow the rule that if the cockpit can be locked, two people have to be inside at all times.

  4. ANSWERS:
    1 – he had to pee. Many people on aircraft do this every day.
    2 – NO
    3 – yes
    4 – yes and no. US pilots have to maintain a current first class physical.
    5 – US airlines are required to have a f/a in the cockpit when a pilot is out of the cockpit. There are no European regs to require this but it shouldn’t take a law to require common sense in the cockpit.
    THIS IS NOT THE FIRST COMMERCIAL AIRLINER SUICIDE. IT SHOULD BE THE LAST.

  5. So many unanswered questions. Was it planned? If so how could the first officer know in advance the captain would even leave the cock pit? Or did he just decide at that moment to take his life and 148 others with him. Its also odd that the captain took a restroom break on such a short flight. I have been on many transcon flights in first class where the captain never left the cock pit for a four hour flight. Yes it is SOP in US after 911 that if the captain or first officer leaves the cockpit a member of the crew must take their place. I am sure we have not heard the last of this.

  6. Here’s my thoughts on your questions:
    1. Doesn’t matter but my guess is to use the lav
    2. The answer is going to have a large number of variables to include: size of the aircraft/crew, current situation in the cockpit and cabin. For example many RJs have only 1 FA, should they really go into the cockpit and leave the cabin unattended if the pilot goes to the lav?
    3. Possibly, but leaving any kind of backdoor creates a possible entry in the future.
    4. Yes, pilots should have mental health evaluations, indeed it is a factor when obtaining the FAA medical cert however it’s not an in depth evaluation.

    1. omatravel,

      2. No question a large number of variables. There’s certainly no one size fits all answer. The RJ example is a good one.
      3. I wish I knew a perfect answer to this. It’s certainly something I’m going to ponder.
      4. I agree here, and do think it should be somewhat in-depth. That might seem overreaching in some, but doctors have to be tested for diseases before they’re allowed to operate in certain circumstances. Having the fate of hundreds of lives in your hands would seem to be in the same relevance.

  7. This risk will exist as long as human pilots exist. We seem close to having driverless cars, how far away are we from having driverless planes?

    1. Pat, I think far away. Even though we’ll likely have driverless cars soon, I think we’re far away from a highway of driverless cars. I would expect computer-driven planes would be beyond that. 2 people in the cockpit really does feel like the most prudent short-term way to reduce the likelihood of this.

  8. 1) Exactly as others have mentioned, the captain went out for a pee or coffee. You see it so often on the European planes. Its par for their course. You never see a barricade or anything like that on their flights. They just aren’t concerned with a rush on the door at the moment the door is opened.

    2) It generally is safe for only one person to be in the cockpit. The issue really comes down to the chances that something bad could happen. In the pilot suicide situation, does two in the cockpit really make any difference. if you look at Egypt Air two in the cockpit didn’t matter once the pilot put the nose down. You end up with conflicting inputs and most likely the plane continues on the first input and ignores the second input. It is a tough call, but in reality two doesn’t do much in terms of cockpit safety. It does however help in situations where you are worried about someone breaching the cockpit. You have a second person there who can fight back, while the other flies the plane.
    3) This is the one where we have to sit back and think. (revert back to question 2). All aircraft with the reinforced doors have the lockout button on them. The purpose of the lockout is to prevent a terrorist from threatening a crew member into entering the code to enter and breaching the cockpit. They wanted to make sure there was a way to make this work. What happens is that the code is entered and the pilots have to hit either admit, deny, or lock in response to the code being entered. You have to have this feature if you want a secure door that actually prevents entry.
    4) absolutely they should have mental health evals at the same rate that they have medicals. Should they be armed. That is an open debate, but in this case it wouldn’t have mattered.
    5) What could have prevented this — unfortunately I am not sure of anything that could have prevented this from occurring.
    Two in the cockpit would have possibly given a chance for the captain to reenter the cockpit and attempt to take back the aircraft. However, once it started, I am not sure pounding on the FO would do anything assuming that the FA’s kept trying to pull the guy out. Its a tight space without a lot of room to fight in.
    You could ban the pilots from leaving the cockpit. However, people need to pee and such. I guess you could put a bathroom in the cockpit.

  9. 1. The captain had to pee.

    2. Yes, it’s safe. You can count the number of pilot suicides involving commercial aircraft on one hand. It’s much lower than the number of hijackings/terrorist attacks, which in turn is much lower than the number of fatal pilot errors, which is itself lower than the number of fatal mechanical/maintenance issues. This is only news because it’s the exception.

    3. Meh. Hard to say. The reinforced cockpit doors were themselves a reaction to a problem which didn’t really exist. I have yet to be convinced they’ve actually saved any lives. Would non-reinforced doors have made a difference here? Maybe, maybe not. I guess the co-pilot would have had to put the plane into a nosedive instead of calmly setting the autopilot to ground altitude, but the outcome would have been the same.

    4. Probably, but so should doctors, police officers, firemen, soldiers, politicians, etc. Again, not sure it would make a difference since this guy didn’t have a glaring psychiatric history. The SilkAir crash happened because the captain had lost a fortune in a stock market crash. Anyone is susceptible to situational crises whether they have a mental health history or not.

    5. Ultimately, there’s probably not much we can do. Shit just happens sometimes. I’m sure the consultants and officials will spend lots of time and money on this issue and come up with various “solutions”, but it probably won’t make things significantly safer. It’ll be theatre, much like airport security. The most dangerous part of flying will continue to be the trip to the airport. Remember, your odds of winning the lottery are lower than your odds of dying on the way to buy the ticket.

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