All the Wrong Answers to the GermanWings 9525 Questions


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All the Wrong Answers to the GermanWings 9525 Crash Questions

As is always the case after an airline disaster, the media and shortly thereafter, regulators rush to propose a quick but ill-advised “fix.”

In this case, the proposed quick fix falls into one of two useless but unavoidable categories: technology and regulation.

In the first case, technology, the spectrum of bad ideas runs from remote control to cockpit access override. That reminds me of earlier, fun days flying a supersonic jet that began to accumulate pilot fatalities in low speed, low altitude ejections. The engineering fix was to install a drogue chute that deployed upon ejection to hasten the main parachute deployment. That worked fine until the first high speed, high altitude ejection when the drogue chute deployed at Mach 1 and the G forces cut the pilot in half.

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Back to today, talk in this airline tragedy is of an even more bizarre solution: remote control “intervention:” taking over the aircraft flight controls from the ground. Beyond the fact that I as a thirty year airline pilot will not set foot in a cockpit that can be commandeered by remote control, consider the added layer of vulnerability: beyond two pilots who “could go rogue,” you’ve now introduced an entire spectrum of people, entities and hackers capable of taking over the jet. Better? Really?

Yes, some type of cockpit access intervention “might” have worked to restore this one pilot to his rightful place, while opening every cockpit henceforth to an outside “intervener” which defeats the necessary cockpit exclusion no one disputes is necessary: if one can, eventually all can. Better?

Then there’s the regulatory crowd, for whom the semi-annual FAA pilot physical, recurring spot checks, blood and urine alcohol and drug testing is not sufficient to validate a pilot’s fitness to fly. What’s next, a psych exam before brake release? A background check beyond the extensive background checks we all have already? A credit report before each instrument report?

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Here’s the real problem: there are no quick solutions. Yet that’s what the public “demands”–for now, but only for now. The fact is, in Texas alone there have been 257 traffic deaths so far this year, yet no one’s calling for a twenty mile an hour speed limit or any other radical but certain solution. Yet the “1 in 11,000,000 chance” (Harvard 2006) of dying in a plane crash brings a public outcry for an immediate technological or regulatory intervention.

I watched Air Force One arrive once, the president bounding down the stairs and greeting the crowd as law enforcement snipers on rooftops looked on. No “remote control triggers,” no on-scene sharpshooter credit checks. Rather, the thinnest final line ever drawn: trust.

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In the end, that’s what it comes down to anyway: trust in your flight crew. There’s no simple solution to the rare and tragic occurrence that just transpired over the French Alps. But there is real danger in half-baked solutions that just add more layers of vulnerability to what is already 11 million to 1 odds in an airline passenger’s favor.

Despite the media frenzy driving an out of scale public reaction, no “solution” is better than a hasty, ill-conceived technological or regulatory bandaid that increases the very danger that started the panic in the first place.

If you don’t trust me in the cockpit, fine: trust yourself on the road. Your odds there are astronomically worse, if that matters to you, but at least the flying public will remain safe.

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26 Responses to “All the Wrong Answers to the GermanWings 9525 Questions”

  1. Randy Sohn Says:

    A head shakin’ mode here and “you took the words right out’a my mouth!”

  2. Hasty decisions got us DHS and TSA. We should never make hasty decisions.

  3. Bill Brandt Says:

    Only thing I was wondering – isn’t it true that for USA carriers the FAA has mandated 2 people in the cockpit at all times? Meaning with no flight engineer anymore, a flight attendant will step in while the captain or FO steps out?

    You are correct in that every accident that comes along people try to add another layer of asinine regulations.

    I think though that the 2 person rule in a cockpit is simple and sound.

    You guys have to have rigid flight physicals what, every 6 months?

    Still there have been a small handful of medical emergencies that has incapacitated the captain or FO.

    Add to that a perfect storm where one is out of the cockpit…

    I am with you on adding more piles of legislative and technological “crap” because of an isolated incident but the 2 person/cockpit rule – particularly with locked doors accessible only inside – seems good.

    Would it have prevented this?

    Don’t know.

    A nut is a nut.

    • I’m not sure what the FAA reg is, or whether it differs between -135 and -121; I only know my airline’s policy.

      You’re right–a nut is a nut. And I believe the cure shouldn’t be worse than the disease, but one-size-fits-all legislation or regulation seems often to overlook that.

  4. Forgive my layperson’s opinion, but until we identify the problem, how can we talk about any fix? If there’s a red flag in this co-pilot’s history that was overlooked by the airline, or if some other due diligence check would’ve *possibly* ID’d this guy, or if there’s a genuine neglect of flight and cabin crew mental health in the industry….then maybe the fix is identifiable.

    One measure that the German airlines apparently have already agreed to is at least 2 crew members in the cockpit at all time. It seems like a logical but knee jerk fix, like the TSA and shoes & belts. Is the overall reduction in cockpit crew due to technology, salary costs, or both? Will this 3rd person’s role be entirely as a safeguard against what happened here?

  5. Good one, Chris. This is unfortunate in the extreme, but it is what it is. SO rare.
    I just read an article about the prevalence of cancer. It said that we are living longer, and because of that, something is eventually going to get you. If not one thing, then another. Similar here. You can only remove so much of the “human” factor.

  6. Timely post. Glad to see some good sense.
    Too much frantic rushing around to “fix” things and secure “safety”
    Remote control is really scary and not sure I’d trust that at all.
    There are risks in life – and always crazy/unpredictable people. It is what is is. Everyone needs to stop and take a few deep breaths and calm down.

  7. Chris,
    very well written article that came at the right time. It’s good you pointed out on those ridiculous suggestions to the aviation industry which are now appearing from everywhere.

    At Lufthansa group airlines there is no ops requiring another member of the (cabin) crew to enter the cockpit if one of the pilots leaves the cockpit.

    Given the fact that the FO locked out the captain out of the cockpit, the two-person cockpit rule as a mandatory procedure for airlines sounds like a reasonable precaution agains such a rare occurrence.

    Libor
    Air Smolik

  8. Chris, truly some words of wisdom. I think the two person rule makes the most sense, it is easy and common sense.

  9. peggywillenberg Says:

    The hysteria level on this one has already broken the meter. Thanks for a level-headed response. Unfortunately, all tragedies are not avoidable.

  10. I’m surprised that no-one’s suggested that the flight crew shouldn’t need to leave “the cockpit” (I’m not)

    Given all the other stupid suggestions that fly about… “Make airlines extend the cockpit back, put in a toilet and a bombproof meal slot. Oh, and put a Sky Marshall in there too.”
    Maybe it’ll come up on Fox.

  11. Frank Ch. Eigler Says:

    A passenger’s decision does come down to trust in strangers – in the airline, airplane, etc. When that trust is violated (as it was in this case), one needs to get it back by concrete measures, not simply by repeating “trust *us*”.

  12. Michael A. Says:

    The two persons in the cockpit rule is sound policy, and perhaps it would’ve been the difference in this accident. That being said there is only so much one can do. Take a look at FedEx 705. A deadhead pilot almost took out a three person crew and crashed the aircraft. Regulations and technology can only do so much.

    In the end it comes down to trusting the pilots. I have full trust when I get on a plane that the two pilots are well trained professionals who want to get from point a to point b as safely as possible. There are millions of pilots around the globe who do this everyday. One individual out of millions shouldn’t change our view of that.

    Quick question for Chris-

    We have seen some incidents where one of the pilots is incapacitated due to a medical emergency. If you are put in this position how much would you use the flight attendant to help you land the plane? I assume you would have him/her read the checklists, but would you allow him/her manipulate items such as landing gear and flaps?

    • I don’t really have a hypothetical answer to your hypothetical question. Sorry.

      • Michael A. Says:

        My first choice would be if I had another pilot on board who wasn’t on duty, even if he was certified on a different type I would have him come up. If I was limited to a flight attendant I would definitely have her read the checklist and run through approach briefing. Force myself to stay in as normal a routine as possible. Then just let my training takeover.

      • You’d “have her read the checklist?” How much TV do you watch?

  13. I put my trust in the airline I use for travel. I cannot put the trust solely on the pilots because I really don’t know them as individuals. Pilots are humans too. I was NEVER a fan of making the cockpit 100% secured from the outside world. Since 9/11 planes have continued to be hijacked and crashed around the world (pilots going rogue) So good for those steel cockpit doors. However, I understand after 9/11 there was a sense of urgency from the media and public to find a fix.

    Thanks for your great post. Everyone was tuning to CNN,Fox News, and MSNBC. I waited patiently for the best to summarize the situation, Chris Manno!!

    P.S. Every time I get off the plane and the pilots are standing by the exit door, I always walk by and say “Thank You”. Thank you for your professionalism and your dedication to your career.

  14. Edward Doyle Says:

    Excellent read and right on the money!

  15. My father brought up why can’t they put a small bathroom attached to the cockpit- the pilots never leave .

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