Germanwings Crash: More Questions Than Answers

ndreas Lubitz allegedly wanted to intentionally destroy the Airbus A320-200 aircraft operating as Germanwings flight 4U-9525 — which was carrying 144 passengers and six members of the flight crew from Barcelona to Dusseldorf but crashed in a mountainous area of southern France at approximately 11:20 in the morning two days ago, leaving no survivors — by purposely initiating a descent which lasted for eight minutes before the airplane crashed in the French Alps and disintegrated into hundreds of small pieces.

As the co-pilot of the flight, Lubitz — who was 28 years old — purposely locked the door to the cockpit shortly after the aircraft reached its cruising altitude of 38,000 feet and after the pilot left the cockpit, leaving Lubitz alone.

According to this article from the British Broadcasting Corporation — better known as BBC — there was “absolute silence in the cockpit” as the pilot fought to re-enter it.

Carsten Spohr — who is the chairman and chief executive officer of Lufthansa, which is the German carrier that owns Germanwings — reportedly said that Lubitz had undergone intensive training and “was 100% fit to fly without any caveats”; and that “We have no findings at all about what motivated the pilot to do this terrible deed.”

That is of little comfort to the family and friends of those passengers and members of the flight crew who perished in the Germanwings crash.

He added that the training of Lubitz had been interrupted briefly six years ago but was resumed after “the suitability of the candidate was re-established”.

What the heck is that supposed to mean? Did Lubitz have a substance abuse issue? Was there a problem with his behavior? Did he have a pre-existing condition? Were there situations which he encountered that were stressful? Could he possibly have been a member of a radical terrorist group? Had his medication changed, if he was required to take any? That nebulous statement could reveal if there was a problem or issue with Lubitz about which Germanwings and Lufthansa should have investigated further.

Information extracted from one of the voice recorders — also known as the “black box” — suggested that Lubitz was alone in the cockpit; that air traffic controllers repeatedly attempted unsuccessfully to establish contact with the pilots of the aircraft; that passengers could be heard screaming just before the crash occurred; and that Lubitz was alive until the final impact of the crash.

The other voice recorder still has yet to be found.

“The focus now moves from the mechanics to the man flying the plane”, said Richard Westcott, who is the transport correspondent for BBC. “An accident expert has told me the investigators will pore over the co-pilot’s background and that of his family too.”

It is a little late for that, isn’t it?

As a layperson when it comes to commercial aviation, I would like to initiate a discussion here. Perhaps I am wrong; but maybe the following changes need to be considered:

  • In addition to the rigorous training and intense refresher courses through which pilots are regularly required to undertake in order to remain a pilot; perhaps there needs to be an increase in periodic psychiatric evaluations and a review of the current situations of pilots which could potentially affect their performance while on duty — but that could open the door to invasion of privacy and impede upon their rights.
  • Cockpit personnel need to have a way to unlock a cockpit door from the outside — although that would not address a situation where a pilot is purposely attempting to keep a potentially rogue pilot out of the cockpit.
  • Assuming that the pilot left the aircraft before using the lavatory aboard the aircraft, it might have been done too soon after departure. Pilots need to do whatever they can to at least ensure that they stay in the cockpit as long as possible while ensuring they get as much rest as they can during the flight; and one of those measures could be using a toilet in the airport as close to departure time of the aircraft as possible.

 

An immense amount of trust is placed on airlines every day by their passengers, employees and stakeholders — and pilots are a key part. Even the perception of abuse or negligence of that trust could cause potential passengers to be hesitant to patronize an airline with their business.

We can say that pilots such as Andreas Lubitz are an unusual anomaly in aviation when you realize that this incident occurred after many thousands of successfully completed flights. Although an investigation is currently under way, we may never fully know what caused Lubitz to commit such a senseless, thoughtless and foolish act; but if he really wanted to commit suicide, he could have succeeded without involving 149 other innocent people who were completely unaware of the fate he supposedly had in store for them…

…so let us start the discussion. What measures — if any — do you think could be implemented to prevent unfortunate incidents similar to this one in the future? How could this incident affect the future of commercial aviation, if at all? Did Lubitz really want to destroy the airplane; or could that conclusion be erroneous? Is it possible that mechanical failure contributed to — or even caused — the crash itself?

There are so many questions which are still not definitively answered. In the meantime, my thoughts and prayers go out to the family and friends of the victims of this horrible tragedy. What are your thoughts?

The Airbus A319-132 in the photograph taken at Dublin Airport is operated by Germanwings, which is a low-cost carrier subsidiary of Lufthansa; and it was not the aircraft involved in the crash. Photograph ©2014 by Brian Cohen.

13 thoughts on “Germanwings Crash: More Questions Than Answers”

  1. Steve Case says:

    There is only one CVR on the aircraft and that has told us a lot. The CDR which measures dozens of flight parameters is still missing. When found, it will probably show that the autopilot was set to descend at a set vertical speed down.
    US airlines require the “a” position flight attendant to remain in the cockpit when either of the two pilots are out of the cockpit. This is done to prevent this type of disaster.
    When the captain left the cockpit, it was at the best time. The plane had leveled off at it’s cruising altitude set by the local ATC. The cruise phase of flight is the least critical compared with takeoff, climb, decent and landing.
    This is NOT the first airliner suicide, let’s hope that it is the last.

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      Let us hope indeed, Steve Case. Thank you.

  2. Jason says:

    Also, if I read correctly, there *is* a way for the pilot to enter the cockpit in an emergency, but there is also an override ‘lock’ position that the co-pilot switched.
    I could think of other scenarios where you would want the pilots to have this lock-out, so not really sure what other options there are other than require the FA to stand in as already mentioned occurs in the US.

  3. JEM says:

    I know you’re grasping for help in understanding this tragedy, but I really think we all ought to wait until more information is available before we speculate on how to prevent another one.

    Speculations of substance abuse, psychiatric problems, etc., from the strictly factual “training was interrupted briefly” and “suitability reestablished” is unwarranted. It may turn out that there were indicators. But it could easily be that there were other, non-relevant reasons. Even if he did have problems at 22, they don’t necessarily imply that the same problems exist six years later.

    As far as your suggestions: “more frequent” screenings may or may not help – do you know how frequent they are now?), but suicide is sometimes triggered suddenly – a break-up, death in the family, etc.

    Nearly any reasonable method of forcing entry into the cockpit would be vulnerable to misuse. Requiring two crew members in the cockpit at all times would seem to be a reasonable, precaution.

    The timing of the captain’s potty break is completely irrelevant. The plane was at cruising altitude. Waiting longer would not have changed anything but the place the plane crashed.

    People, being people, want to rush to speculate, discuss, predict. bewail, blame, etc. Airplane crashes are especially prone to this because we know how unable to control our own destiny we are while flying. But the same thing is true on a train, or a ship. It’s also true while we drive to the grocery store while relying on hundreds of other drivers to avoid killing us in a head-on-collision. But preventive actions, if they’re possible, need to be based on fact, not emotion. And facts take time to develop.

    Let’s get some facts first…

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      Although we may never know all of the facts, I completely agree, JEM

      …and we do need to remind ourselves that merely stepping into a car to drive somewhere places us at more risk for injury and possible death than being a passenger on a commercial airplane.

      I will never forget the morning when a drunk driver crashed into my car and spun it 360 degrees before it came to rest. My life flashed before my eyes that morning. In contrast, the worst I have ever experienced on an airplane is the pilot attempting a second landing successfully at Portland International Airport and emergency vehicles with lights flashing were present — hardly something about which to worry…

  4. LonK in the ATL says:

    Here is are some questions that maybe answerable…How many times before this flight did he attempt to do this?
    Was this the one and only time he was left alone and in control?
    How often did the other pilot get up to use the toilet on any of his prior flights?
    Its overwhelming to think this just came to him on this flight…or did it?

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      Those are very good questions, LonK in the ATL.

  5. Steve Case says:

    Brian, I wanted to add another dimension to my original comment. General fitness of commercial pilots needs to be a front burner issue. With all of the stresses in the cockpit, severe stresses outside the cockpit could take a pilot to the breaking point. I fly search and rescue with the Civil Air Patrol (USAF aux.) and before we check in for a flight, we go through the IMSAFE checklist: which I as myself, I am free of:
    Illness
    Medication.
    Stress
    Alcohol
    Fatigue
    Emotion
    If I am not up to flying, I won’t fly for the sake of the mission and my air crew.
    There needs to be a way during crew check-in that this screening happens. Pilots hate to admit that they are not fit for duty as they may feel negative action from their employer. This guy’s girlfriend could have left him the day before for all we know and that could be a contributing factor. It’s too early in the investigation to know at this time. Pulling a pilot out of service for fitness may be an issue down the road and possibly mental health screenings when their medical certificate needs to be renewed.

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      You have provided extremely insightful and valuable information, Steve Case. Thank you — I appreciate it.

  6. Steve Case says:

    So here it is. The world’s fastest air crash investigation which points to the IMSAFE model in my previous comment. The copilot had a doctor’s excuse to be off that day and he still flew. Without the missing FDR, we still know exactly what happened and more important, all of the pieces fit neatly together. Had LH had a policy of an f/a in the cockpit, I may not be writing this comment.
    NEWSFLASH
    • 9:23 a.m.: Lufthansa, together with other German airlines, has announced the immediate introduction of new rules for the cockpit. It will now be a requirement for there to be two authorized people in the cockpit at all times.

    This is a situation where BEST PRACTICES trumps EU flying regulations.

    But what about the underlying factors? How will airlines and regulators deal with mental illness detection? Let’s hope a lot of positive changes come from this disaster so it doesn’t happen again.

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      I could not agree with you more, Steve Case. Thank you so much for the updated information!

  7. Steve Case says:

    Here’s the headline – Airline acknowledges Lubitz mentioned depression. I am afraid Lufthansa will have to open up the doors to the bank vault. The Montreal Convention values fatalities under normal circumstances at $150,000.00. However, negligence completely changes the ball game. Lufthansa is now setting aside $300 million to settle claims. Here comes the onslaught of personal injury attorneys.

    I hope that some good comes out of this tragedy.
    First, pilots have to be honest with the answers to their medical question form that is part of the first class medical certificate as required by law. I can understand the reluctance of pilot to disclose potentially career ending physical and mental issues. Not only are they out of work but completely shut out of their passion for flying.
    Second, airlines have to be able to determine fitness early on. Unlike most occupations, truck drivers, bus drivers, ship captains, train operators and pilots are employed in SAFETY SENSITIVE positions which require more stringent medical standards. If you have a bad day at the office, OK, you haven’t killed anybody.
    Third, when safety standards fall short, BEST PRACTICES should be employed. US requirements for two in cockpit have been around since 9/11. Other aviation regulatory agencies have been slow to adopt because nothing BAD has happened on their soil until now. Clearly, best practices in Europe would to require tow in the flight deck at all times even if the European Aviation Safety Administration hadn’t laid down the law. Their motto is “your safety is our mission”.

    This was a tragedy that could have been prevented by connecting the dots of mental illness and employing best practices. Let’s hope that positive regulatory changes comes from this event.

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      As always, thank you so much for the follow-up information, Steve Case — I truly appreciate it; and hopefully, so do other readers of The Gate.

      In addition to the acknowledgement of Lufthansa, there is reportedly audio of the pilot pleading with Lubitz to open the door to the cockpit; and there is also supposedly video from inside of the airplane moments before it crashed…

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