On many of my flights, I have watched the pilot come out of the cockpit to use the lavatory. On some airlines, as he or she has emerged, a member of the cabin crew has replaced him. On others, the pilot or co pilot has left their colleague alone in charge of the plane. The U.S.A had rules before last Tuesday’s Germanwings crash requiring airlines to have two crew members present at all times during the flight. Many other countries allowed airlines to set their own policies.
And this has always bothered me. I have always considered my fears irrational but in the back of mind comes a nagging thought: what happens if something went wrong and the pilot cannot get back in. I have always dismissed that thought as being paranoid. Until this week.
The story of Germanwings 9525, pieced together by prosecutors, is that while the pilot Captain Patrick Sondheimer went to the lavatory, his co-pilot Andreas Lubitz deliberately set the plane on a course of destruction. In 11 minutes the plane went from a cruising altitude of 38,000 feet to hitting a French mountain. In the whole time of the descent, Lubitz’s breathing can be heard interspersed with the audible height warnings, his pilot’s shouting through the door and in the last five minutes, the screams of the passengers.
It feels the ultimate betrayal that reportedly, the person entrusted with the care of 149 other lives chose to end them as a consequence of the bleak depression that was enfolding him. German media are stating, that as a result of failing eyesight, an unstable emotional state and a break up with his girlfriend, Andreas Lubitz was not in an emotional state to fly the Germanwings Airbus 320. A condition he had been hiding from his family, his girlfriends and his employer.
There were two things that could have stopped this disaster:
- If a second person had been in the cockpit with him at all times and/or
- if someone had sounded the alarm about Lubitz’s mental health earlier
As the plane headed toward down toward its crash point, and Captain Sondheimer fruitlessly attacked the door with a fire axe in a desperate attempt to get inside, those in the first rows of the plane would have been hoping and wishing he could have got inside. But the reinforced cockpit door with its advanced entry code system was no longer keeping the passengers safe. Even if there had been cameras filming inside the cockpit, which some aviation authorities have wanted, nothing would have changed. The outcome of this makes a mockery of the weapons checks pilots have to go through every time they fly. Lubitz had the ultimate weapon, a 40 tonne aircraft with half of its fuel still in the tanks.
For me, the best result of this disaster is that now, universally airlines are announcing they will be ensuring there are always at least two crew members in the cockpit. Norwegian, Air Berlin, Lufthansa, EasyJet, Virgin Atlantic, Emirates, Icelandair and Air Canada have all announced this change.
The European Aviation Safety Agency has urged all airlines to do the same. New Zealand and Canada have also brought in the two cabin crew rule for airlines registered in those countries. Australia is doing the same. I will feel safer. If this has been in place, it may have changed the outcome of that day.
The second step to take is to better ensure pilots can take the time they need when they are in some sort of distress. If Lubitz had been helped, 150 people may still be alive. The number of times a pilot has deliberately crashed their plane is so small but we need to make sure they are screened adequately to put our paranoias at rest once and for all.
May all Rest In Peace.