March 27, 2015

The  horror of the Germanwings suicide-mass murder hits me with particular force because  I went through a similar nightmare myself, and because I know very well the exact Alpine area where the doomed airliner crashed.   

The passengers aboard the ill-fated German A320 aircraft must have had 3-5 minutes warning that something was terrible wrong.  The aircraft’s captain was locked out of the cockpit and trying to break down its armored door.  The aircraft was going into a dive.

As a constant flier since the age of six, to me their plight is one of the worst nightmares associated with flying.  I know the sense of utter helplessness and terror they felt.

In 1993, two friends and I were on a Lufthansa A310 flight from Frankfurt to Cairo.  A lone Ethiopian smuggled a pistol aboard and got into the cockpit by threatening to begin killing the flight crew.  Once inside, he held the pistol to the pilot’s head and ordered him to fly to New York City.  We stopped for fuel at Hanover, then headed over the North Atlantic.

By some quirk, we could overhear on the entertainment system the hijacker talking to the FBI in New York.  Endless hours went by as many of  the passengers screamed, prayed and cried.   My friends and I wanted to jump the hijacker and kill him but he would not come out of the cockpit. 

As we neared New York, we heard the hijacker threaten to crash our plane into Wall Street unless he was pardoned and given US residency – his goal in this mad enterprise.   The danger posed to high rise buildings by large aircraft did not emerge again until 9/11 2001

We felt utter helplessness and horror until we landed in New York and the FBI stormed the plane.  I broadcasted for 24 hours straight, then got an Egyptair flight to Cairo.  

It seems clear that the Germanwings second pilot was determined to kill himself and 149 innocent passengers. I’ve been a voice in the wilderness for decades calling on airlines to keep a third pilot or flight engineer in the cockpit.  I’m usually bombarded by airline pros claiming automation has eliminated the need for a third crew member.  

They are quite right – until something goes terribly wrong. That’s when you need a third pilot.  I’d be happy to pay a little more for this extra safety.

This week’s crash in France reminds us that pilot-suicide is not all that uncommon.   In 1997,  a SilkAir pilot dove his plane into the sea off Singapore.  He was suffering severe financial problems and had heavy death insurance.  

In 1999, an Egyptair flight from Los Angeles to Cairo dove into the Atlantic, killing 217.  US authorities ruled it was suicide-mass murder; Egypt continues to blame the Boeing 767 aircraft, a very safe plane.   Pilots in Mozambique and Morocco also crashed their aircraft in 2013 and 1994.

By coincidence, I happen to know the mountain slopes where the Germanwings flight crashed at 700kph and shattered into fragments.   The accident site lies very close to the Col (pass) de Restefond, one of the highest points on the southern arm of the Maginot Line fortress system.  The quaint town of Barcelonette, settled in the 19th century by French returning from Mexico –  is not far off.  I have walked much of this region.

This is the heart of France’s wild, vertiginous Maritime Alps that rise to over 2,800 meters along the border with Italy and are snow-bound for almost half the year.  The region is so remote and forbidding that most French have never visited it.  Helicopters are necessary to reach the crash scene.

It’s likely German and French investigators will discover some skeletons in the suicide pilot’s private life: drugs, romantic heartbreak, money issues.  Such were the causes in previous suicidal air crashes.

I also grieve for Lufthansa, one of the world’s top airlines with great devotion to safety and punctuality.  I’d fly Lufthansa tomorrow.  I am not so sure about some of Europe’s national carriers.  Inevitably, critics will claim the Germanwings crash had something to do with it being a budget carrier.  I don’t like them at all, but this awful disaster was  a random act of madness that could have been forestalled by a third pilot.



copyright  Eric S. Margolis 2015













This post is in: Germany

3 Responses to “TERROR IN THE SKY”

  1. Several items have come to light regarding the co-pilot since your article:
    The co-pilot suffered from depression and had taken time off for treatment.
    The co-pilot had suicidal tendancies shortly before the crash; he apparently had a medical certificate to take the day of the crash off. The actions appear to be completely premeditated.
    Lufthansa was aware of his illness and appears not to have provided this information to Germanwings.
    The co-pilot researched suicide on the internet shortly before the crash.
    The co-pilot researched security doors to the flight deck shortly before the crash.
    The ‘black box’ indicates that he adjusted the autopilot for the plane to accelerate into the mountain.
    His ex-girlfriend stated that they separated because of his personal problems and that he had noted that ‘he would be remembered’. This was several months before the crash.
    From all appearances, he did not appear to exhibit any signs of his problems.
    The problem becomes the manner in which this will be ‘fixed’ in future.
    Should the doctors notify his employer and breech the physician-patient confidence? How about other people with depression? Should doctors notify all motor vehicle branches if this happens? If suffering from depression, would you seek a doctor if it meant that your driving license could be cancelled? To what extent is depression harmful to society?
    How do you alleviate the problems/stigma associated with mental illness?
    Should airlines or any other ‘mass transit’ organisations have a procedure for ‘early retirement’ with dignity? If a person were to become mentally ill should they be cast aside and out of work? How do you effectively ‘cure’ these problems? The employer should help solve these problems, not make them worse, or at least be part of the cure. There are so many social aspects to this, and, these will not likely be addressed. The cost of solving these will be a fraction of Lufthansa legal costs.
    A third person may solve some problems, but, what if the suicidal one is ‘bigger’ and ‘stronger’. Is the third person a 98 pound flight attendant? What is the suicidal one is armed? It would be relatively easy for a member of the flight crew to conceal a weapon.
    Should the ATC have the ability to take control of the plane? Remote control systems can achieve that, but, the pilot is no longer the ‘first officer’.
    Should there be a means of overriding the security lock? I was surprised the door held as well as it did.
    The initial reaction, seems to be pretty mild, but may not address the issue. How do you stop someone with suicidal tendancies from intentionally killing him/herself as well as other innocents?


  2. solum temptare possumus says:

    Some reports after this disaster have suggested that a Flight Crew member be in the cockpit, if the Pilot or Co-pilot leaves for ablutions.
    A deranged pilot could overpower a female flight attendant, who was called to be in the cockpit temporarily, to fulfill the mandate of a new law.
    I would rather have an airline security guard in the cockpit. a safe place for the security person to be in case of a multitude of scenarios.
    Ad iudicium

  3. This tragedy hits close to home as a friend of mine is a retired airline pilot and we often went flying together.He too is of the opinion that the flight engineer was deemed redundant because of technology.The A320 is one of the most sophisticated airliners in the skies now with an impeccable safety record.The software incorporated into the flight management system allows certain parameters of flight, that the plane must not exceed,to avoid possible structural damage.The co-pilot knew exactly what he was doing as he had to get the other pilot out of the picture completely…as the rate of decent was well within the flight parameters.Unlike the Silk Air B-737,the captain locked out his first officer and pushed the control column forward and to the right,with full power,putting the aircraft into a downward spiral dive that went very quickly.This same scenario cannot be done with the Airbus.If the computer detected any abnormality,it would “take” control of the aircraft,from the pilot flying and and make automatic adjustments to keep the plane in it’s pre-programmed parameters.That is precisely why the rate of decent of the Germanwing A320 took approximately 8 minutes from cruising altitude of 38,000 ft. to 5,000 ft.before impact.The co-pilot was diagnosed years earlier with burnout and subsequent severe depression.Lufthansa,knowing this cleared him as fit to continue training after a year of seeing a psychiatrist.Huh? What gives here….he should NEVER have been offered a job as a pilot.Period.Now so many lives have been shattered and Lufthansa will have to pay out millions and millions for their stupidity in hiring a known mentally ill person.In America,moderately depressed pilots are now allowed to fly,but there are only 4 approved antidepressants that they are allowed to take.Again,huh? As for changing the rules that two people must always occupy the cockpit if one pilot needs to leave for whatever reason isn’t going to prevent another tragedy like this.What chance does a female flight attendant have when left with a man who can in just about all cases,overpower her.Just reprogram the locking system so that when a pilot needs to use the bathroom or whatever,that he cannot be locked out by the pilot inside.These changes were made after 9/11.But it seems to me that rogue pilots are becoming more of a threat than any hijacker!What a world we live in.

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