As a pilot I am obsessive about major airline accidents, and the tragedy of Germanwings 9525 is particularly awful. I looked far and wide for as much information as I could get, and I read a bit of French, so I checked out the coverage in le Monde, the Paris newspaper.
I was surprised to read that the co-pilot had an American pilot’s license. I looked further and found him listed in FAA records as Andreas Guenter Lubitz, a “Private pilot (foreign based),” with single-engine airplane and glider certificates, plus a third-class U.S. medical certificate that expires in June.
It is not unusual for foreign pilots to have American licenses, as many come to Florida or Arizona for training, which is much less expensive than elsewhere in the world, and Lufthansa has a training base in Arizona. But this bit of information gives the dreadful accident a link to the American aviation world.
Looking back on the last year of airline accidents, it’s hard for a pilot like me to decide which is worse: confronting the utter disappearance of a jumbo jet like Malaysia Airlines’ Boeing 777 or knowing that a pilot – with an American license no less – deliberately flew an Airbus 320 at 400-plus knots into a French mountain.
If the recovered voice recording is accurate, the captain of Germanwings Flight 9525 left the cockpit briefly, most likely for a bathroom break, during the most stable regime of flight – cruise at altitude – but was locked out by his co-pilot when he tried to return.
The recording has his knocks on the door, then his increasing efforts to get in, all to no avail. The final moments of the recording capture muffled screams from the passengers along with the captain’s frantic efforts to enter. The recording would have an abrupt end, given the force of the impact. Investigators said the co-pilot’s steady breathing was audible until the end.
A caveat is that no cause will be certain until the investigation by the BEA, the French version of the American NTSB, is complete. But given the whole set of circumstances, the scenario is completely plausible.
In the aftermath of 9/11, airlines around the world followed quickly adopted American regulations and installed lockable, sturdy cockpit doors. On existing aircraft, they were retro-fitted during maintenance stops. On new aircraft, they are an integral part of the design and manufacture.
All U.S. carriers and foreign airlines operating into the United States had to follow the rules, intended to protect the flight crew no matter what was happening in the cabin. There have been no cockpit breaches or hijackings since. And despite the doors, I am sure that any would-be attacker on a plane would be torn to bits by other passengers.
A good question in the aftermath of this disaster is to ask why the airline permitted one pilot to be alone in the cockpit. A huge amount of trust is placed on commercial pilots, and rightfully so, but this case raises the issue of whether a pilot should ever be alone in the locked cockpit.
On U.S. carriers, that will not happen. Virtually all domestic flights have a two-person flight crew, and when one leaves the cockpit, regulations require a flight attendant to step in for those few minutes. It actually does not happen often; I made 32 commercial flights last year and never saw a crew member leave the cockpit during flight. The ICAO rules, followed in Europe, do not require another person to be in the cockpit.
Long-distance flights are another matter. In general, the rules call for a two-person flight crew for a trip of up to eight hours. For flights of eight to 12 hours a third crew member is required, and for those longer than 12 (I once took a 16-hour flight), a fourth person qualified to fly the plane must be aboard. The rules for active work and rest time are clear, and never is a lone pilot in the cockpit.
These rules, of course, are based in safety and security. No one wants a drowsy pilot at the controls when approaching to land at the end of a flight from Hong Kong. And no one wants a suicidal hijacker to gain access to the controls.
The Germanwings accident (like EgyptAir 990 in October 1999) turns this thinking on its head, because the culprit is already in the cockpit. One European airline, Norwegian, already has changed its rules to require two people in the cockpit at all times. Now it is clear that all airlines should follow suit.
Bob Kochersberger, a private pilot, teaches journalism at N.C. State.