Monday, 30 March 2015

The failure in the cockpit of Flight 9525                

There were several problems that occurred prior to the Germanwing (part of the Lufthansa Group) flight from Barcelona to the mountains of the French Alps. But first, I will give you the timeline of the events that took place in the plane before it crashed.         

The flight took off 20 minutes late, and Capt. Patrick Sondenheimer apologized for the delay and said he would try and make up for it in the air. It would normally take ninety minutes flying time for them to arrive in Dusseldorf, Germany.

Even before takeoff, the captain told co-pilot Andreas Lubitz that he hadn't been able to go to the bathroom in Barcelona. Lubitz told him he could go anytime as he now had the control of the plane.

The captain then asked his co-pilot to prepare for the landing in their destination in Germany.

The plane meanwhile had reached its cruising altitude of 38,000 feet at 10:27 a.m. local time.

After the flight changes were made in the controls, Lubitz repeated to the captain, "You can go now." There was the sound of a seat moving backward. After that, the captain was heard saying to his co-pilot, "You can take over."

At 10:29 a.m., air traffic radar detected that the plane was beginning to descend. They trues to contact the plane but got no answer.

 At 10:32 a.m., air traffic controllers tried to contact the plane again but they still received no answer. Almost at the same time, an alarm went off in the cockpit saying “sink rate” which means that the plane heading dangerously downward in a steep descent.

Shortly after that, there was a loud bang on the door. The pilot could be heard screaming, "For God's sake, open the door!" Passengers could be faintly heard screaming because they could see the mountains looming towards them.

At 10:35 a.m., loud metallic bangs could be heard as though someone was trying to knock down the door. The plane is at about 23,000 feet.

Ninety seconds later, another alarm went off: “Terrain—pull up!” The plane was at about 16,400 feet at that point in time.  The captain was heard screaming, “Open the damn door!”

At 10:38 a.m., the plane continued to descend toward the French Alps, and the co-pilot could be heard what appeared as normal breathing. The plane was then at about 13,100 feet.

At 10:40 a.m., it sounded like the plane's right wing scraped a mountaintop, and then the screams could be heard no more. Those were the last sounds on the voice recorder.

Why did the co-pilot crash the plane into the Alps?                              

To begin with, he was mentally disturbed and had been for some considerable time. While investigators did not specify what illness Lubitz suffered from, German media reports said that he needed ongoing assessments for severe depression. Documents with medical contents were confiscated that points towards him having existing illness and corresponding treatment by doctors. The fact there are sick notes saying he was unable to work, among other things, that were found torn up in his home which were recent and even on the day of the crime, supports the assumption based on the preliminary examination that Lubiz hid his illness from his employer and his professional colleagues.                                                  

Authorities did not find a suicide note or a confession or any evidence that the co-pilot’s actions may have been motivated by political or religious goals. In fact, he was rather quiet and showed no overt signs of his intentions, people who knew him. Shortly before the crash, Lubitz had engaged in "very smooth, very cool" conversation with the pilot, authorities said, citing audio recordings of the cockpit. 

According to acquaintances in Germany, Lubitz gave off a good feeling" when he recently renewed his glider pilot's licence in the town of Montabaur, where he was a member of a flight club. 

Peter Ruecker, a member of the glider club who watched him learn to fly said, He was happy he had the job with Germanwings, and he was doing well.” Ruecker also said that Lubitz gave no indication during his fall visit to the club that anything was wrong. He said, “He seemed very enthusiastic about his career. I can't remember anything where something wasn't right.” Ruecker described Lubitz as a rather quiet but friendly young man

There was one distinct clue that would have set off warning bells. His ex-girlfriend later said that Lubitz expressed an interest in crashing a passenger plane. Unfortunately, she told no one what she heard.

It has been reported that he previously suffered from extreme anxiety and severe depression.

Should his psychiatrist have warned the airline of Lubitz’ mental illness?

There are rare occasions when a psychiatrist should go beyond the bounds of confidentiality. As an example, if a psychiatrist learns from this patient that he intends to kill his spouse or someone else, he has a legal obligation to report what he heard to the police.  Under normal circumstances, he is not obligated to disclose information to anyone if his patient is suffering from depression. Hence, the airline didn’t know that was what Lubitz was suffering from at the time of the crash. If they had, they would have grounded him.It is known that he once had suicide tendencies. 

The role of a pilot or co-pilot is an extremely important one. They have the responsibility for the safety of hundreds of passengers and anyone else who may be on the ground if a plane crashes.     

In this particular incident, I feel that the airline and the psychiatrist both failed in their duties. The airline should have had all pilots and co-pilots sign a waiver permitting their psychiatrists and/or psychologists to inform the airline if they feel that their patients are suffering from a mental illness of any kind. Lubitz’s psychiatrist should have known that some persons suffering from depression can be a danger to others if the right moment comes up.  In Lubitz’s case, he should have informed the airline of his concern about the mental health of his patient since as a co-pilot of a passenger plane, lives of hundreds of people might be at risk—which in this case, they were.          

What could have been done so that the captain could re-enter the cockpit?

I can remember the days when passengers could ask permission to enter the cockpits of passenger planes and see the pilots at work. I was invited to enter the cockpits of three planes. The first one was when my wife and I were flying over Toronto at night towards the airport. The second one was when we were flying low over Oakland, California and the Bay towards the airport in San Francisco. The third one was when we were flying over the Pacific towards Hawaii.  As you now know, passengers visiting the cockpits are a no-no nowadays because of the 9/11 terrorist event that took place in 2001. Since that event, the doors to the cockpits are made of metal and tightly secured.

Sometime during the last decade of the last century, a passenger plane was heading towards the Philippians and there was some form of ruckus taking place in the rear of the plane. The captain sent the co-pilot to the rear of the plane and a minute later, the copilot asked the captain to come to the rear of the plane to give him some assistance. The Captain put the controls on auto-pilot and then after closing the cockpit door behind him, he went back to the rear of the plane to offer assistance to his co-pilot. When they completed the task, they went forward. To their horror, the captain had locked them out of the cockpit. The passengers were greatly disturbed as they watched the captain and the co-pilot taking turns trying to break the door down with an axe.

And now back to the main story. Oh, you want to know what happened in the last story. They finally got back into the cockpit much to the great relief of their passengers. 

Nowadays, when one of the pilots leaves the cockpit, the door will automatically close in a locked position. When the pilot returns to the door, he punches in the code to unlock the door.

In the incident that this article is written about, there was a toggle switch on the inside of the door that can be placed in two possible positions from inside the cockpit—lock and unlock. Lubitz who was obviously intending to crash-dive the plane into the mountains, put the position of the lock into the lock position and refused to let the captain enter the cockpit. There was no possible way that anyone could have unlocked that door from outside the cockpit or even smash it open unless Lubitz changed his mind and unlocked the door; which he didn’t. The plane and all its passengers and crew were doomed.

Can there be a way to solve this locking problem from ever happening again?

Forget giving the pilot outside the door a key or code number that will countermand the locking device that is in the lock mode. The reason is quite obvious. A terrorist could force the pilot outside the door to use the key or force the pilot to give the terrorist the code.

Obviously someone else has to be in the cockpit when one of the pilots exits the cockpit. It has been suggested that it be an airline marshal who is on the plane. That is a bad idea because he is on the plane incognito and as soon as he enters the cockpit, everyone including possible terrorists will know that the plane has an airline marshal on board the plane.

How about one of those sweet female airline flight attendants?   Not really a good idea unless she is a professional wrestler. It should be a male flight attendant and I don’t mean one who has the body of a teenage boy.  He should be heavy enough and strong enough to prevent the other pilot in the cockpit from stopping him from unlocking the door. Nowadays, the cockpits are fairly small so he will have to stand by the door. When he sees the other pilot at the other side of the door and alone, he can unlock the door and hold it open from the outside while the other pilot re-enters.

It has been suggested that when a plane is taken over by terrorists or rogue pilots, the controls should be taken over by remote control from the ground. That could be done but I think it would be very risky because terrorist hackers could end up taking over the controls of the plane from the ground and crash the plane in the middle of a city. Hackers actually got into the American Defence System so it follows that getting into ground control would be relatively easy.

I hope you have found this article interesting. I should like to give you a piece of advice if you are going to fly somewhere on a passenger plane. Make sure your under ware is clean. You don’t want those recovering your body to discover that your under ware was dirty. Hey! I have wanted to make that remark for years. In any case, if while during your last moments as you see the mountains approaching you very quickly and you lose control of your bowels; by that time, it will be academic since that will be the last thing you will actually be concerned with. 

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