Germanwings: The How May Be Easier Than the Why


I should know the answer to this by now, but in a futile gesture, I flipped on the TV Thursday afternoon to see if CNN had dropped into 24/7 crash coverage of Germanwings 9525. Of course it had, and I have to concede, having honed its skills on MH370 a year ago, CNN is really good at filling airtime when minimal information is available.

I suppose the network is just giving the audience what it wants, but I have to wonder if the audience really wants a banner that says “Deliberate Death in the Alps.” I could do with something a little less tabloidish, if not for journalistic restraint then for the survivors of victims who might surf across this coverage.

One thing wall-to-wall coverage does is attempt to provide “answers,” on the assumption that a trained pilot deliberately flying an airplane into a mountain is somehow explainable. And by the way, I’ll make the feeble attempt here to note it hasn’t been officially determined that this is what 28-year-old First Officer Andreas Lubitz actually did. But based on the matter of fact statement of a French prosecutor who’s dealing with an air crash-turned-manslaughter case, it sure looks that way.

Personally, I’m not at all baffled that someone could do this nor am I much curious about why he would. I don’t need the why to close this circle. Suicide, if that’s what it was, is baked into the human DNA and a certain number of people will commit it, either deliberately with great planning and aforethought or capriciously, just because an opportunity presented itself. In 1954, John Thomas Doyle jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge and left this note: “Absolutely no reason, except I have a toothache.” CNN can air all the experts it likes and there’s no explaining or predicting any of this. I think it’s just part of the human condition. Airline pilots are no more or less immune to it, in my view. They don’t walk on water.

But the consequences are another matter entirely. And they weren’t slow in coming. We got an email an hour ago from Norwegian, a regional carrier in Europe, advising that it will require two people in the cockpit at all times. If one leaves to visit the lav, another crew member sits in. I’ll admit that I didn’t know that European airlines weren’t already doing this. U.S.-based airlines evidently have been for a while. I’m sure other European and Asian airlines will consider this simple, commonsense rule.

But where does it go beyond this? I have an uneasy feeling that legislators could push regulators into requiring more extensive psychological screening of pilot candidates or those already flying. Look what happened with the obstructive sleep apnea issue, all on the strength of virtually no evidence worthy of the name that it’s a problem for pilots. But suicidal tendency? How easy it would be to make this accident a smoking gun to mollify a CNN-stoked audience that wants explanations and answers now. It’s not like this hasn’t happened before. The NTSB said EgyptAir 990 was a pilot suicide, although the Egyptians rejected that.SilkAir 185 was inconclusive but the pattern strongly suggested a suicidal pilot.

One can only hope this doesn’t percolate down to the general aviation level just as we are on the verge of ridding ourselves of the Third Class medical requirement.Professional pilots are already poked and prodded enough; they surely don’t need a deeper round of Rorschach tests.

Give credit to CNN for recruiting expert talking heads that make more sense than their anchors ever can. One of these was Les Abend, who wrote on these pages a couple of weeks ago offering his take on MH370. He said this accident, if the initial facts are borne out, hit him like a punch to the gut. I can relate. We always expect better of our fellow pilots—or our fellow humans for that matter—and a tragic accident like this just shows how profoundly that trust can be misplaced.

P.M. addition: I just learned that there is a means to override the cockpit door lock via coded entry. Here’s a video on it. Make of it what you will.