From Network News to the New Yorker, the Conversation Spins Out of Control
UPDATE: March 30, 2015
NOT TO DETRACT FROM the raw horror of the Germanwings disaster, but the crash has spawned a sideshow of ill-informed and just plain aggravating conversations, across the whole spectrum of the media, that somebody needs to address. Whether it’s on the human factors side of things (i.e. pilots and mental health), or on the technical part of flying, much of the talk is misleading. As if air travel weren’t misunderstood enough already; careless commentary is only making it worse.
For starters, the crash has touched off a good deal of talk about automation and a pilot’s role in the cockpit. Several major newspapers, CNN, and other outlets have recently published stories on the emergence of remotely piloted aircraft. One easy solution to the problem of pilot sabotage is to get rid of the pilot altogether. And why not? After all, planes can pretty much fly themselves already, right?
Except, of course, they can’t. For more on this, please see my recent op-ed piece published in the New York Times.
Then we have Miles O’Brien, writing for PBS.com. Says Mr. O’Brien: “Flight 9525 offers yet another example of how the layers of safety in aviation have been peeled away since deregulation 35 years ago.” Never mind that the Deregulation Act was passed in America, not in Germany. On both continents flying is much, much safer than it was 35 years ago. The number of aircraft in the sky has tripled, while the fatality rate per miles flown has plummeted. Go back some time and look at the accident records from the 1960s, 1970s, and into the 1980s. The past ten years have been the safest, statistically, in the history of modern civil aviation, and there hasn’t been a large-scale crash involving a major U.S. passenger carrier in fourteen years — the longest such streak ever. How does that square with layers of safety supposedly being peeled away? Have we just been lucky?
He’s right, though, about the comparatively low experience level of the Germanwings first officer. Andreas Lubitz had only about 600 total flight hours. In the U.S., the typical civilian pilot new-hire at a major carrier has upwards of 7,000 hours and often several years of prior airline experience. Lubitz was a so-called ab initio pilot, one of select few pilots groomed from the start by Germanwings’ parent, Lufthansa, with little or no prior experience. Ab initio pilots generally graduate into jetliners with far fewer hours than those who come up the ranks via the traditional methods. It’s true that logbook totals aren’t necessarily a good indicator of skill or competence, and there’s nothing easy about ab initio programs, but there are certain intangibles that a pilot of that experience level simply doesn’t have. Thus O’Brien brings up an compelling point — though it’s one that probably means nothing in the context of the crash.
O’Brien is also says there is “no psychological component” to a pilot’s twice-yearly FAA physical. Technically that’s not correct. It’s a minor component, but if you read the FAA Examiner guidelines and the criteria for certification, it’s there. As for the stigma that he implies pilots face when admitting mental health issues, maybe that was a problem at one time, but most airlines today are highly accommodating to any workers grappling with such problems.
Next we have the whole “pilot” and “copilot” thing, which has gotten out of hand. I was letting it go in deference to the more serious and tragic aspects of this crash, but my patience has expired. People: there are two pilots in the cockpit, the captain and the first officer. The latter is also known as the copilot. Copilots are not apprentices; they take off, land, and otherwise fly the airplane just as much as captains do. Sometimes, even, they are senior to and more experienced than the captain. They do not, as the BBC described it a few days ago, “steer the plane during the pilot’s breaks, or if he or she became ill.” That a line like that made it into print ought to be really, really embarrassing for an organization as respected as the BBC. And as a copilot myself, it offends me. Please see this discussion for more.
Maybe the most frustrating result of the disaster, though, is knowing that people around the world are getting on airplanes today and wondering, if only idly, if their pilots are pilots are potential mass-murderers. The nightmare of flight 9525 notwithstanding (and again we’re assuming Lubitz is guilty), what happened in France was a freak event. No, this wouldn’t be the first instance of pilot murder-suicide, but such acts have been, and will remain, exceptionally rare.
In closing I’ll repeat what I said the other day: Any pilot, like any professional in any industry, takes an element of his or her personal life to work, and all pilots at some point deal with stress and crisis. There is simply no way around that. But in all but the rarest cases a pilot under stress is not an unsafe pilot, never mind a suicidal killer. We can, in the meantime, debate the merits of additional psychological testing, but at a certain point there’s nothing more we can do, and we’re forced to rely on a set of presumptions — it comes down to trust, if you will. As a pilot I do not come to work wondering if one of my colleagues is going to kill me. Neither should I be expected to. And passengers shouldn’t either. On the contrary. I don’t want this to sound like an airline commercial or an FAA press release, but you can confidently presume that the people flying your plane are exactly what you expect them to be: well-trained professionals for whom safety is their first and foremost priority.
UPDATE: March 26, 2015
I’M NOT SURE WHAT TO SAY. For pilots, that a colleague may have intentionally crashed his plane and killed everybody on board, is not only horrific but embarrassing, offensive, and potentially stigmatizing to the entire profession.
This would not the first instance of a crewmember committing a murderous act. In 1994, an off-duty FedEx pilot, riding along in a cockpit jumpseat, attacked the crew of a DC-10 freighter with a hammer and spear gun. A PSA jet once crashed after a disgruntled employee shot both pilots. And most notorious of all, a suicidal first officer brought down EgyptAir flight 990 flying from New York to Cairo in 1999.
I worry now that every time a plane goes down and the reason is not immediately obvious, people will begin proposing suicide as a possible cause. Try to remember that even if we include the SilkAir crash or the or unsolved MH370 disaster, acts of crewmember sabotage account for a tiny number of incidents over many decades. If indeed the Germanwings first officer crashed his plane, that’s tragic and unforgivable. But it was, for lack of a better description, a freak event, something highly unusual. Hopefully the traveling public realizes that the rest of the tens of thousands of airline pilots out there take their profession, and your safety, as seriously as they possibly can.
People will be asking: how many pilots out there are ready to crack? Is the mental health of pilots being evaluated properly by airlines and government regulators?
In the U.S., airline pilots undergo medical evaluations either yearly or twice-yearly. A medical certificate must be issued by an FAA-certified physician. The checkup is not a psychological checkup per se, but the FAA doctor evaluates a pilot on numerous criteria, up to and including his or her mental health. Pilots can be grounded for any of hundreds of reasons, from heart trouble or diabetes to, yes, depression and anxiety. It can and does happen. In addition, new-hire pilots at some airlines must undergo psychological examinations prior to being hired. On top of that, we are subject to random testing for narcotics and alcohol.
As for the stresses of the job, it’s no different from any other line of work. People are people, and there’s always some element of one’s personal life that is brought to work. Sometimes pilots are dealing with one or another problem or stress issue. That does not mean the pilot is unsafe, or is going to crash the plane. Most airlines, meanwhile, are pretty proactive and accommodating when it comes to employees with personal or mental health problems.
I’m uncertain what more we should want or expect. Pilots are human beings, and no profession is bulletproof against every human weakness. All the medical testing in the world isn’t going to preclude every potential breakdown or malicious act. For passengers, at a certain point there needs to be the presumption that the men and women in control of your airplane are exactly the highly skilled professionals you expect them to be, and not killers in waiting.
March 26, 2015
SOME preliminary thoughts, comments, and cautionaries on the Germanwings A320 crash in France, drawn from some of the points being made by the media:
— The descent
Reportedly the plane descended 31,000 feet in eight minutes before impacting the mountains. Some news sources are citing this as an unusually high rate. In truth a roughly four thousand foot-per-minute descent is not particularly steep, and would imply the crew was still in control of the aircraft, and that it was not “plummeting” or “diving,” as reporters have described it, as a result of some catastrophic structural failure.
People are talking a lot about the possibility of a decompression (loss of cabin pressure), but a simple decompression by itself is not likely to be the culprit. So long as they aren’t explosive, decompressions are rarely dangerous. That’s true even when flying over mountains. Crews will pre-program so-called “escape routes” into a plane’s flight management system that will help navigate them away from high terrain in the event a rapid descent is required.
One person I spoke to raised the possibility that the crew, after initiating what was a more or less stable descent rate, became unconscious somehow as the plane descended, maybe as a result of not donning their oxygen masks quickly enough after a decompression. Pure speculation there, but it’s possible (as are a hundred other things). It’s clear that at some point the crew either lost control, became disoriented, or were incapacitated. We don’t know how.
— The missing mayday
One supposed expert on NBC voiced that it was “highly unusual” that the pilots did not send a distress call. The opposite is true. Distress calls are not sent in a majority of accidents, and communicating with air traffic control is well down the task hierarchy when dealing with an emergency. The crew’s primary concern, it should go without saying, is controlling the aircraft, followed by troubleshooting whatever problems have caused the situation. Later, if time and conditions permit, ATC can be brought into the loop. There’s an old aviation maxim that says: aviate, navigate, communicate. Communicate, you’ll notice, is number three on that list. Eight minutes might seem a long time, but who knows what level of urgency they were dealing with.
— Hack job?
This again: the theory that the plane’s “flight computer,” whatever that is, exactly, was maliciously hacked by parties unknown. People are so enamored of electronic gadgetry these days, and so vastly ill-informed as to how airplanes actually fly, and how pilots interact with all of the alleged computerization in a modern cockpit, that this bizarre theory is given undue credibility — thrown around to help fill in the empty spaces.
— Crash cluster?
It would seem, to some, that the number of plane crashes over the past several months has skyrocketed. But although, from a safety perspective, it hasn’t been the best twelve-month stretch, you need to look at things in the larger context: The accident rate is still down, considerably, from what it was twenty or thirty years ago, when multiple large-scale accidents were the norm, year after year. What’s different is that, in years past, we didn’t have a 24/7 news cycle with media outlets spread across multiple platforms, all vying simultaneously for your attention. The media didn’t used to fixate on crashes the way it does today. These fixations tend to be short-lived, but they are intense enough to give people the impression that flying is becoming more dangerous, when in fact it has become safer.
I frequently remind people of the year 1985, when 27 serious accidents killed upwards of 2,500 people. That includes two of history’s ten deadliest crashes occurring within two months of each other. Imagine the circus if such a thing happened today. The past decade has been the safest in civil aviation history, and the cluster of serious accidents over the last year, tragic as they’ve been, is unlikely to change the overall trend.