Germanwings and the road to perdition

01/04/2015 — 6 Comments

Comet (Image source: Public domain)

Amidst all the online soul searching, and pontificating about how to deal with the problem of suicide by airliner, which is let’s face it still a very, very small risk, what you are unlikely to find is any real consideration of how we have arrived at this pass. There is as it turns out a simple one word answer, and that word is efficiency, the dirty little secret of the aviation industry.

You see back when the big airliner’s started to fly, like the comet airliner above, they needed a big aircrew, pilot, copilot, navigator and flight engineer. Now while that cockpit was a busy place it did posess one hidden advantage, and that was with a crew size greater than three it’s very, very difficult (OK effectively impossible) for any one member of the flight crew to attempt to commit suicide. If you think I exaggerate then think about whether there has ever been a successful suicide by airliner where there were three or more aircrew in the cockpit. Nope, none.

But, the aviation industry is one driven by cost. Each new generation of aircraft needs to be cheaper to operate which means that the airlines and airline manufacturers are locked in a ruthless evolutionary arms race to do more with less. One of the easiest ways to reduce operating costs is to reduce the number of aircrew needed to fly the big jets. Fewer aircrew, greater automation is an equation that delivers more efficient operations. And before you the traveller get too judgemental about all this just remember that the demand for cost reduction is in turn driven by our expectation as consumers that airlines can provide cheap mass airfare for the common man.

So we’ve seen the number of aircrew slowly reduce over the years, first the navigator went and then the flight engineer until we finally arrived at our current standard two man flight crew. There’s just one small problem with this, if one of those pilots wants to dispose of the other there’s not a whole lot that can be done to prevent it. In our relentless pursuit of efficiency it seems we have inadvertently eliminated a safety margin that we didn’t even realise was there. So what can we really do about it? Well the simple ‘we know it works’ answer is to go back to three crew in the cockpit, which effectively eliminates the hazard, of course in this cost sensitive industry that’s not a solution that’s all that likely. In the absence of going back to three man crews well, we get what we’re currently getting, aspirational statements about better management of stress and depression in aircrew, or the use of cabin crew to enforce two man rules. But when that cockpit door is closed it’s still one on one, and all such measures do in the final analysis is reduce the likelihood of the hazard, by some hard to quantify amount, they don’t eliminate it. As long as we fly two man crews behind armoured doors unfortunately the possibility and therefore the hazard remains.

Happy flying 🙂

6 responses to Germanwings and the road to perdition

  1. 

    … the simple ‘we know it works’ answer is to go back to three crew in the cockpit, which effectively eliminates the hazard…
    Really? If a pilot flying simply shoves and holds the yoke or stick forward instead of flaring, is there much chance of anyone responding in time?

    • 
      Matthew Squair 02/04/2015 at 10:36 am

      As I said at the top of the post, all the suicide by airliner incidents occurred with two man crews. From which fact we can infer what class? There is probably (maybe mostly) a deterrent effect at work, but in the final analysis who really cares how it works.

      In terms of punching the nose down instead of flaring, that’s possible but its not the same certainty as diving into a mountain, or the sea, or just flying off into the big blue. So as a method of suicide it’s probably not that attractive, which is why we haven’t seen it happen. Could the PNF catch the PF in your scenario, probably in a traditional yoke style aircraft, a lot more difficult in a sidestick fitted aircraft. There’s still that deterrent effect though.

  2. 

    When I started flying (as a pax) the cockpit door was often left open. You could go up and say hi if you wanted to. Things gradually changed, as we all know. What this event demonstrates to me is a perfect example of what Matthew has been talking about in other posts (at least as far as I can follow it). Namely, when a system is designed it is possible that what we might call “Unknown unknowns” exist which will never show up in the limited testing that is part of the usual design process. But over time the amount of real life testing that occurs will present far more possibilities than the limited amount of design testing and, inevitably, show up other weaknesses which no one ever foresaw.

    After 9/11 cockpit security became one of these design issues. The threat was always perceived as being from outside and an effective barrier was designed. The design also included an override system to account for pilot incapacitation. But the possibility of the threat being INSIDE the cockpit was one of those Unknown unknowns, hence never planned for. Real life testing has now made us aware of it, even if it is a rare occurrence.

    I don’t know how this issue will be solved. I think it unlikely that any psychological screening could detect all potentially unstable pilots. And if that is the route that is taken, then the complacency which follows (i.e. We have a system to detect unstable pilots so now we don’t have to worry about that any more.) will inevitably lead to the next design weakness and all the repercussions which follow that. Maybe the issue isn’t really cockpit security. After all, the amount of screening that passengers and airport workers have to go through makes it pretty unlikely that a bomb or weapon will be carried on board. So maybe we just go back to leaving the cockpit door open … as it used to be.

  3. 

    …That’s a great example…
    Good point, but the pilot was somehow disturbed, not necessarily suicidal. He used symmetrical trust reversers (engines 2 and 3) rather than asymmetrical (e.g engines 1 and 2). Of course, its rare (thankfully) to have the combination of a clear-thinking but suicidal pilot. 😉

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