Germanwings Plane Likely Crashed Deliberately by Co-Pilot

In a twist fitting for an M Night Shyamalan movie, there is growing evidence that there was malfeasance by the co-pilot that resulted in a deliberate crash of Germanwings flight 9525.

In a twist fitting for an M Night Shyamalan movie, there is growing evidence that there was malfeasance by the co-pilot that resulted in a deliberate crash of Germanwings flight 9525.

WSJ (“Germanwings Co-Pilot Andreas Lubitz Appears to Have Deliberately Crashed Plane“):

The investigation into what brought down the plane is now centered on the likelihood co-pilot Andreas Lubitz directed the plane into an alpine ridge, said Brice Robin, the French prosecutor leading the investigation.

Mr. Robin provided a detailed description of the black box recording that he said indicated Mr. Lubitz locked the flight’s captain outside the cockpit and initiated the plane’s fatal descent.

The recording began with “courteous” exchanges between the captain and Mr. Lubitz, the prosecutor said. After briefing the co-pilot on the flight plan, the captain is heard asking Mr. Lubitz to take over the controls, Mr. Robin said, adding the recording captured the sound of the captain’s chair sliding backward as he left the cockpit.

With the captain outside, Mr. Lubitz entered instructions into the plane’s flight system setting it on an unauthorized descent, the prosecutor said.

Air traffic control made multiple attempts to contact the cockpit and received no response. Mr. Robin said air-traffic controllers also asked other aircraft in the area to radio the plane to no avail.

As the plane descended, the captain can be heard knocking on the door of the cockpit but received no response.

“The most plausible interpretation for us is that the co-pilot deliberately refused to open the cockpit door to the captain,” Mr. Robin said.

Investigators are puzzling over Mr. Lubitz’s behavior during the flight. After taking off in Barcelona on Tuesday, the captain can be heard discussing the landing procedure in Düsseldorf. The co-pilot’s responses, Mr. Robin said, were terse.

“You would expect more of a dialogue to occur and not only short answers,” the prosecutors said.

It also doesn’t appear that there were any urgent health issues that could have contributed to the co-pilot’s inability to operate the plane, though that comes with the caveat that making a remote diagnosis is always difficult.

After locking himself inside the cockpit alone, Mr. Lubitz can be heard breathing—a sound that continued right up until the plane collided with the mountainside—as the captain tried to break down the door, Mr. Robin said.

“He was apparently breathing normally. He didn’t say a single word,” Mr. Robin said, adding: “It’s not the breathing of someone who is having a heart attack.”

Of course, given recent similar incidents involving Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 702 that were either suspected or confirmed to be due to deliberate actions by the pilot, there’s bound to be renewed scrutiny on increased background checks and mental health screening for pilots at all airlines. How effective that will be remains to be seen.

WSJ (“Germanwings Crash Raises Security Threat Posed by Insiders“):

Evidence that the co-pilot on the Germanwings flight that crashed in France on Tuesday locked the pilot out of the cockpit is raising fresh concerns about a danger that aviation and security regulators consider among the least controllable: the potential threat posed by insiders.

The pilot of the Germanwings Airbus A320 jet, which crashed in the French Alps with 150 people on board, had left the cockpit just before the plane began its descent, French prosecutors said on Thursday. The pilot was unable to re-enter the cockpit and the plane crashed roughly 10 minutes later.

The crash came only four days after the pilot of an Ethiopian Airlines jetliner was sentenced to 20 years in prison by a Swiss court for hijacking his own plane in February 2014. In that situation, 31-year-old Haile-Medhin Abera Tegegn, a five-years veteran at the carrier, locked the pilot out of the cockpit of the Rome-bound Boeing 767. He then diverted the plane, with 202 people onboard, to Geneva. There he requested asylum but was arrested instead.

[…]

Pilots are generally screened before hiring and repeatedly assessed while on the job. The frequency and thoroughness varies by airline and country.

Germanwings parent Deutsche Lufthansa AG is “extremely picky in choosing our pilots,” Chief Executive Carsten Spohr said on Thursday. “In our mind, what has happened was simply impossible.”

Modern planes are complex pieces of technical equipment. Just as with many other types of machinery, to deal with the added complexity, we’re relying on computers to keep things running normally in the background, with oversight from a trained human. A parallel can be drawn to my own field of medicine, where electronic health records have been significant in reducing error rates. Common errors such as medication incompatibilities, allergies, and duplicate prescriptions are all caught in real-time. However, as with all systems, there is an option for a manual override. These airline incidents raise the possibility of human involvement potentially being more harmful than helpful. While the computer can recognize an error and raise objections, there is no safeguard for the human making an incorrect intervention via override.

Once has to wonder whether more computer involvement can prevent some of these incidents. Perhaps once Google finishes with the driverless car, it should start thinking moving on to the fully automated airplane.

FILED UNDER: Quick Takes, Terrorism
Richard Guo
About Richard Guo
Richard Guo is an internal medicine physician who has long been interested in politics, economics, public health, and the intersection of technology and society. He holds degrees in electrical engineering and molecular cell biology from UC Berkeley as well as an M.D. from the University of Minnesota. He guest posted at OTB in 2015.

Comments

  1. Tyrell says:

    I heard a report that this co pilot had taken a year off from work. They are looking into that. I have not heard if they know the reason the pilot left the flight deck.
    Yes, they need to look at the possibility of overiding the pilot from a control room, but that has problems: a warning system, lots of monitoring, and the possibility of hacking.

  2. Mu says:

    According to the German media this morning he was receiving treatment for depression, and has been for a while. He was actually supposed to take off sick that day per a doctor’s note found in his apartment. But he was routinely not following doctor’s advice for time off and was hiding the illness from his employers.

  3. Hal_10000 says:

    Horrifying news. At least it looks like the small airlines will now adopt the rule most major airlines have that no one is allowed alone in the cockpit.

  4. gVOR08 says:

    We may be seeing crew member mental failure emerging as a major cause of airline accidents even though it’s a one-in-a-million occurrence. While a concern, it should also be taken as a tribute to the success of air safety measures generally. I saw the figure of .12 fatality incidents per million flights. The most dangerous part of flying by far is still driving to and from the airport.

    Once has to wonder whether more computer involvement can prevent some of these incidents.

    I expect we’ll see that. I’m also expecting to see more data communication to an ops center and some provision for remote override. In fact I’m a little surprised that the “black box” data isn’t being communicated real time for short term storage off the airplane.

  5. Mu says:

    The problem of “computer only” came into play here as a first suspicion for cause. Last November a similar airplane went into a dive when two sensors iced over and the computer went haywire. Only the fact that the pilot knew how to completely take the autopilot off-line allowed him to override the self-destructive move. A computer-only airplane would have crashed due to sensor failure.

  6. JohnMcC says:

    “…one has to wonder whether more computer involvement can prevent some of these incidents”

    “Open the bay doors, Hal.”

    “I can’t do that, Dave.”

  7. Richard Guo says:

    @Mu:

    I’m a bit biased due to my engineering background, but when faced with the same data, machines follow instructed algorithms while a human relies on experience, intuition, and training. A human is far better at creatively adapting to an unusual situation and choosing the correct path when things are murky. The downside is that they are more “unstable” and in cases of mental illness, fatigue, or malicious intent, can make the wrong decisions even in the presence of good data.

    Of course, one solution is to continue to improve algorithms and sensors. That’s why the Google car is taking so long to fine-tune. Maybe once machines reach an acceptable level of safety and have an established track record, we can put greater restrictions on the human’s ability to intervene (such as in cases of catastrophic failure). Perhaps this can be done by mandating both pilots to agree on an override.

  8. Blue Galangal says:

    @Richard Guo: This is the work my son’s doing for his graduate research: fuzzy logic algorithms (for UAVs).

    Related to that, I was at an advisory board meeting yesterday and the consensus was “Panic! I’ll never fly again after I get home!” etc. I stood it as long as I could and then said, “And yet flying is still one of the safest forms of transportation.” Another colleague chimed in: “Do you drive a car?”

  9. bill says:

    @Hal_10000: or there should be a key on whoever leaves the cockpit.

    sad as the story is, the muslim community must have let out a huge sigh of relief that it wasn’t one of theirs.

  10. Tyrell says:

    Oh boy, CNN has cranked up that flight simulator again, so we can see two reporters flying to nowhere for the next six weeks. And that pilot from.England, he is on there again, sitting in some empty warehouse or office building. Really ? What we have on CNN now is news as entertainment, no real reporting or investigations. It is all gimmicks.
    If Ted Turner had CNN for just a month, it would be straightened out.
    “Breaking news” it is not news, and it is not breaking.