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Germanwings Accident and Its Fallout

The last one year has witnessed some aviation disasters that do not fit into the usual air safety categories of accidents. MH 17 was shot down by a missile, MH 370 just disappeared, and now Germanwings 4U9525 has apparently been deliberately flown into terrain below by a suicidal pilot. The accident has left Lufthansa (Germanwings is a Lufthansa subsidiary) and the world shocked. Within two days of the crash, a French prosecutor went public with evidence from the Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) to indicate that Andreas Lubitz intentionally flew his aircraft with 150 souls on board into the French Alps. Company policy permitted one pilot to be away from the deck for short periods during cruise phase of flight and return to the cockpit opening the door using a keypad with a pre-determined code.

However, for safety reasons i.e. to prevent a forced entry into the cockpit using the pilot outside as a hostage, the pilot inside the cockpit can lock the door from inside thus deactivating the keypad outside. According to Lufthansa Group CEO, Carsten Spohr, “The co-pilot, according to the audio recordings, took advantage of the momentary absence of the commander from the cockpit and then prevented him from coming back into the cockpit.” As can be expected, there has been a spurt of reactive actions by airlines and regulatory authorities – mostly related to cockpit procedures – to prevent recurrence. However, some more profound cogitation is required by civil aviation community to delve deeper into the causative and preventive facets of the accident.

Germanwings Accident and Its Fallout-1Cockpit As A Fortress

Although the cockpit door of an airliner has always been an inhibiting barrier between the cockpit and the cabin; l’affaire 9/11 provided the impetus to turn the cockpit into a small citadel. Cockpit doors were strengthened considerably, provision was made for the cockpit crew to lock the door from the inside, and changes were made to ensure that entry from outside was intricate and extremely challenging if the cockpit occupants contested it. Ironically, these very factors facilitated the Germanwings accident. Once Lubitz had locked his captain out, an entry into the cockpit could not be forced within the time available up to the impact with ground. The fortress design of the cockpit was validated by the accident but 150 lives were lost in the bargain.

As can be expected there has been a spurt of announcements from all over the world declaring the presence of two crew members in the cockpit mandatory at all times in flight. US FAA already requires airlines to have a flight attendant or a relief pilot to replace a pilot who leaves the cockpit during a flight for any reason. That policy is now being quickly adopted by many airlines globally. Aviation regulators in Europe and Canada were the first to embrace the policy within 24 hours of the crash. The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA ) has issued a temporary recommendation (not mandatory yet) proposing that two crew members, including at least one qualified pilot, should occupy the cockpit during flight. Germanwings parent company Lufthansa Group announced it is implementing the policy. The Canadian Government said it would mandate a similar policy for Canada’s airlines. Air France- KLM has said it would implement the EASA recommendation as soon as possible. Some others which announced changes to this effect almost immediately after the reasons for the crash became evident are Air Malta, Lithuania’s Air Lituanica, Berlinbased Germania, EasyJet, Norwegian Air Shuttle, Air Canada and Air Transat, Virgin Australia, Swiss International Air Lines, Emirates Airlines and Etihad Airways. India has had the two-crewin- cockpit rule since 2010 although the rationale for the Indian regulation was not the one applicable to the Germanwings accident. Instead, India implemented it because of an incident wherein the co-pilot, alone in the cockpit with the captain outside, encountered an autopilot problem and was not up to the situation. The flight rapidly descended through 7,000 feet in the two minutes it took for the captain to key in the security code on the keypad outside the cockpit door, enter the cockpit, and regain control of the aircraft.

However, these actions need to be seen against the backdrop of the probability of recurrence. Since 1994, there have been only four accidents (a Royal Air Maroc ATR 42 in 1994, a Silk Air Boeing 737 in 1997, an EgyptAir Boeing 767 in 1999 and a Linhas Aereas de Mocambique (LA M) Embraer 190 in November 2013) in which the most likely cause was intentional action by a pilot. While mandating two crew members in the cockpit during flight is a practical solution, any attempts to render the cockpit more accessible in the face of resistance from within the cockpit would be a retrograde step. The question here is whether technology has any other solutions to offer.

Germanwings Accident and Its Fallout-2Technology to the Rescue

Technology has made considerable progress in aerospace as well as information technology. Can it offer some means to foolproof aircraft cockpits against intentional actions by a pilot on the controls? The degree of automation in the actual flying of an aircraft is already at extraordinary levels; indeed there is a debate on as to whether such a high level of automation (with pilots’ hands on intervention in a modern airliner reduced to take off and landing phases only) is a good thing for aviation safety. The leading edge of technology offers the wherewithal to snatch command of an aircraft from the hands of a pilot to save it from impending flight into terrain below. NASA , USA F and Lockheed Martin have designed an Automatic Ground Collision Avoidance System (Auto-GCAS ) for the F-16 while SAB has produced a similar system for JAS 39 Grippen. These systems constantly compute the aircraft trajectory visa- vis the terrain below and provide warning when an impending impact is indicated. If no action is initiated by the pilot, the Auto-GCAS takes over control from the pilot until the aircraft’s return to safety. Technologically, it is therefore possible to provide such a system in the cockpit which could have prevented the Germanwings crash.

The phenomenal evolution of unmanned aerial systems is another avenue to explore. Unmanned and optionally piloted aircraft are already a reality in the military domain. The technology available to remotely fly unmanned aircraft permits an arrangement wherein there is one pilot in the cockpit and another on the ground. Although current design and development has as its objective a safeguard against a situation wherein the on-board pilot becomes incapacitated so that the ground station can assume control and fly the aircraft like an unmanned one, it could be tweaked to design protocols which permit a takeover by the ground pilot in case of any trouble in the cockpit. A variation of this design could be a human pilot and a robotic system sharing the cockpit and a set of rules that permit the robotic system to take over controls overruling the human pilot. All the critical controls required for a safe recovery could be designed in such a way that the pilot inputs are through a computer interface thus permitting a ground station to override pilot inputs through satellite data links. Indeed, Honeywell obtained a patent in 2009 for a flight system that could take control of a plane’s cockpit controls and remotely pilot a commercial plane to prevent “unauthorised flight”. Needless to say, very highly sophisticated Artificial Intelligence levels would be required to achieve this model with assured safety levels.

So what about a totally unmanned airliner? Again, technology exists to make that possible. However, pilots’ unions would oppose such a proposal tooth and nail while associated increase in insurance premia can be expected to render the idea unaffordable. The cost of the technology itself might become a restraining factor. Moreover, the average air traveller might find the idea of boarding a commercial flight with an unmanned cockpit intimidating; after all, being a human he can be expected to place more faith in a human than in a computer despite any empirical data indicating otherwise. The reader might like to ask himself whether he would like to be on an aircraft from his favourite airline the first time it offered a pilotless flight.

It will be some years when the right balance between technology, social acceptance, and acceptable checks and balances are in place to permit any of the above options, especially unmanned commercial flights (may be the start could be with cargo carrying commercial flights). Technology is a good handmaiden when it comes to finding solutions to new problems but can have its own costs. Finally, there is always the challenge of protecting any computer based system from mala fide hacking.

Human Factors

In the near future, a cockpit devoid of human presence appears hard to imagine. In any case, as some argue, even an unmanned cockpit would be controlled by a ‘human’ element from the ground. Thus, human factors would continue to pose a challenge to the aviation industry howsoever, technology might endeavour to render flight safe. The pilot’s behaviour will always remain a cause for trepidation and a potential for accidents. After this accident, media is reporting EASA ’s concerns about Germany’s infirmities in the area of air safety, especially on crew health monitoring. For its part, Luftfahrt-Bundesamt (LBA), the German aviation authority, has stated that Lufthansa, the parent company for Lubitz did not inform it about his previously known history of suicidal tendencies and severe depression. It appears that Lubitz had informed Lufthansa in 2009 that he had suffered from severe depression. Although declared fit, he was still undergoing treatment from neurologists and psychiatrists and the concerned doctors had occasionally declared him sick (he was declared sick on the day of the crash as well). Carsten Spohr, (Group CEO Lufthansa) has reportedly stated that the airline was not aware of any health issues regarding Lubitz’s fitness to fly, calling him “100 per cent airworthy”. India has been prompt to heed the problem of mental health and has begun a process to regulate new norms for mental health including regular check ups.

Psychometric tests could soon complement the routine physical checks carried out for pilots every six months (Psychometry deals with the design, administration, and interpretation of quantitative tests for the measurement of psychological variables such as intelligence, aptitude, and personality traits).


In the aftermath of the Germanwings accident, some cynics have averred that despite any amount of technological innovations, operational regulation and air safety initiatives, accidents cannot be eliminated. Against the backdrop of this accident, the campaigners for the intelligent cockpit assert that computers are not prone to mental health disorders and suicidal tendencies. The human element is pointed out as the weakest element in the safety environment. The civil aviation community eagerly waits to see if and when unmanned commercial passenger carriers would ply routinely. Meanwhile, there is optimism that psychometric testing of pilots (for mental instability, depression and other oddities of behaviour) would reduce the probability of accidents of the Germanwings variety.

© India Strategic