The Real Culprit in the Germanwings Flight 9525 Crash


Doomed Germanwings Airbus D-AIPX — Photo from Wikipedia article on Germanwings Flight 9525

I just this past week returned to the U.S. from an extended trip to South and Central America, and much has happened in aviation safety since I left.  Therefore I’m postponing until next week the continuation of my series on our fall 2014 cruise into the Sea of Cortez to concentrate on such matters today and Wednesday.  Fun Photo Friday will still await you however with some interesting flora photos of desert flowers.

It appears with near certainty that Germanwings copilot Andreas Lubitz intentionally crashed Germanwings Flight 9525 deliberately killing himself, five other crew members, and 144 passengers on March 24 of this year.  Not so apparent is that he had a lot of help dating back to an innovative Boeing design concept made way back in 1967 — a concept that accelerated in acceptance in the 1980s to become the de facto standard for airliners today.

That concept was the elimination from the cockpit of the flight engineer position.

Oddly enough just two or three days before the Germanwings crash I was having an interesting dinner conversation on the topic of flight engineers with a retired Qantas pilot.  I remarked that I thought the elimination of that position from cockpits was a huge mistake at the time, and that subsequent events had proven me correct.  Little did I suspect that my points would receive further validation just a few days later.

But first a little history:

In the early days of commercial aviation cockpits routinely contained five crew members — pilot, copilot, flight engineer, navigator, and radio operator.  As radio equipment became more reliable and easier to operate the first position to go was that of the radio operator.  Advancements in navigation eventually made navigators redundant.  Jet engines eventually did the same for the flight engineer, whose job on piston aircraft was to monitor aircraft systems and to diagnose and correct system abnormalities and failures.  That was quite a tall order in the early days of multi-engine piston aircraft and variable-pitch propellers.  Not so much with the advent of turbojet technology and the computerization of systems.

But in my view, as I expressed to my ex-Qantas dinner companion, the flight engineer performed another equally valuable yet unadvertised function.  The flight engineer was the last defense in the event that something went wrong with the human element of flying — incapacitation of either of the pilots, an attempted breech of the cockpit, and, yes, even suicide by aircraft.  And I had the facts on my side to back up that claim.

First let us consider intentional crashing incidents involving airliners equipped with a flight engineer.  There are two of which I’m aware, and one of those was actually a DC-10 being used to haul freight rather than passengers.

  • Japan Airlines Flight 350; DC-8-61; February 9, 1982 — Captain Seiji Katagiri attempted to crash the DC-8 while on final approach to Tokyo’s Haneda Airport.  First officer (copilot) Yoshifumi Ishikawa and Second Officer (flight engineer) Yoshimi Ozaki managed to wrest the controls from Captain Katagiri, but not in time to save the aircraft from landing almost 1,000 feet/300 meters short of the runway into shallow water.  There were 24 fatalities, but 150 survived thanks in no small part to the presence of that third member of the cockpit crew.
  • Federal Express Flight 705; DC-10-30; April 7, 1994 — Auburn Calloway was riding in the jump seat (spare cockpit seat) of the DC-10.  Unbeknownst to Captain David Sanders, First Officer James Tucker, and Second Officer Andrew Peterson, Mr. Calloway was about to be fired from Federal Express even though he was still in possession of company credentials that allowed him access to the cockpit.  Also unknown to the crew was the fact that Mr. Calloway’s guitar case contained four hammers (two claw and two sledge) and a speargun.  Mr. Calloway attempted to kill the flight crew with the intention of commandeering the DC-10 and deliberately crashing it into Federal Express facilities in Memphis.  Despite horrendous injuries and severe damage to the aircraft, including inverted flight and near supersonic velocities performed to throw their attacker off balance, the crew were able to subdue Mr. Calloway and perform an emergency landing.

Now let’s take a look had what has happened since the elimination of that third crew member:

  • SilkAir Flight 185; Boeing 737-300; 19 December, 1997 — While cruising at Flight Level 350 (thirty-five thousand feet) Captain Tsu Way Ming rose to leave the cockpit.  On his way out the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) stopped recording, presumably after Captain Tsu intentionally silenced it by pulling the circuit breaker supplying power to the CVR.  From this point on everything is pretty much speculation because there is no CVR recording.  The presumed sequence of events would have Captain Tsu reentering the cockpit and either manufacturing a reason for First Officer Duncan Ward to leave the cockpit or outright incapacitating him.  At any rate, there was no third crew member to stop what happened next.  A short time later the flight data recorder (FDR) “failed” and the aircraft entered a steep dive.  There were no survivors out of the 97 passengers and seven crew.
  • EgyptAir Flight 990; Boeing 767-366ER; October 31, 1999 — Shortly after Captain Ahmed El-Habashi left the cockpit to use the lavatory, relief First Officer Gameel Al-Batouti is recorded by the CVR saying in Egyptian Arabic “I rely on God.”  About a minute later the aircraft is throttled back and nosed over and put into a dive.  Captain El-Habashi reentered and attempted to recover the aircraft.  The FDR recorder shows that while he was pulling back on the control yoke First Officer Al-Batouti was countering that by pushing his control yoke forward, resulting in a so-called “split condition” on the elevators — left (pilot side) elevator in the up position; right (copilot side) elevator down.  Again, no second officer to intervene and 217 passengers and crew are dead.
  • Royal Air Maroc Flight 630; ATR-42; August 21, 1994 — Captain Younes Khayati disengaged the autopilot, took over manual control of the aircraft, and sent the aircraft earthward from an altitude of 15,000 feet/4,600 meters.  Forty-four dead.
  • LAM Mozambique Airlines Flight 470; Embrear 190; November 29, 2013 — Captain Herminio dos Santos Fernandes locked out his first officer from the cockpit and then proceeded to reset the autopilot four times.  The fourth setting was for below ground level.  The CVR recorded the first officer repeatedly pounding on the cockpit door to gain entry.  Thirty-three dead.
  • Malaysia Airlines Flight 370; Boeing 777-200ER; 8 March, 2014 — I warned earlier about speculation in advance of finding the cockpit voice and flight data recorders, but if they are ever found and recovered I now believe we will discover the 227 passengers and 12 crew aboard that aircraft will have died under similar circumstances.

A disturbing trend I’m sure you’ll agree.

So much for the history lesson.  Now back to Germanwings Flight 9525:

Final flight path of Germanwings 9525 from Wikipedia

Already Lufthansa, parent company of Germanwings, has mandated a second person be in the cockpit at all times.  That means a flight attendant must be present if either the captain or first officer leaves the cockpit for any reason.  But is that really enough?  Will a flight attendant know what the remaining pilot is doing with the controls?  Would she be able to wrest control from a suicidal pilot if necessary?  And what if she did somehow do that, what then?  Is she expected to recover the aircraft from a dive until the other pilot manages to regain entry into the cockpit?

Descent profile of Germanwing 9525 from Wikipedia

Pretty laughable “solution” when you consider what’s expected of that flight attendant.

What’s needed is a third qualified pilot (yes, flight engineers were qualified) in the cockpit.  But don’t expect that to happen.  That’s another salary airlines don’t want to pay — the real reason airlines wanted that position eliminated in the first place.

Meanwhile, how long before I’m proven correct yet again?

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4 Comments

Filed under Aviation Safety, Opinion Piece, R. Doug Wicker

4 responses to “The Real Culprit in the Germanwings Flight 9525 Crash

  1. Some very good points, Doug, especially in the sea of conspiracy theories and outright nonsense surrounding the Germanwings crash. I agree that a third pilot/flight engineer would be the best solution, but it’s unlikely to be implemented, because all European airlines are cutting costs wherever they can. Lufthansa and Germanwings have been embroiled in strikes about pilot pay for weeks before the crash.

    • Thanks for the insight, Cora. I hadn’t heard the conspiracy theories (thank goodness — I find them boringly silly). And I hadn’t heard about the strike. That’s what happens when you’re out of touch for over three weeks while traveling.

      • The Lufthansa/Germanwings strike went on until the day of the crash and was then suspended out of respect for the crash victims. Lufthansa has been repeatedly hit by strikes lately to the point that some people are avoiding them for that reason.