After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, a lot changed in airline security processes. Ongoing investigations and revelations resulting from the Germanwings crash, which claimed the lives of all 144 passengers and six crewmembers, have many people asking hard questions. What could have been done to prevent such a tragedy? Why wasn’t there a safeguard against leaving a pilot alone in the cockpit? Could something like this happen in the United States?
Marseille chief prosecutor Brice Robin announced that the crashed Germanwings craft’s “black box” recorder revealed evidence the airplane’s co-pilot deliberately crashed the aircraft. This is Mr. Robin’s account according to the BBC:
“We hear the pilot ask the co-pilot to take control of the plane and we hear at the same time the sound of a seat moving backwards and the sound of a door closing,” Mr Robin told reporters.
He said the pilot, named in the German media as Patrick S, had probably gone to the toilet.
“At that moment, the co-pilot is controlling the plane by himself. While he is alone, the co-pilot presses the buttons of the flight monitoring system to put into action the descent of the aeroplane.”
A senior French military official participating in the investigation told the New York Times that the pilot that had left the cockpit could be heard screaming and banging the door to get back in the cockpit.
“The guy outside is knocking lightly on the door, and there is no answer,” the investigator said. “And then he hits the door stronger, and no answer. There is never an answer.”
He said, “You can hear he is trying to smash the door down.”
Should the co-pilot have been allowed to fly? Are there psychiatric evaluations of pilots?
While the FAA does require regular physicals, mental health conditions are largely self reported, according to USA Today. While countries outside of the United States have varying regulations on the reporting of pilot health, their rules often closely mirror those of the FAA.
Private organizations and private airlines may require regular mental health screenings to assess that a pilot is fit to fly, but there is no law or regulation currently requiring such screenings.
Why was the co-pilot left alone in the cockpit? Why didn’t an attendant enter when the pilot left?
In the United States, it is standard practice that a flight attendant is supposed to enter the cockpit and remain with a pilot if one should need to leave the cockpit for any reason. Again however, other countries establish their own regulations regarding this practice and it appears that the Germanwings’ pilots were allowed to be in the cockpit alone.
Again, this should not happen in the United States as a pilot is not supposed to be left in the cockpit alone.
Could something like this happen in the United States?
While it is not possible to rule out the possibility of something like this occurring, this specific situation is highly unlikely in the United States. Pilot suicide, which hasn’t been determined in the case of the Germanwings crash, is an exceedingly rare and becoming more and more unlikely to occur due to the United States requiring a pilot be accompanied in the cockpit.