Monday, April 06, 2015

Airline Pilots as Human Infrastructure: Neglect At Your Peril

By now, enough information has emerged from the March 24 crash of a Germanwings plane in the French Alps to show that the co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz, deliberately flew the plane into the ground after waiting for the pilot to leave the cockpit and locking him out.  Data from the flight's recently recovered "black box" showed that Lubitz sped up the plane's descent in the moments before it flew into a mountain in the French Alps, killing all 150 people on board.  It also appears that Lubitz suffered from depression and was suppressing information about his condition from his employer.

For most of recorded history, suicide was a private affair.  But when trains, planes, and automobiles came along, it became technologically possible to take a lot of folks with you when you died, if you happened to be driving or flying.  And here is where the issue of what I'm calling "human infrastructure" comes in.

It's not a very good phrase, but I can't think of another one to describe the state of mind of a person whose job, mediated by engineered transportation, makes them directly responsible for the safety of others.  I'm going to stick my neck out here and claim that in certain periods of history, the committing of certain acts was essentially inconceivable.  The evidence for my claim is that nobody ever did them.

Here's one example.  Unless I've missed something (which is always possible), I believe there is no recorded case in the 19th century of any locomotive engineer (engine driver, in the UK), of his own free will, deliberately causing a train wreck that killed himself and injured or killed large numbers of other people.  It was technologically possible to do that back then, but as far as I know, nobody did. 

But in the last couple of years, we have seen at least two cases—the Germanwings crash and Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, that disappeared over the Indian Ocean—of airline pilots apparently taking their own lives and those of their passengers too.  And this doesn't include things like the hijackings that destroyed the Twin Towers in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001.  The hijackers were not authorized pilots, but they managed to learn enough about flying to do what they did.

What if the world of the 1800s was such a place that the kind of people who signed on as locomotive engineers were essentially incapable of seriously considering a suicidal act that would betray the trust extended to them by their employer and their passengers?  And what if the twenty-first century is such a different place that, despite the best efforts of airlines to screen and inspect their pilots, the kind of people who get hired as pilots include a few to whom crashing a plane with lots of people on board is not only conceivable, but seems like the best thing to do at the time? 

The kind of person you do want to pilot your aircraft is someone like Chesley Sullenberger, whose sense of responsibility to his passengers was so strong that he spent his spare time making a study of aircraft safety and devised contingency plans for various unlikely mishaps, such as having all your engines fail due to clogging by birds during takeoff.  That is exactly what happened to him on Jan. 15, 2009, as he flew US Airways Flight 1549 out of New York's LaGuardia Airport.  Sullenberger expertly maneuvered the powerless plane to a safe water landing, and everyone survived. 

Not every pilot can be a Sullenberger, but is it humanly possible to weed out the Lubitzes?  One can imagine draconian measures, such as firing any pilot who gets treated for depression.  But that would immediately lead to situations such as Lubitz apparently got into, in which he was suppressing the fact that he was seeking help for his condition. 

As long as we let human pilots control aircraft, we extend trust to them to do the right thing in whatever circumstances arise.  Some may think it obtuse or irrelevant for me to point out that in the nineteenth century, your average locomotive engineer probably believed in God, Heaven, and a Hell for people who deliberately killed themselves and took others with them.  It was a kind of belief that is not that common today among college-educated individuals, which is the only pool we take airline pilots from. 

This is not a call for all airline pilots to be Bible-believing fundamentalists.  After all, it is presumably Koran-believing fundamentalists who flew the hijacked planes into the Twin Towers.  But something has changed in the metaphysical background if we compare the 1800s to modern culture, and it has changed in a way that has made formerly inconceivable acts not only conceivable, but do-able, at least by a few bad apples.

In the days to come, we will see calls for more technological fixes that will prevent pilots from deliberately crashing planes.  Something may need to be done along these lines, and if it's effective and doesn't lead to other problems, I hope it will be.  But what I think is more important is a renewed look at the human side of the situation:  the way pilots are chosen and the way airlines keep tabs on them for subtle hints that things are not going well.  Lubitz appears to have been a loner, and while there's nothing illegal or immoral about that, it's a modern situation that has few historical precedents.  Airline pilots have such great responsibilities that it might be worth sacrificing some of their privacy to ensure that they will carry out their duties in a manner worthy of the trust we extend to them.

Sources:  For information on Lubitz, I referred to a CNN article updated on Apr. 3 at  I also referred to the Wikipedia articles on US Airways Flight 1549 and Chesley B. Sullenberger.

1 comment:

  1. I'm not quite convinced it was "inconceivable" for 19th century railroad engineers to intentionally wreck a train. I am reasonably convinced that 19th century reporters and other observers would have found such actions inconceivable and would have sought out or imagined excuses for an engineer's imagined incapacity. That said, a fireman or conductor was likely in the engine with the driver most of the time back then, reducing the sort of isolation sought out by a suicidal pilot. So we aren't talking of common occurrences.