As a private pilot for almost 40 years, I know things can go wrong in an airplane. In commercial aviation, most of the rare tragic accidents occur on takeoff and climb or descent and landing, through human or mechanical error, sometimes complicated by bad weather. We all know when we get on an airplane, there is that tiny risk we won't get off, and it is a risk most of us are willing to take.
But when a plane in good working order comes down from cruise flight at 38,000 feet, that is truly terrifying. Before the very end of the last century, all of us who fly commercially, here and around the world, could trust that the pilots in the cockpit shared our desire to go on living. It was inconceivable that a pilot would violate that trust and deliberately take down the aircraft he was flying and destroy the lives of those in his charge as well as his own. The 1997 SilkAir crash in Indonesia, and the 1999 EgyptAir crash off Nantucket, were the first two reported instances in which a flying pilot intentionally descended from his cruising altitude, killing himself and more than a hundred and two hundred, respectively, of his airline passengers and crew.
In the last year, we have the unexplained disappearance of the Malaysian Airlines jet, and now this Germanwings disaster in which a young 27-year old German co-pilot apparently killed himself and 149 innocents by deliberately flying them into a French mountain range.
Now that it appears he had no ties to Islamic or other terrorism, but was just a plain vanilla airline pilot, educated and trained in the West by Lufthansa, one of the world's most reputable airlines, the concern that one is vulnerable to murder/suicide will undoubtedly lodge itself in the back of the mind of every passenger whenever we step on board another airliner.
Perhaps some psychological or other explanation for his act, now unfathomable, will come to light, but if so, it is unlikely to assuage those fears. God knows we have enough to fear these days. What can be done to mitigate this new risk?
We have to try harder to eliminate the possibility that one pilot may be left alone on the flight desk, with the ability to lock out anyone else for even one minute, let alone five. In the wake of 9/11, the flight decks of the world's commercial airline fleet were hardened so that the pilots could lock themselves in, safe from attack by passengers. The Germanwings A320 cockpit door could be unlocked by a code inputted on a key pad just outside, but the pilot inside could push a button which barred such entry for five minutes, long enough to bring down a plane. The system works well to protect the pilots from the passengers, but the engineering problem now is how to protect the passengers from the pilot. Not an easy fix, and I am not an engineer.
In the old days, there were three pilots in every cockpit, not two. That is the best solution, of course, but those days are gone, never to return. Regulatory authorities around the world can promulgate and try to enforce the rule that neither of the two pilots now flying commercial aircraft may leave the cockpit at any time after pulling away from the gate. But since the primary reason one leaves is to use the lavatory, that rule is occasionally likely to be honored in the breach.
Many aircraft now have a lavatory immediately outside the cockpit door. In the future, perhaps new planes could be designed to include a lavatory within the flight deck itself rather than right outside it.
For the current fleet, video cameras could be installed in every cockpit and actually monitored, or the feeds digitally downloaded to servers on the ground and actually reviewed periodically to enforce the rule and deter each pilot from leaving the cockpit. There are now digital systems which download cockpit audio and all the data from the flight data recorder to an airline's servers on the ground so that it is permanently preserved and immediately available for review. There is no reason ever again to have to search for flight data recorders or cockpit voice recorders on the ground or under the sea after a plane goes down. The FAA and its sister agencies worldwide should consider requiring the airlines to install and maintain these systems. Whether to add video in the cockpit presents some of the same pros and cons as video on every police jacket and squad car. It is intrusive and destroys each employee's privacy on the job, but it reveals and deters misconduct and other aberrant behavior.
Proposals to wire the fleet to permit airline personnel on the ground to take over control of the plane from the pilot are vulnerable to the risk that a crazy employee on the ground could wreak the same havoc as a crazy lone pilot in the air.
Right now, there is no perfect solution, which is why we have something new to fear.