In the wake of the Germanwings Flight 9525 tragedy, safety regulations must be put into place to monitor a pilot's mental stability.
It is now all but certain that 150 lives were destroyed by a mentally deranged co-pilot who commandeered the Germanwings Airbus A320 and intentionally crashed it into the side of a mountain at top speed. The argument rages that it is impossible to continually screen every commercial pilot in the world for mental illness or to monitor his or her medication with enough frequency to catch a budding lunatic.
Surely, much can be done to better screen and monitor professional pilots. For instance, perhaps it should be a condition of employment that the applicant pilot waives his or her right to privacy over their medical records to the extent that a pilot seeks treatment for an illness that could affect the ability to fly safely. Perhaps we need to create rules that require doctors to notify airline employers if they ground a pilot due to a condition, or treatment, that could presage an unsafe condition. These conditions could be drowsiness, treatment that impairs judgment or creates a risk of suicidal thinking; if a doctor wrote a note, as one did for co-pilot Andreas Lubitz, saying the pilot was unfit to fly, shouldn’t it be mandatory that the doctor notify the airline of his opinion immediately?
It is all but a foregone conclusion that airlines will, belatedly and all over the world, require that at least two persons be in the cockpit at all times. One of whom must be qualified to fly the airplane; the other is just a monitor and could be any crew member. This will, at least, lower the odds that one delusional pilot can lock out the other pilot and crash the airplane without a fight.
But, there is more that could be done—much more—and with a higher degree of probability that a disaster such as that which befell the victims of Lubitz’s mental illness will likely be avoided completely. What I suggest here is not a replacement for the suggestions made earlier, but rather is an adjunct to them.
The airline industry has the technology to install on commercial jetliners systems that would:
- Alert the airlines’ dispatch office if the airplane is hijacked (for, surely Lubitz did highjack Flight 9525). If the airplane deviates from its prescribed course, whether in climb, descent, or heading, in a significant way, and efforts to contact the crew for correction fail, hijacking should be assumed and the airplane is taken over remotely.
- Automatic control over the airplane can be assumed by qualified pilots on the ground. The airplane can be flown safely to the nearest airport and even landed remotely. This is not science fiction. We do it all the time in drones and such systems have been in testing already. As another strategy, it is reported that Honeywell is already developing and testing a system that would automatically take over an airplane that is in danger of crashing into an obstacle by flying it safely over or around it; surely this could be adapted to avoid mountains as well. The old Lockheed L1011 had an auto-landing system and it was built over 40 years ago. Likely, many, if not most, commercial airlines have an improved version of it today. I doubt it would take much to make it operational in the event of a hijacking. True, it takes an airport equipped to handle an auto-land system, but a commercial airliner almost always has enough fuel to get to one that can handle one.
As with any suggestions involving the use of technology, one must assume that there are technical and practical details. Perhaps more research and development needs to be accomplished. Yet, these issues are far from new, and 150 people have paid too high a price for the delay.
The suggestions made here are absolutely not exclusive. Others with fertile imaginations and understanding of the issues will likely come up with more, and perhaps better, ideas. It simply takes the political and financial commitment to complete the development of these ideas and to make them available for commercial deployment as soon as possible.
It can be argued with considerable force that no system, or group of systems, can ever reduce the risk of intentionally crashed airplanes or missing airplanes, or hijacked airplanes, to zero. Nevertheless, it is high time for thinking through all the possibilities and implementing all the rules and systems that can feasibly reduce those risks dramatically. If the suggestions made here were implemented, I believe that the risk of another Flight 9525 or Malaysia MH 370, or the like, would be reduced to remote possibility.