Saturday,22 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1240, (2 - 8 April 2015)
Saturday,22 September, 2018
Issue 1240, (2 - 8 April 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Open the goddam door

Are pilots or airlines to be blamed for tragedies such as this week’s Germanwings Alpine disaster, Gamal Nkrumah asks

Al-Ahram Weekly

How do airlines rein in recalcitrant pilots with serious psychological problems?. Pilots must be subjected to regular psychological tests to ascertain whether they are fit to fly a plane. Normally, most pilots undergo an initial test when they first join an airline, but there are no successive physical or psychological tests.

There are several unexplained anomalies in the case of the co-pilot of the doomed Germanwings flight, as the German media has speculated.

Der Spiegel magazine reported that Andreas Lubitz, co-pilot of Germanwings flight 9525, had followed “specific and regular medical treatment” supposedly for depression in 2009 and had had suicidal tendencies. This was so even though there were conflicting reports in the German media that he had undergone regular medical checkups and that there was no indication that he suffered from depression at the time of the flight 9525.

The German airlines’ desire for good publicity regarding flight safety does not absolve Germanwings. The airline should have been more careful about the mental and physical state of its pilots. Indeed, German and other airlines need to remain vigilant. Some pilots are known to be alcoholics and others suffer from psychological problems, and it seems no one follows up on their cases on a regular basis. The Germanwings tragedy brought the predicament of the airlines into sharp focus.

Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr conceded that Lubitz had “taken a break” for medical reasons during his training six years ago. Lubitz had also originally wanted to join Lufthansa before he ended up in Germanwings.

Patrick Sondenheimer, the 34-year-old captain of the doomed Germanwings flight, had apparently tried to save the plane in vain. The disaster resulted in the killing of 150 passengers, however, and the details of the entire ordeal remain a mystery. “No crucial piece of evidence has been found,” Dusseldorf police spokeswoman Susanna Heusgen said this week.

“I am devastated,” Sondenheimer’s grandmother told reporters, adding that he was a loving father. The married father of a three-year-old son and a six-year-old daughter was said to be an exemplary pilot.

The plane crashed in the French Alps on its way from Barcelona to Dusseldorf in Germany’s most populous state of North Rhine Westphalia. The A320 Airbus included 16 German adolescent victims who were returning home from an exchange visit to Spain. Full transcripts of the black box voice recorder recovered from the wreckage of flight 9525 indicated that Lubitz had deliberately masterminded the crash.

According to the German tabloid newspaper Bild, Lubitz twice urged Sondenheimer to go to the toilet. Why the latter followed the orders of Lubitz, or whether he actually did so is unknown. Lubitz is suspected of deliberately downing the jet. And the social media in Germany and abroad are replete with praise for Sondenheimer for trying to save the plane.

Sounds of loud metallic bangs were heard from the cockpit. Someone was trying to forcibly open the door. “Open the goddam door,” Sondenheimer thundered on the tape recovered from the black box.

But the aircraft soon afterwards went into the descent mode deliberately programmed by Lubitz as Sondenheimer attempted in a desperate bid to open the cockpit door with the aircraft’s emergency axe. Soon afterwards the plane plunged into an Alpine ravine.

To compound his psychological problems, Lubitz was apparently also terrified of losing his flying licence due to his deteriorating eye condition.

In the wake of this latest disaster, some are pointing out that the record of certain European and world airliners has not always been smooth. The twin tragedies of Malaysian Airlines last year are cases in point, even though there is no evidence of any misconduct by pilots in the case of the Malaysian Airlines flight 370 that was flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing when it disappeared on 8 March 2014.

The plane ostensibly changed its path and plunged into the Indian Ocean. Why a plane that was heading northwards to China ended up southwards in the Indian Ocean remains a mystery. Satellite communications networks have not come up with reasonable answers.

Moreover, the largest and most expensive search in aviation history for the debris of the Malaysian Airlines flight has yielded nothing. It is now the greatest aviation mystery in history. However, the Malaysian Airlines flight was a “red-eye flight” or night flight, and hence the pilots would have been tired and have red eyes. The Germanwings flight was not a late night trip.

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