Pilots on the Germanwings Murder/Suicide

"When people start looking for whom to blame, the answer is simple: Joe-six-pack who wanted a $99 flight from New York to L.A." A veteran pilot on cost pressures in flight-crew training.

A memorial near the site of the Germanwings crash in the French Alps (Eric Gaillard/Reuters)

After the Germanwings crash I argued that no single safety device or security protocol could protect the flying public against a pilot determined to do harm. A number of veteran pilots write in to agree, but also to suggest that this episode illustrates some structural problems within the modern cost-cutting air-travel industry.

1) "Low-cost pilots, low-cost lives." Adam Shaw, who has had a varied and interesting career as a writer and flyer and now leads an aerobatics team in Europe, writes as follows. I've added interstitial explanations in brackets [like this]:

No one can disagree with your: “no new regulation … can offer perfect protection against calculated malice.”

But eliminating P2F is the first step. [JF note: P2F, or "Pay to Fly," is a scheme in which pilots-in-training, while still paying tuition to a flight school, simultaneously serve as flight-crew members on real airlines carrying real passengers. That is, rather than earning pay for their work, they are the ones paying. Without getting into all the details, this is now widely considered a scam.]

A good second step is the FAA’s reinstatement of the very old (your piece leads folks to believe it is new…) rule requiring 1,500 hrs of flight time before taking the ATP written. [JF: The change that the FAA ordered two years ago, as explained here, was requiring first-officer or "co-pilot" candidates to have an Airline Transport Pilot certificate, which among other things requires 1,500 hours of flying experience. Before that, people could apply for first-officer positions with only a Commercial certificate, with an experience minimum of only 250 hours.]

Asian and European authorities should instantly copy this. Why? Because in the years it takes to get to 1,500 hrs (flight instructing, crop dusting, banner towing, flying jumpers, or whatever) budding pilots get real experience with airplanes that are often gritty, shitty, and temperamental.

The years they put in to get those 1,500 hrs also—and this is just a critical— expose them to their peers, to repeated medical examinations … to repeated scrutiny. [JF: Working with ATP privileges requires a First Class FAA medical certificate, with a full medical exam every six months. Working with Commercial privileges requires a Second Class medical, with an exam once a year. Private pilots like me can fly with a Third Class medical, which lasts either two or five years, depending on your age.]

These days, the 250-hr button twiddling geeks can go from pounding the sidewalk to the right seat of a passenger jet in less than two years. That's two medicals, and practically no peer review, not time for quirks, or worse, to become apparent. I know the trend is for low cost airlines (low-cost training) low-cost clothes, low-cost food, low-cost … lives.

With most old-fashioned pilots retired or within minutes of retirement, we’re now faced with left-seaters who have come up the ab-initio or worse, the geek P2F, way.

Unless things change, and change fast, we’re going to see a lot more AF# 447, Asiana #214, Transasia #235 events in the coming years.

And when people start looking for whom to blame, the answer is simple: Joe-six-pack who wanted a $99 flight from New York to L.A, or Pierre Baguette who wanted a 65-euro Paris-Casablanca … and the cynical bean counters who make this possible

You can see a video of Adam Shaw's formation-flying team here, and one of him flying through the mountains with his dog as first officer here.

On the point he makes about the value of sheer experience: Within the next year I should reach 2,000 hours of total flying time. That would not be much for someone who does this as a professional but reflects my trying to stay at it steadily year by year.

The difference from when I had 250 hours of experience, or 500, is not any particular new skill. Indeed, many obligatory pass-the-test skills have certainly atrophied (like, an NDB approach or "turns around a point").

The difference is simply that I've seen more things happen, so there's a diminishing realm of situations I will encounter for the first time. It's roughly similar to the difference between parents' first few nervous weeks with a baby and what they learn as the months (and children) roll on. In the amateur-flying world this includes: what it's like when the alternator fails; what it's like when you have an oil problem; what it's like when you have to tell a controller "unable"; which mountain passes you're better off avoiding; which level of crosswinds and gusty winds you can handle on landings; which clouds mean trouble and which don't; what cues let controllers think you know what you're doing and which signal the reverse; at what temperature range just above and below freezing you need to be most alert to icing; what errors or lapses you're most likely to make. This is known in the aviation world as "filling up the experience bucket before the luck bucket empties out," and I agree with Adam Shaw, from his much more experienced perspective, that it's an important part of developing qualified airline pilots.

2) "An incentive to cheat." A pilot writes about the perverse incentives that encourage pilots not to seek treatment for illnesses, including mental illness:

The current interpretation of the cockpit voice recordings from Germanwings 4U9525 provides clear evidence of a problem with the certification of pilots for flight duty.

While the aviation industry has an enviable safety record, that safety record comes from a willingness to examine the information garnered from failure and to improve. We now have evidence of two major air disasters in the span of a decade and a half [JF: the other being the EgyptAir crash in 1999], caused by similar failures: mass murder by a pilot. I believe that should lead to a reconsideration of pilot medical certification. Certainly, I suggest that if any other type of component failed so disastrously in two separate flights in the span of a decade and a half, those failures would trigger an examination of the certification process.

Your colleagues have already made the point that news accounts have stigmatized people with mental illnesses over this event. I observe that the process of medical certification for flight has virtually no treatment component at all: it is virtually entirely adversarial. Even where aviation medical authorities make no claim to having effectively evaluated a condition, their public statements on the topic frequently suggest they plan to find a way to keep people who have it out of the cockpit. The default attitude seems to be that only neuro-typical individuals belong in the cockpit, and if we don’t have an actual reason to keep others out, we should do more [research].

I have no doubt you know well how pilots react. A small minority simply lie on their medical forms. Many more of us manage our lives so as to avoid diagnoses or medications we would not want to report on an aeromedical exam. I believe that only a few fortunate pilots have not at some time in our lives asked how we could manage an issue: stress, grief, a physical accident without resorting to medications we would have to explain on a medical. If you have never sat in on a conversation on how to choose a medical examiner, I suspect you may belong to an unusual pilot community. [JF: I have heard such conversations.]

The system gives pilots an incentive to cheat themselves out of the best quality of care. Any arrangement that promotes an adversarial relationship between doctor and patient compromises medicine.

Doctors who support policies that make them into police should ask themselves what practicing medicine will be like when all their patients lawyer up. The system does not need to operate from an adversarial perspective.

Other approaches are possible. The aeromedical system could start with the premise that their job is not to keep people out of the cockpit, but to put them in one safely, then structure their research around finding best treatment practices to allow pilots to fly safely with as many medical issues as possible. Under legal pressure, particularly from the AOPA [Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association], the FAA already follows this policy in practice. I believe this change would lead to safer skies, and possibly healthier pilots.

3) Getting what we pay for. Another veteran professional pilot on the themes Adam Shaw raised in letter #1. I've added the emphasis to the other messages; in this one they're in the original.

The reality is that this pilot would never have been hired by a major U.S. airline without more flight experience. In recent past, the U.S. law was changed so that any U.S. carrier would require 1,500 flight hours to apply for an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) rating, a required certification before getting hired. ...

Foreign airlines recognize an MPL (Multi-engine Pilot License) with only 200 hours of flight instruction before climbing in the right seat of your commercial airplane. With 18 months as an employee of this airline, this particular co-pilot had only accumulated 630 hours. ...

Foreign captains are often flying basically alone, with a very inexperienced new co-pilot. The doomed captain's thousands of hours of flight time did him little good, while foolishly locked out of the cockpit. As a check pilot in several fleets (B727, B757, B767, B777) for two decades before I retired, even a new co-pilot had thousands of hours in complex commercial aircraft before transitioning to a new fleet and was never alone in the cockpit.

There is a national and international shortage of commercial pilots resulting in the lowering of standards in employment and certification, particularly among foreign carriers. It is also why there is increasing reliance on automation in aircraft design, particularly in the Airbus philosophy of restricting pilots from overriding the autopilot to enhance sales. Watch the video on the Airbus' own chief test pilot fly a new a-320 into the woods at the Paris Air Show a decade ago as a demonstration of the potential evils of automation.

China, for example, doesn't yet have the highway systems that North America or Europe benefit from, making China more dependent on air travel as their economy grows. [JF: On this point, consider China Airborne!] Foreign-born pilots are the main source of new crew members there just as it is in most Gulf airlines where there is no population base or education system for replacement or expansion of services.

Airline managements too often demote pilot managers' authority within corporate hierarchy and select inexperienced pilots from their ranks who have limited influence or incentive to effect change. Finance, sales and marketing, legal, and technology managers do however make sure your smartphone airline app works, the disclaimers on your ticket are unintelligible, cheaper labor is found, and administrative costs are minimized. That's where the industry is headed.

Another reason to enjoy retirement after 36 years.

4) "Not just meat in the seat." Finally, on the term "co-pilot":

Thank you for finally addressing the "pilot"/"co-pilot" monicker that has nearly driven me insane over the last two decades of my career.

Far too many people assume, incorrectly, that the co-pilot is merely along to read checklists and assist the "pilot" as he or she flies the aircraft. A perfect example of this comes to light when discussing the US Airways flight 1549 ditching in the Hudson River.

Most everyone knows Captain "Sully" Sullenberger but very few recall the name of first officer Jeffrey Skiles. Even Wikipedia gets involved by stating "... and captain Sullenberger was soon regarded as a hero by some accounts." If I'm not mistaken First Officer Skiles was actually at the controls for a good portion of the event. Regardless of who was flying at the time of touch down, they would both have been working incredibly hard to get the aircraft safely on the ground, or water in this case.

Perhaps someone should do a follow up to see what first officer Skiles is doing and how he is coping with having been "co-pilot" during "The Miracle on the Hudson."

As a pilot with over 10,000 hours of flying time I would like to think that when I'm flying as first officer, aka co-pilot, I am considered more than just "meat in the seat."