Threats in the cockpit

If one bumbling terrorist with a shoe bomb forced us all to take our shoes off at the airport security checkpoint, then a pilot with a death wish should perhaps be enough of an overblown threat to change the math in the cockpit.

The Guardian reports that a French prosecutor says the co-pilot of the Germanwings Airbus that slammed into a mountainside in the French Alps did so intentionally. The report comes from a news conference that’s going on at this moment.

“There is no element that indicates this is a terrorist action,” the prosecutor said, which could reignite the debate on exactly what terrorism is.

The prosecutor refused to give details on the pilot’s religion or ethnic background.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily what we should be looking for,” Brice Robin said.

The irony here, of course, is that the security measures taken in the aftermath of 9/11 helped the co-pilot accomplish his plan, the New York Times notes.

“You can hear the commanding pilot ask for access to the cockpit several times,” the prosecutor said. “He identifies himself, but the co-pilot does not provide any answer.”

“You can hear human breathing in the cockpit up until the moment of impact,” the prosecutor said. “The pilot was therefore alive.”

Stefan Schaffrath, an Airbus spokesman, said on Thursday that in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, Airbus had upgraded the reinforcements of cockpit doors on its planes in compliance with international regulations.

According to an Airbus video describing the operations of locking the cockpit door, it is locked by default when closed. But when a pilot wants to lock the cockpit door to bar access to someone outside, he or she can move the toggle to a position marked “locked,” which illuminates a red light on a numeric code pad outside. That disables the door, keypad and the door buzzer for five minutes.

This, in the aftermath too of the Malaysia Airlines jet last year, should send security experts scurrying towards changing things up front to prevent similar incidents.

But what? You can’t prevent a pilot who needs to go to the lav from going. You can’t give him/her a key to get back in; that defeats the point of more secure doors.

The U.S. had already thought of that, of course. Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the standard operating procedure is that if one of the pilots leaves a flight attendant takes their spot in the cockpit. Is that enough?

Back in the cabin, we’re no longer allowed to stand and wait at the forward lav. We’re a threat. That’s the underpinning of the entire airline security system — the passenger is a potential threat. It’s a new day of air travel when the pilots are too.

Particularly with so much of an airline flight being flown by a computer already, the idea of a pilotless era of air travel suddenly doesn’t seem so far fetched.

  • So I’m guessing the “pilot out / flight attendent in” cockpit strategy isn’t employed outside the US?

    • On CBS this Morning, Sully suggested it’s often not followed, even in the U.S.

      • dschille

        I just flew to Arizona and noticed this exact thing happening. I didn’t know what was going on for sure but thought that it was some rule about there always being two people in the cockpit.

  • jon

    it amazes me that in an era of drones we don’t already have “pilot-less” commercial air traffic.

    It is my rough understanding (correct me if I’m wrong Bob) the pilot needs to be in control of the aircraft at take off and landing (the most dangerous parts of the flight) but once you are to cruising altitude you point the plane the way you want to go and auto pilot takes over.

    Seems like an over all cost savings could be made by having pilots on the ground in control stations taking off and landing planes all day.

    instead of having 100’s of pilots flying 100’s of planes you could have 10 pilots flying 100 planes, handing off to other pilots when their shift is over.

    Math might not work out for smaller shorter flights, but for longer runs it definitely seems like a reasonable approach. (other than there being no one at the helm when something goes terrible wrong)

    • My airline pals tell me the autopilot takes over on takeoff when the plane is about 100 feet off the ground. There’s no need for a human to point the plane before the autopilot takes over.

  • Jay Sieling

    Has there been any conjecture that there may have been a medical situation? Could co-pilot have passed out or had catatonic seizure of some kind? No verbal response seems odd even if he was suicidal.

    • Jeff

      I heard it required disengaging the autopilot and some other non-trivial operations so he would have had to have been conscious.