Air-Minded: Letting the Team Down

I don’t have any brilliant thoughts or insights about Germanwings Flight 9525, where the co-pilot is suspected of committing mass murder by flying a plane full of passengers into a mountain in the Swiss Alps. I’m sad and shocked, of course, that any pilot would do such a thing.

I’ve always considered military and commercial flying a profession; i.e., a paid occupation involving prolonged training and a formal process of qualification and certification. We expect professionals to live up to high standards. Well, maybe not all professionals — insert lawyer joke here — but for sure doctors and airline pilots. We trust them with our lives. We have to.

We all know there are unprofessional doctors, but their numbers are minuscule and as a society we don’t get overwrought about the occasional medical horror story. The same goes for airline pilots. Pilots have deliberately crashed packed airliners before, but it’s very rare and I don’t recall much hullabaloo over earlier incidents, at least in the West. I attribute this to the fact that earlier intentional crashes occurred in Namibia, Egypt, and Indonesia, the victims mostly black and brown.

This time the victims are white. This time the airline is a First World carrier. Now we’re discussing the phenomenon of pilots committing mass murder almost as if we anticipate a rash of such incidents from here on out. Now we’re talking about mandatory mental health testing and monitoring. Now we’re talking about rules requiring the presence of two pilots on the flight deck at all times, which could mandate the presence of three pilots on every flight (because even professionals have to go potty sometimes). Pretty soon we might even be talking about increasing flight hour requirements for air transport pilot certification, upping airline pilot hiring standards to the point where only former military pilots with long records can get a foot in the door, maybe even increasing aircrew pay after years of cutting salaries and busting pilot unions.

I’m all for increasing hiring standards, bringing back the third crewmember requirement (it used to be standard, for those of you who’ve forgotten), and upping compensation. Treating professionals as professionals bolsters and encourages professionalism IMHO. Perhaps we’ll modify crew resource management training to include teaching techniques for spotting signs of depression or other mental problems in fellow pilots — this is all squishy stuff and may not work, but perhaps it’s worth a try. I’ll just note that the captain of the Germanwings flight apparently didn’t suspect a thing when he left his co-pilot alone in the cockpit on that fateful day.

I’ll also note that depression affects people in all walks of life and professions. Most victims learn to live with it and function as well as anyone else. But there are some professions where, if you suffer from depression, you have to keep it hidden: among these are the military, law enforcement, and commercial flying. Airline pilots who suffer from depression believe — with good reason — the FAA will ground them if it finds out. Pilots who seek medical treatment for depression do it under cover and outside normal channels. Some won’t seek medical treatment at all, regarding the risk of exposure as too high. This latest incident will only drive such pilots deeper under cover.

I struggle with the notion of someone bent on suicide deliberately taking innocent lives along with his or her own. Murdering innocent people while taking your own life isn’t suicide, it’s terrorism. Was the Germanwings co-pilot a terrorist? If he deliberately crashed that plane, yes he was, no matter his motive. Someone on Twitter last night claimed the Germanwings co-pilot was a convert to Islam. When I Google “Germanwings copilot converted to Islam” the links that come up all lead to right-wing hate sites, so for now I’m discounting it as a malicious rumor. If it turns out to be true, well, let’s just say I wouldn’t want to be a Muslim living in a Western country!

Another Twitterer, a serious journalist who writes about aviation for the Wall Street Journal, pointed out that pilot suicide/mass murder — in other words, a deliberate act of terrorism committed by a crewmember — has always been one of the possibilities in the disappearance of Malaysia Flight 370, although I’ve resigned myself to the thought that we’ll never find the wreckage and never learn what actually happened.

© 2015, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.

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