The Germanwings flight 4U9525 crash: Unanswered and unanswerable questions

Rajesh Kochhar


While watching a typical Hindi film, a thinking person is often dismayed at the incredible things a hero can do. There are however times when you wish the real life had followed the film script. The rogue co-pilot has locked the pilot out of the cockpit. The pilot bangs the door, but gets no response. The plane is rapidly losing height. The pilot breaks open the door, knocks the co-pilot unconscious and takes charge. Just when the plane is about to hit the mountains, it soars into the sky. Alas, such things can happen only in movies.


There is an ancient Indian story about a demon called Bhasmasura (Ash-Demon) who is near immortal, but is reduced to ashes when he places his own hand on his head. The moral of the story is that a powerful system is not indestructible. It is powerful to the extent that outside forces cannot damage it. It is still vulnerable because it can be destroyed from within.


In recent years, successful technological efforts have been made towards making an airplane terrorist-proof. The assumption here is that the plane is safe in the hands of the crew. We know now that the assumption is wrong. There can be no doubt that in this particular case, if the co-pilot was not alone, he could not have deliberately crashed the plane. After 9/11, USA decided that at all times there would be two persons in the cockpit. Regrettably, 149 innocent children, women and men had to lose their life to make Europe see the merit in this regulation.


It is relatively an easy matter to put in place new technologies and new procedures to prevent recurrence of situations already encountered. But, the Alps plane crash brings into focus fundamental problems that are difficult even to formulate leave aside solve. They deal with issues of mental health and medical ethics.


The acuteness of the mental health problem of the Germanwings flight 4U9525 co-pilot became known only from what he did to the plane. It is extremely unlikely that the doctor who earlier examined him and advised him to go on medical leave could have known what would be going on in the patient’s mind  the next day or what he would end up doing. No matter how much medical science advances, mental health studies will always be inherently limited by the simple fact that we are scrutinizing our own species, using human brain to investigate human mind.


Then, there is the question of medical ethics. Consider the relatively simple case of physical ailment. A doctor finds that the pilot is visually impaired to the extent that he should not be in the airplane at all. He advises the patient accordingly and advises him to go off duty. Can or should the doctor do ant thing else such as informing the police or the employer? Most people would agree that the doctor should operate within their own domain. The employers should devise their own ways of keeping track of their staff’s hralth. The problems involving mental health are more nebulous. What constitutes mental ill health? Can a doctor define a threshold above which it can become dangerous? Can a doctor predict the effect of their intervention on the patient?


The airplane that was crashed as well as the commanding and the co-pilots all belonged to a country that justly prides itself in its technological prowess. There can be no doubt that a systematic rigorous enquiry would tell us what went wrong, and what lessons can be learnt from the tragedy. Yes, if the two-in-cockpit rule was in operation, the co-pilot could not have bolted the door from inside. But, this does not mean he or somebody somewhere else could not have thought of some other way. The human mind that can design and build a plane is also capable of devising ways of bringing it down.


Technologically advanced societies are capable of accomplishing great things. But, they also tend to get overwhelmed by technological solutions and belittle the human factor. A pilot is a human being. He cannot be merely treated as a piece of machinery that needs periodic certification, maintenance  and replacement


Statistically speaking, air flights are quite safe. But, if you wish to achieve 100 % protection against mechanical failure, terrorist threat, rogue pilots  ( to name the known factors), technological solutions must go hand-in-hand with sensitivity and humaneness.

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