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A&M prof, students weigh in on Germanwings crash

Germanwings
By Sydney Farris
Germanwings

As investigations of the March 25 Germanwings airbus crash continue, debates have arisen concerning flight safety and advancement of aircraft technology. 

Flying from Barcelona, Spain, to Dusseldorf, Germany, Germanwings airbus A320 was intentionally crashed into a remote region of the French Alps, killing all 150 passengers, prosecutors believe. 

The person believed to be responsible for the crash was 27-year-old German co-pilot Andreas Lubitz, who supposedly locked the aircraft’s captain out of the cockpit.   

John Brak, agribusiness senior and flying instructor at Brazos Valley Flight Services, said the situation could have been avoided with more stringent airline regulations. 

“I believe almost all airlines in the United States require two people in the cockpit at all times and if either the pilot or copilot steps out, some other crew member substitutes in their place,” Brak said. “Such regulations are not in place for a lot of foreign airlines.”  

Brak said pilots must go through an extensive background check before flying. 

“If you have ADD or ADHD, you can’t obtain your medical certificate and therefore you can’t fly,” Brak said. “You can’t fly if you have a history of depression and suicidal thoughts. And according to the latest reports on this case, [Lubitz] had all those things during training.” 

At one point, flying was commended as so safe that pilot error was considered to be the last major risk. However, aerospace engineering professor Ramesh Talreja said these days, flying is so safe that intentional pilot error is considered to be the biggest major risk.

“The airbus A320 is described as a work horse,” Talreja said. “This aircraft has flown so many places, covered so many miles safely — there is no doubt of its safety. It is as safe as an aircraft can ever be.” 

Talreja, whose research focuses on the failure of aircrafts and their composite structure, said the plane was pre-programmed for descent at a certain level. 

“During a regular crash, the most significant occurrence is that the aircraft cannot be controlled,” Talreja said. “It shakes much more than the average turbulence and eventually flips sideways — dives down rapidly. If you don’t have your safety belt on, you can be flying all 

around inside the aircraft and bumping into things.” 

A few days after the crash, investigators uncovered the plane’s black box, which provided insight on how the plane went down and which investigators finished looking into over the weekend. Talreja said a black box provides a complete picture on how a flight is taking place. 

“A black box records all sounds coming from the cockpit as well as any conversations,” Talreja said. “It records altitude at any point and signals from various parts of the aircraft, such as the wings, backside and front.” 

In this particular case, the black box recorded the flight’s entire descent, including the screams of the passengers, the frantic knocking of the captain and Lubitz’s silence all while the plane descended rapidly from 38,000 feet (about the height of 380 Rudder Towers stacked one atop the other) to 100 feet.

Brak said Lubitz’s actions do not reflect the norm.

“That’s just not normal pilot mentality,” Brak said. “Most pilots love their job and want their ride to be as smooth as possible. Most of the time, the sky is our happiest place where everything is just so beautiful and awesome.”

Shannon Smith, clinical psychology doctoral candidate, researches models of psychopathic personality. She said a possible motive as to why Lubitz hid his tendencies is because mental illness is stigmatized and encourages people to “tough it out” rather than seek help. 

“People who commit large-scale acts of violence such as this may do so for reasons such as seeking notoriety or wanting to be remembered after death,” Smith said. “Another factor is personality features involving a self-centered focus through which the person is unconcerned about the impact of his or her actions on other people.” 

Though Lubitz was diagnosed with mental instability, Smith said she encourages caution in all regards as people diagnosed with mental illnesses are no more likely to exhibit violent behavior than people who are not.

With the increasing presence of airline crashes publicized in recent years, questions of an automatic flying system controlled from the ground have been gaining traction. Talreja said while some automation is necessary, relinquishing the pilot of all control is unrealistic. 

“You can’t account for all situations from a control tower, such as when a passenger within the aircraft is being difficult,” Talreja said. “It is unwise and dangerous to completely unman an aircraft.” 

Brak said passengers often exaggerate cockpit technology and forget planes are manned by actual people, not robots. 

“On some airbuses, there is some ground control in which altitude is automatically adjusted if the aircraft is too close to dangerous terrain,” Brak said. “But I don’t know how much more automation they can put in there, especially if a pilot strays off the established course. It’s not going to function completely without pilots.” 

Despite the Germanwings incident and other plane accidents within the last year, such as the missing Malaysian Airlines flight and AirAsia crash, Talreja said flying still remains the safest mode of transportation. According to an MIT statistics report on flying safety, a global average of 100,000 flights land safely every day.   

“Aircraft inspections happen every day and are extremely thorough,” Talreja said. “It’s essentially pilot error left to cause disasters.”

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