Preston Clive
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The Cockpit Door Conundrum: a Headscratcher For The Ages

What to do, what to do? (IMG

Obviously the story that is dominating the wires and news services now--and will continue to dominate for a good stretch moving forward--is the revelation, upon reviewing the cockpit voice recorder (CVR, one of the "black boxes") recovered from the debris of the destroyed Germanwings flight from Barcelona to Dusseldorf, that the co-pilot seems to have deliberately crashed the plane.

Everyone is waking up to this horrific news--a press conference is still underway with Lufthansa-Germanwings answering as many questions as they can, and providing as much info as they feel is well confirmed enough to be presented as fact within this still very early stage. 

Nothing could have been more surprising .  .  .  I'm a bit of an aviation fanatic myself and I confess: deliberate action to specifically wrench the plane out of normal cruise at 38,000 feet and put it into an accelerated dive with the ultimate goal of wrecking the plane and destroying the passengers--this was the farthest thing from my mind.

Not that we haven't seen this before--we've seen this a couple of times at very least during recent times. The devastating crash of SilkAir 185--a Boeing 737-300 carrying 104 including crew-- in Indonesia was blamed on pilot suicide by a separate NTSC investigation headed by present day aviation all-star Greg Feith .  .  . a finding which carried no weight in the home country of the airline; the Indonesian governing body couldn't take a thesis that far to reach that conclusion, citing insufficient evidence owing to missing black box data (which was indeed true--Feith's decision was based on circumstantial evidence and its extrapolation). Also, in a case that seems far more clear cut the crash of Egyptair 990, a captain returned to the cockpit after excusing himself for a quick bathroom break to find the autopilot deliberately tripped by his copilot, the engines pulled all the way back to idle, and the yoke pushed forward to command the elevators to place the plane into a dive. While doing this, the co-pilot continuously, obsessively repeated in Arabic "Tawkalt ala Allah," which means "I rely on God."

Even when the pilot returned, the Egyptair data recorder indicated that while the captain was trying to recover the plane by pulling up, the co-pilot was still pushing forward on his yoke to maintain the dive, which proceeded at an astounding rate: just shy of 15,000 feet in about half a minute. When you consider that the final approach sink rate of a jet is approximately 700 feet a minute, you understand how maniacal a descent this Boeing 767 widebody was put into .  .  .  so severe that the plane began breaking up during its descent in the air owing to the excessive aerodynamic forces on the airframe.

Thus, we are not dealing in unfamiliar territory here with the deliberate Germanwings crash--it happens. Unfortunately. There are some--some of them very good friends of mine--who are convinced that the debacle of MH370 is no mystery--that it was simply a pilot suicide.

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The problem is this: we are a nation still traumatized by 9/11, and we have sworn ourselves to eternal vigilance and technological innovation that will insure that no marauding terrorist will ever be able to hijack any of our jets and use them as missiles against our homeland ever, ever, again. Thus, the construct of the Stereotypical Cockpit Door has been assessed by manufacturers, carriers, regulatory bodies and law enforcement at all levels. The goal: how to keep the door unbreachable by the maniacs slithering among the general public .  .  . hijackers, disgruntled employees like Auburn Calloway on Federal Express Flight 705, or David Burke on Pacific Southwest Airlines Flight 1771, and whatever else the bowels of Poor Mental Health can throw at a cockpit.

But now--now not only do we have to worry about keeping maniacs among the public out, we must be concerned about those same doors being bolted by crazies and thus not letting our own pilots IN! How do you prevent or anticipate an act of traitorous sabotage committed by a pilot at work on the flight deck of a flight-in-progress?

We must keep the pilots snug and secure behind an impenetrable barrier .  .  .  but at the same time we need that impenetrable barrier to yield like overcooked pasta if some copilot with faulty brain wiring suddenly zones out or puts a loony plan into action while the captain is off somewhere getting coffee or taking care of serious business in the lavatory .  .  . and thus puts the the whole plane in danger by making his problem the problem of everyone else. There's got to be a fast and easy way for that returning captain to bust through that door prontissimo. Because, in the end, it appears that maniacal men are using security measures designed to save passengers to commit mass murder. There's got to be a way to create a simple contingency for the Germanwings scenario.

The hearts of the world go out to the friends and families of those who so needlessly perished in such a fashion--thoughts and prayers are with you. Let's hope that at very least we can say "From their deaths, an insurance that the scenario would never be repeated ever again, was brought about via the industrial and law enforcement response."

Preston Clive