Crime scene or crash scene? Day two at the Germanwings recovery base

Cockpit security used to be about keeping the baddies out of them. From today it is also going to be about preventing a rogue pilot from being alone in them.

This terrible new reality has forced itself on airlines and regulators because of reports that one of the Germanwings pilots left and was then locked out of the cockpit of the A320 before it lost height and crashed in the southern French alps this week, killing 150 people.

Airlines have known about such risks for a long time, but chosen to look away from them, as if the possibility is too horrible to contemplate.

Past incidents such as the Silk Air 737 disaster near Palembang in Indonesia in 1997,  are considered a classic instance of one pilot apparently murdering another with a safety axe and then diving the jet steeply and at a high mach number into a shallow tidal river.

There is an appalling record  of such incidents down the years, and no doubt lists of such atrocities will be in tomorrow’s or even tonight’s newspapers and news sites.

Overwhelmingly, such dreadful events have been brushed aside by airlines and the authorities, and reporters often ‘encouraged’ not to dwell on them.

But things have changed. There are numerous You Tubes circulating showing in detail how various airlines manage their cockpit security measures, including where the key panel is.

There are already social media discussions as to how the well intentioned protocols for keeping A320 cockpits secure could be gamed to prevent a locked out pilot regaining his seat before a flight similar to that being made by Germanwings had been deliberately destroyed.

A licensed aircraft engineers union even boasted recently that a paddle pop stick could be used to thwart the locking system on a BAe146 jet.

In July last year Air NZ stood down two 777 pilots after one locked the other out of the cockpit because he didn’t like him. That was an act of madness on the flight deck, considering that in flight emergencies can happen without notice and require two pilots to deal with.

Seen with rear view mirror vision, Air NZ actually told the world how what is now claimed to have happened on the Germanwings jet could have happened on its 777.

Qantas, understandably, isn’t prepared to go into any details about its cockpit security protocols, other than to say “The Qantas Group has multi-layered systems in place to protect the flight deck.  Understandably, the detail of these systems is confidential.”

That includes of course Jetstar.

However commendable those policies are, as well as those of other groups like Lufthansa, and its Germanwings subsidiary, they will from today have to be reviewed in the light of the crash in the French alps that lie behind its Riviera coast. (Even if the report of the lock out is untrue, because the telling of the story, true or not,  leaves the airlines with no option but to counter such risks.)

The threat isn’t just external but internal. It is a horrifying development.

Regular flyers will have noticed that many airlines already have a procedure that seeks to block unauthorized access to a cockpit when one of the pilots uses the forward toilet.

This is usually done by either blocking access from the cabin, or putting a trolley in the rather tight space leading to the cockpit door, or both.

All this achieves in the situation said to have occurred on the Germanwings flight is to allow the rogue pilot to prevent the other pilot from regaining his place at the controls, putting aside the issues as to what might then ensue.

Will there be a regulatory overreaction? Can the airlines act to restore any damage to passenger confidence this alleged behavior will have done?

There are enormous risks inherent in any procedure to allow remote overriding of controls in an airliner, including that of similar criminal interference.

This incident will cause immense heartache all around, as well as inflame the very strong suspicions of criminal acts onboard missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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