March 30, 2015: In the aftermath of what a French prosecutor said was the apparent suicide-mass murder of 150 people on Germanwings 9525, there have been some calls for and questions of creating a system of allowing ground controllers to assume command of airborne airliners in the event rogue pilot situation develops.
This is a bad idea.
There is no doubt this is technically feasible. After all, remote control is becoming more and more common. These systems are called drones or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles or Unmanned Aerial Systems. The systems need only be adapted to passenger or cargo-carrying vehicles. The idea has already been seriously floated about one-person cockpits for airliners or freighters. One day making these UAVs is only the next step.
But not today, and not for this reason.
The logistical and practical considerations are enormous.
The biggest practical consideration is this: how does a ground person know what’s going on in the cockpit, or on the airplane, to make a determination to take over the airplane? Is there enough time of any given incident to correctly evaluation the situation? If pilots are dealing with a true emergency but don’t have time to radio (remember the adage, aviate, navigate and communicate, in that order), whose command inputs does the airplane follow: the pilots on the scene or the pilots on the ground?
In the case of Germanwings 9525, those eight or nine or 10 minutes of radio silence on an off-course airplane descending quickly but not in an emergency descent raised a wide variety of questions in the hours immediately after the crash and in the 24 hours before the shocking press conference. Was there an emergency? Was there a depressurization? Were the pilots consumed with the emergency (aviating) and with no time to communicate? Were they victims of hypoxia?
If these were the unknowns for hours, how does a ground pilot draw conclusions in 8-10 minutes? If the ground pilot concludes incorrectly, and the airborne pilots were in fact engaged in dealing with an emergency, what’s the airplane to do? Follow its hands-on pilots, or someone hundreds or thousands of miles away?
If a remote control pilot were to take over, how does he communicate with the cabin crew?
And what about the situation where minutes or hours are reduced to a much shorter time? Air France 447 took 3 1/2 minutes to fall from cruising altitude of nearly 40,000 ft to impact the water. If the on-scene pilots couldn’t figure out what was happening (though in this case, they certainly should have), could a ground pilot have done better in that short period of time?
The practical considerations just go on and on.
With thousands of airliners and freighters flying every day, the technical and human bandwidth required would be immense. You need ground personnel skilled in every type of airliner. They would have to be type-rated, in addition to their normal duties. They’d have to have constant simulator time to maintain current ratings. All this is feasible, but at what cost?
One responds, the cost is saving the lives of those on the airplanes. I get that, but the two-person rule now gaining wider-spread acceptance seems the more practical solution. The two-person rule may well have served as a deterrent in most (but not all) cases listed below.
There have been a handful of known or highly likely pilot suicides-mass murder in the past 30-plus years. In addition, there was one attempt by a jump-seat rider to bring down a cargo airplane. In this instance, the cockpit crew successfully fought back, but not before all were injured and the airplane was barrel-rolled in an effort to put the attacker off.
According to a list compiled by Bloomberg News:
There was also the time a fired PSA ground personnel used his employee ID to bypass security, enter the cockpit of a BAe 146 and shoot both pilots. The airplane crashed.
In an interview I did last week for CNN International (which, hopefully, is more responsible than CNN USA), I was asked about the two-person rule and what if that second person was in on a plot to doom the airplane. Certainly a conspiracy is possible; no system is 100% fool-proof. As we have now seen with Germanwings, the very door, reinforced and with beefed up locks to prevent another 9/11, kept the Good Guy out, by a Bad Guy in the cockpit. On the other hand, there was the JetBlue A320 flight in which the captain exited the cockpit and proceeded to act in a delusional manner. The co-pilot used the locking override to prevent the pilot from re-entering the cockpit. Passengers and crew had to subdue the pilot, and the co-pilot made an unscheduled landing, where medical personnel (and the police) awaited the captain. The door and override system worked exactly as intended.
As long as systems are designed by humans, humans will be able to figure out a way to get around them. As long as humans are in the equation, no screening system will be perfect. As one caller into a Seattle radio show pointed out, you could have a psychological exam today and tomorrow your world go fall apart, sending you over the edge. Same thing with a physical exam: declared in perfect health today, heart attack tomorrow.
Today’s system may have its flaws, but I’ll take those two pilots in the front end over the prospect of some ground pilot trying to figure out what’s happening by remote control. Maybe this is a late 21st Century solution. But not now.