BEA’s answers to the Germanwings suicide crash conundrum

In its final report on the Germanwings crash last year, French accident investigation agency BEA has pointed out the previously unstated (if obvious) fact that having two pilots in charge of an airliner may be a defence against the physical incapacitation of one of them, but it is not a guaranteed defence against pilot mental incapacitation.

This is an official acceptance of the fact that one of the industry’s primary fail-safe provisions for the safety of airline passengers can be rendered invalid under those circumstances.

The report, published today, removes any doubt that might still have remained about why the aircraft crashed. There was nothing wrong with the aeroplane or its systems, it states, and the copilot crashed the Airbus A320 deliberately by preventing the captain from re-entering the cockpit after taking a toilet break and programming the autopilot to aim the aircraft at the ground in a rapid descent.

So that’s that.

But can something be done to prevent such an occurrence? The BEA thinks so.

Unusually for an accident report, the recommendations are nothing to do with the aircraft or with operational procedures, and all to do with the detection and mitigation of the effects of pilot mental health.

Briefly, it says, it would be pointless and ineffective to submit all pilots who have no history of mental health issues to regular psychological or psychiatric tests. But at the time any pilot begins to train for a commercial pilot licence, says the BEA, the individual’s entire medical history – including mental health issues – should be scrutinised, and re-examined periodically.

A history of some forms of mental illness need not, alone, become a barrier to progress as a professional pilot, says the BEA. But where there has been a record of – say – depressive illness, that should become part of the pilot’s regular medical review, and if necessary the required regularity of review could be increased.

One of the things that prevented Germanwings, in this case, taking precautionary action regarding their copilot – who had a known history of depressive illness – is the existence of German law regarding medical confidentiality. The airline was not informed that the copilot had received recent treatment, advice and medication because of a return of his depressive state.

The BEA says law must be changed to allow medical doctors to breach confidentiality where patients with safety-critical jobs are concerned if the public might be endangered.

It also appeals for a statutory basis for systems of peer review to be set up at airlines. This is not a new idea and is just plain common sense, but most airlines do not use it.

The safety agency also wants airlines to do something about the state of affairs that, it reckons, prevented this copilot approaching his airline for help following medical advice: the fear of losing his livelihood.

Frankly, what it recommends is that airlines should be good, caring employers of their pilots, and play an active part in fostering their wellbeing.

That sounds like a good idea for any kind of business where safety-critical employees are concerned.

6 thoughts on “BEA’s answers to the Germanwings suicide crash conundrum

  1. I’m not a pilot, but I find the idea of a pilot not feeling they can speak to their doctor with utmost confidentiality utterly terrifying. It will surely risk driving those who should be seeing doctors with issues (drugs, alcohol, depression etc), away from seeking treatment.


  2. Many aircrew have to stop flying due to being poisoned by toxic cabin air and I stopped flying airliners ten years ago as I too felt suicidal but ‘failed safe’.

    As a former airline training captain I suggest that the international Authorities face up to the overwhelming evidence of toxic air and take note of the blood/fat and University College London cognitive tests which I and 26 other BALPA pilots underwent in 2006, which proved the condition of aerotoxic syndrome in both aircrew and passengers – on the balance of probability.

    There will be a 3 hour public debate on Aerotoxic Syndrome in Parliament at Westminster, UK on Thursday 17 March @ 1330 – but will the debate be reported, as a matter of serious public interest or continue to be covered up?


  3. Happy St. Paddy’s, John Hoyte…”Lá Fheile Pádraig sona dhuit!”…after an uneventful -toxic free(I think?)- B-773ER landing this morning at 04:14Z on EDDF’s 07L. I’ll drown the shamrock to you in Bruxelles this CAVOK severe clear day, early evening.
    Kudos to you for admitting to suicidal thoughts, but failing safe. Thus far, I’ve always thought of suicide as a permanent solution to a temporary problem. However, when it comes to ATC in general and French ATC in particular, I’ve frequently entertained homicidal thoughts. They strike me, with monotonous regularity.
    Sláinte!… Keep the blue side up.


    • David, I’m not alone, lots of other pilots but no one will believe professional aircrew so very hard to get the word out. We couldn’t make up all of the evidence. I flew racehorse Istabraque into Bristol for the Cheltenham Gold Cup of 1998 – the horse went on to win the next day. Total job satisfaction, God bless the Irish!!!


  4. Indeed John, it’s better to be uncertain of your position and know it, rather than to be certain of where you are not. And never believe anything until it is officially denied. Shamrock well sunk and drowned. Work is the curse of the drinking classes. Never again, until next time. QED!


  5. “Frankly, what it recommends is that airlines should be good, caring employers of their pilots, and play an active part in fostering their wellbeing.”

    Very true. But it costs money to be such a caring employer. Money that many airlines are not willing to spend.


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