Germanwings-Absturz & Gross Stress

In March 2012 an American Captain Clayton Frederick Osbon was arrested after his JetBlue diverted flight landed in Oregon with the First Officer in charge.  Passengers had been roped in to physically restrain Osbon in the Galley who’d gone.. well.. berserk.  Scary, but true.  Why in that case did the other crew member on the flight deck act – and in the recent GermanWings flight the Captain didn’t?  For one, the details are a little different.  Osbon had begun raving, switched off the radio’s and then proceeded to give the FO a religious sermon about nothing mattering after take-off.  That was a dead-giveaway and the FO (give him a medal) acted immediately.   Osbon, it appears, is still in the Texas Healthcare sanatorium where he was dispatched.

Captain Clayton Frederick Osbon (Twitter)
Captain Clayton Frederick Osbon (Twitter)

Since the disaster of Germanwings investigative reporters have been all over aviation like a self-righteous rash.  And for good reason.  There’ve been accidents waiting to happen even in that well-run aviation region.  If you read German, then this is a good place to start

Germanwings-Absturz: Piloten stehen unter großem Stress – DIE WELT

What the writer is effectively saying is that selection standards at low cost airlines, including in Germany, are not up to scratch.  With Lufthansa the world gold standard in air ops,  what comparison can we make with other airlines?

In this case, charter airlines in Germany have lower standards.  Selection of pilots may not be at the same level of the mother-airline.  Remember Germanwings is owned by LH.

Some of the particular allegations made in this story are worrying.

  • An experienced pilot spoke of having to “talk down” many First Officers – even in good weather.  That means he was basically telling another pilot what to do.  Not ideal in a situation where there’re paying passengers at the back.
  • Some First Officers are making so little money that they live far away from the airports and have a major commute to get to work – meaning they’re tired.
  • The terrible ogre of pay to fly or P2F has emerged as one of the most stressful things in aviation,  with some kids paying $60 000 to an agency in order to build flying time.
  • The P2F pilots call themselves “the customer” because they’re paying for the right to fly – which has major implications for cockpit resource management.
  • Experienced pilots regard these FO as accidents waiting to happen.
  • Sim checks and medicals are leading to pilots avoiding certain aviation doctors and going to those who won’t write them a career-ending note about their pscyhological condition.

Perhaps more enlightening is this published in Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine issue #83,  2012 following a March 27, 2012, incident.  A pilot of an “unnamed major commercial airline” experienced a serious disturbance in his mental health, and led directly to the Aerospace Medical Association forming an Ad Hoc Working Group on Pilot Mental Health.  Let’s call the pilot Captain Osbon.

The working group met a few times, analysing the medical standards in world aviation. It concluded that it’s neither productive nor cost effective to perform extensive psychiatric evaluations as part of the routine pilot aeromedical assessment.

But it did recommend greater attention be given to mental health issues by aeromedical examiners :

    “…especially to the more common and detectable mental health conditions and life stressors than can affect pilots and flight performance.” 

It’s too late for 149 people who were piloted to their deaths by the mentally unhinged German pilot.  There’s already been a significant change in the rules governing single pilots, and in future, both pilots.  For example, in airlines the Cabin Manager (eg cabin crew) is now told to “keep an eye on the flight deck” which is confusing.  Aviation is all about the Captain being in charge and we’re trained like that. Now suddenly the Cabin Manager is sort-of in charge.

And what exactly will this manager do if something does go wrong?  They can’t aviate.  The inevitable shift from the possible cause of Germanwings to the possible way of stopping a similar murder-suicide in the future.  But there’s no way to make flying 100% safe.



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