The Black Dog, Aviation & Andreas Lubitz

The recriminations have begun after the Germanwings disaster.  Lufthansa may be in a spot of bother here,  but they’re not alone.  This terrible accident has brought a few things into relief, including how the aviation industry is governed and the rules and regulations that absorb our time as we think about flying.  But what are some of the other facts in this macabre and terrifying story?

Andreas Lubitz, who is thought to have flown 150 people to their deaths aboard Germanwings Flight 9525, would not have been allowed to fly as an airline pilot in the US or South Africa for that matter.

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His total hours (pilot in control) at the time of death were slightly more than one third the minimum needed for a US Airline Transport Rating.  PIC its called.  Instead he was loaded with PICUS – Pilot In Control Under Supervision.  That’s where you’re in the left seat (where the Captain sits) with an instructor in the right who may not touch the controls.  As soon as they do – the PICUS time is “demoted” to DUAL time.   Guess what.  Most of these PICUS hours really do have moments where the instructor helps the PICUS.  It’s a bit of a grey area…

Looking through the culture of pilots over at least 50 years there’s on distinct trait that emerges that you really want from your Captain flying Kulula through the tail of a thunderstorm.

Survival Instinct.  Built on real-time experience and thousands of hours as a pilot. Alone.  Or honing their skills as an instructor for five years, watching others make mistakes and improving their own knowledge constantly.

Using his/her basic brainpower and thinking to outwit fate and survive.

And that should include the First Officer.  There’s such a dirth of this sort of pilot,  that airline companies have instituted that experience/youth combo over the last 15 years.  It’s also accelerating, along with a dreadful Pay-to-Fly.  It’s PTF.  Aviation is full of acronyms. But this is one of the weirdest.  Young pilots are inducted into airlines by actually paying the airline to fly in the F/O seat in order to build hours.

Many of the world’s airlines use this nefarious employment technique.  Airlines like Ryan,  Easy and Wiz and a host of others hire really junior pilots with  only a few hundred hours. I have no idea if Germanwings was one.


You’ll all be pleased to know that SAExpress and SAA only employe pilots with 2000 hours plus and PTF hasn’t made its odious little appearance here.  Yet.

99.9% of the time, nothing bad happens in flying.  But when you hit that 0.1%, you want 10 000 hours or so combined sitting up front.  Preferably shared,  not 9500 hours and 500 for the kid.

You also DO NOT  want a First Officer who is recovering from depression after popping those suicide inducing pills and who has a measly 100 hours in supervised time on an Airbus. Like Andreas.

It may not be politically incorrect to say this,  but its just true.

One of the side effects of anti-depressants (which I have never taken mind you, I’m just reliably informed), is enduring a weaning process.  The longer you pop ’em, the worse it gets.  Why the FDA has allowed this dependency to spiral is beyond me.  The stories I’ve been hearing about what happens to your head after a year of throwing these evil ellipses down your throat are dark.

Treating mental illness is not like setting a broken bone then jumping back in the plane after six months.  The side effects of treatment can be worse than the disease.  I’ve heard a few stories of depressed pilots marriages breaking down, taking a few days off, then climbing aboard and continuing their aviation lives without a blip.   This is not the same as someone who’s being treated for chronic depression.

It’s actually mentioned over and over in training – are you mentally fit?  As pilots we’re constantly asking ourselves are we fit to fly.

  • How was the drive to the airport?
  • Did you have road rage?
  • Have you settled down?
  • How’s things at home?
  • Are you stressed about something you can’t deal with?
  • Have you had sleep?
  • Have you eaten enough?
  • Are you feeling good?
  • Is your stomach working properly?
  • Are you concentrating 100% on the job at hand?
  • Slow down, you’re moving too fast.
  • Think.
  • Have you done everything correctly?

Imagine you’re imbued with the darkness of the Black Dog.  These questions above are like a fluffy layer of impertinence when your soul is grappling with issues like

  • Should I kill myself?


  • Is this all there is to life?

We’re so babied as humans these days,  someone has to tell you how to be an adult. We gamble with the devil and hope that our sensitive little lives aren’t reported by our aviation doctor.  Or our fellow pilots.

We’re not in a war.  During WWII pilots who displayed this sort of dark edge were called mysterious, “having a death wish” and were ultimately lauded for being purveyors of the true spirit of courage.

The modern narcissistic cult of the individual has exacerbated the dangers – anonymous little twerps can somehow leap into our popular consciousness with the effortless click of a Smartphone app.

Some say aviators have the characteristics of Rottweilers obsessed with speed, sports cars, flashy partners and loads of dosh.  Others believe its possible for pilots to be kindler, gentler, nice guys and gals who are sensitive.  And can have a mental disorder, as long as its treated.

It’s a simple thing, this aviation business.  Cock it up and die.  Simple.  That’s why loads of PIC hours are needed.  So if you have a propensity for weakness,  its outed at some point in your 1200 hours before you sit in the right seat.   600 hours is not enough.

So you need to be constantly scrutinised by those who do the managing – its invasive yet  totally acceptable.  But I’ve heard from people who say it’s their private business.  Well its not. It’s not even their private business if they’re flying in some isolated area alone.

This includes being assessed for mental stability.  ANY signs of being suicidal and you HAVE to be hoiked off the flight deck.  It’s a place for curious people concentrating exclusively on allowing everyone to live by being really really motivated and utterly obsessed with safety.  Constantly.  Almost boring. You’re so good, you’re like the amazing wicket keeper who no-one notices because you’re a metronome of efficiency.

Andreas Lubitz. Source: Facebook.
Andreas Lubitz. Source: Facebook.

Don’t forget it’s the pointy end of a missile in which families are sitting.  Hundreds of people with thousands of loved ones.  The cult of the “individual is always right” and that fuzzy little idea, Outcomes Based Education, has begun to collide with reality

Sometimes your individual rights have to be put aside for the rights of the majority.

If you can’t cut it, you lose your knife.  Or everyone loses their life.

Another Hypoxia Event – Or Worse?

Another plane down.  This time 150 people are dead, 144 passengers and six crew on board flight 4U 9525 from Barcelona to Duesseldorf. An Airbus A320 operated by GermanWings – a subsidiary of Lufthansa flew straight into the Alps.  The crash looks like a CFIT or Controlled Flight Into Terrain incident. The Cockpit Voice Recorder has been found and the recording will be analysed.  Some say the recording will be normal until a deafening crash – because the windshield caved in.  Before rampant speculation grows, lets look at a few puzzling facts.

Firstly, why did the pilots not communicate in any way when there was obviously something going wrong?  The plane reached its cruising altitude of 38 000 feet and a minute later began descending.  Quickly but not in a death spiral.  It also maintained speed over the next 8 minutes indicating more than likely that the autopilot was engaged.

Secondly, what triggered its descent?  Some are suggesting fire that quickly overcame the pilots,  others hypoxia.  That the compression system failed and then the pilots somehow were unaware.  There is an alarm that sounds when the compression drops – and the standard procedure ensures that the pilot and first officer don oxygen masks, and ensure that their comms are working.

Here is a graph of what’s known as “useful consciousness” at various altitudes.  Note the useful consciousness after rapid decompression is about 15 seconds at 38 000 feet.

……………………Standard Ascent Rate……..After Rapid Decompression
Altitude (Feet)………….Time…………………………Time
18,000……………..20 to 30 minutes…………10 to 15 minutes
22,000……………..10 minutes…………………5 minutes
25,000………………3 to 5 minutes……………1.5 to 3.5 minutes
28,000………………2.5 to 3 minutes…………1.25 to 1.5 minutes
30,000………………1 to 2 minutes……………30 to 60 seconds
35,000………………30 to 60 seconds…………15 to 30 seconds
40,000………………15 to 20 seconds…………7 to 10 seconds
43,000………………9 to 12 seconds…………..5 seconds

A fire?  Then if it was so bad that the pilots couldn’t say anything, then its unlikely the plane would have continued for 8 minutes.

One of the truly terrifying comments was made overnight by one pilot flying the same plane, who has suggested the windshield collapsing scenario.  That would have probably killed both pilots outright – or at least left them immediately critically injured.  The 700kph wind blast at -56 degrees isn’t something you’ll survive.  Maybe one managed to get a hand to the autopilot and select “descend” by feel, then passed out. The first thing pilots do is grab their oxygen masks.  But a windscreen smashing itself to bits against you and the cockpit means damage to pipes and masks.

Or as the British Airways BAC111 incident showed, a windshield failure saw the shield blowing OUT and the Captain was sucked half out the the front.  The F/O managed to grab the Captain who’s feet had snagged on the control panel.   In that incident the F/O flew the plane with oxygen mask on to land at the nearest airfield and the Captain survived.

After 7 of the eight minutes the plane would have dipped below 10 000 feet when the ground proximity warning would have triggered as approached the Alps.  It seems none of the crew were in any condition to react.

Have a look at the graphic alongside.

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This is what happens when there’s decompression.  Note that the order is:

1) Don Oxygen masks

2) Descend

3) Target adjustments (think about where to land)

4) Communicate if possible

5) Check ECAM options (Electronic Centralised Aircraft Monitor) – which displays data concerning aircraft systems and failures.

6) Proceed to FL10 or 10 000 feet

Pilots know the golden rule.  You can fly without oxygen between 10 000 and 12 000 feet, but only for less than two hours.  The safe altitude is below 10 000 feet.

So in this case the glaring omission is the communication.  This blog is called Aviate Navigate Communicate for a reason.  The first thing you’re taught to do is fly the bird.  The second is navigate and the third is communicate.  So maybe they were so busy doing the first and second, they couldn’t do the third.

But its unlikely.

Another possible scenario is someone entered the flight deck and incapacitated the crew.  However, no-one has claimed responsibility for bringing down this plane.  So its looking like a major explosive decompression which damaged the aircraft and communication equipment – and the pilots.