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March 26, 2015

Germanwings Flight 9525 Explained: iPads, Distracted Driving, Hanlon's Razor

The charge by a French prosecutor that 27-year-old German copilot Andreas Lubitz intentionally flew Germanwings Flight 9525 (4U9525) into the ground, killing 150 people strains credulity. So let's pursue a more reasonable explanation.

But first, let's point out the French prosecutor's conflict of interest. Who manufactured the aircraft? Airbus. Who's one of the primary owners of Airbus? The French government. Why is a prosecutor listening to aircraft tapes? Because not too long ago, the French aviation agency BEA was caught fudging an investigation report because they didn't want Airbus to look bad.

It is an absolute gift for Airbus that the flight from Spain to Germany crashed in France, and now France owns the investigation. So do not too quickly forget the French government's position and needs, and the serendipity of blaming it on: a German! très bien! The Greeks should be so lucky.

This unsupported proposal suggests that rather than being a sociopathic outlier, the young co-pilot was instead a very normal 27-year old. Consider the following scenario, and see if it doesn't explain what we've been told.

Captain Sondenheimer - who young Andreas may have tagged with a nickname (like Herr Stickler) sees the aircraft through it's climb and is sure it's established in cruise mode. The auto-pilot is engaged, and he says to the young co-pilot Ich muss einen Mann über ein Pferd finden Sie unter (or in English, I need to see a man about a horse) and goes to the lavatory after ensuring the cockpit door is locked.

And then for a few minutes, young Andreas is alone. Herr Stickler is in the can, and I suggest that Andreas did what he'd been waiting for - he pulled out his iPad and started checking social media. No way he could do that while Herr Stickler was in the cockpit.

First young Andreas turns up the speakers on the radios, so he'll be sure to hear any ATC or company calls. He gets into his iPad and checks Facebook and MeinGott! his friend Milo has a new YouTube video of his techno-band. So Andreas pops on the earbuds, just for a moment, and he's sure he'll still here the radio.

As any cyclist overtaking a jogger wearing ear-buds knows, the person wearing ear-buds becomes immersed in the experience and loses the ability to be distracted by normal sensory inputs. And unfortunately, Milo's band is streaming the dance version of their newest arrangement; it's an eleven-minute soundtrack and Andreas is quite taken with it.

In his isolation, Andreas was doing the same thing that a few 27-year-old passengers were probably doing: watching their social media, just for a second, and losing their situational awareness.

In fact, either while positioning the iPad among the controls, or perhaps while rocking in his seat to the tunes, Andreas presses the control stick with sufficient force to disengage the autopilot.

This is exactly what happened to Eastern 401, when the crew was distracted, unintentionally disengaged the auto-pilot, and the aircraft lost altitude and crashed.

The Captain, having relieved himself, was trying to get into the cabin when he felt the change as the autopilot disengaged and the nose dropped. The aircraft continued to fly at the speed she was trimmed for, at pretty much a consistent speed and rate of descent. The Captain banged on the door but Andreas was in the YouTube Zone.

The air traffic controllers started calling the plane when they noticed the descent. It came across quite clearly on the cockpit audio recorders, because Andreas had turned the speakers up. Between the earbuds and the engrossing video, Andreas was isolated from the real world. If he had any sensation of the Captain trying to beat the door down, he probably thought it was a Dubstep sampling in Milo's video.

In the end, the tragedy wasn't caused by a monstrous evil blackguard; just a 27-year-old who was driving flying distracted.

Hanlon's Razor : Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

Do you find this less believable than a 27-year old with no problems, a promising career, and no suicide note would kill 150 people without ever wavering in descent?

3 comments:

LRod said...

The media sure are hanging this guy out to dry. Watching CNN (which I try not to do, but it's often on in the background whilst I'm conducting my current task) nets almost hourly updates with more and more damning "evidence". Can that possibly be true of the investigation? And I share your skepticism about "prosecutors" being involved.

LRod
ZJX, ORD, ZAU retired

Anonymous said...

can't comment on your bike blog. take down the last photo on your most recent entry. thanks.

Vannevar said...

Dear Anon re photo - can you tell me, please, which post? (I got your comment after a few posts) Which photo and maybe why? Happy to consider your request, I won't publish it, needs more info. Cheers, VB

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