One More Level of Unanswerable Questions

At least part of me hopes the questions remain unanswerable.

One refers to the conclusions reached by the German and French investigators into the crash of the Germanwings Airbus flight from Barcelona to Germany.  It took off, headed briefly out over the Mediterranean, then turned north over the French Alps.  Almost immediately after it reached cruising altitude it nosed down and in a perfectly orderly fashion drove into a mountainside, killing all 150 or so people onboard.  There were no distress calls from the cockpit.

Slightly more than half the victims were German, among them a group of students from a small town in Nordrhein-Westfalen who had been on a student exchange visit.  There were fewer places available than students who wanted to go, and so they resolved the issue the old-fashioned way: by lottery.

So far they’ve found only the cockpit voice recorder.  They found the casing for the flight data recorder but the actual device itself remains missing.  If it got smacked about hard enough to break open the case I have to wonder whether the recording mechanism will have survived.

The families of the victims of course are consumed with why?  Why my child?  My husband?  My sister?  Why couldn’t they have taken the train to Barcelona?  Why was my grandchild on that flight and not one later in the day?  Those questions can never be answered.  In fact they’re pretty pointless when you think about it.  Your daughter was on that flight because she wanted to get from Spain to Germany in a hurry and there was a seat on that flight she could pay for.  Full stop.  Yes, that’s one of those things you know, in purely mental sense, but for someone who woke up this morning with an intact family and is now a widow with no surviving children, that’s not an answer.

And now we’ve got a whole litany of other, more sinister, unanswerable questions.  It appears that the co-pilot intentionally crashed the plane.  In a press conference the French crash investigators have shared the results of the voice analysis.  That they were able to do so as quickly is itself ominous, for reasons that will become clear.

After take-off, you can hear the pilot, a long-experienced aviator, and the co-pilot, much newer at the trade but well able to fly the plane, talking between themselves.  That takes up about twenty minutes.  Then the pilot excuses himself from the cockpit, apparently to use the toilet and, true to protocol, formally requests the co-pilot to take command of the ship.

Those are the last words recorded originating from within the cockpit.  There is nothing from the co-pilot, not even murmuring to himself.  You can hear the air traffic controllers attempting to contact the plane when they see it begin its controlled descent into the middle of a mountain chain.  There is no response from the co-pilot.  You can hear him breathing normally.  Apparently you can hear as the co-pilot commenced the controlled descent.  There is no sound of emergency indicators, except for — again — towards the end when the plane’s sensors trigger at the approach of ground.  There is no sound of anyone attempting to regain control of the plane.  After a brief time you can hear knocking on the (now locked from the inside) door to the cockpit, then banging.  Only towards the very end can you hear screams from back in the cabin, as the passengers awake to the fact of what’s about to happen.

According to the Lufthansa press conference, there is an emergency code to achieve access to the cockpit when the armored door is locked.  There is no reason to suppose that the pilot, outside and banging on the door, would not have entered that code.  The problem is that even that code can be over-ridden . . . from within the cockpit, but it requires an intentional pressing of a specific button to accomplish that.

According to Lufthansa, immediately after the crash they conducted an examination to see what, if any, associations might exist between the flight crew and known terrorist organizations or individuals.  According to them, all such inquiries came back negative.  It’s only been a couple of days, however, and one has to question whether such an investigation by an airline can be as complete as going back and tracking this fellow’s movements and communications for weeks.  Unfortunately in today’s world you simply cannot exclude the involvement of the Religion of Peace without pulling someone’s life to pieces and seeing where the clues lead.

Suffice it to say that, for the moment, the indications are a psychically disturbed individual.  Lufthansa has, as you would expect, a company-wide policy of mandatory reporting of unusual behaviors among co-workers.  See someone act like he may be wigging out and you report it.  That can’t be more than a very imperfect screen, though.  How many people have had a family member commit suicide or otherwise snap, and afterwards everyone sits around racking his recollection for something, anything, that might have seemed amiss . . . only to come up empty?

As it turns out, the 28-year-old interrupted his pilot’s training for a time.  He seems to have shared with a female friend that he did so for emotional reasons:  “burnout” and “depression” are explicitly mentioned.  Afterwards he picked back up and finished his training.  Lufthansa’s psychological testing of its prospective employees does not appear to have caught any anomalies, or recommended any further testing or probationary periods.  What this suggests to me at least is a reminder of how fundamentally impossible it is to get inside another person’s head and really know what’s moving around in there.  At least if he doesn’t want to let you in, and one of the characteristics of depression is a self-imposed isolation, shutting yourself in and everyone else out.

So now all the victims’ families get to add some more questions:  How did a crazy man survive the screening process to become a commercial pilot?  What did his co-workers see?  Why did he pick the flight my husband was on to decide finally to end it all?  Why couldn’t he have just jumped from the observation deck of headquarters, like a decent chap?  Why didn’t the pilot pee before they left?  How can you reach up and turn a knob 360 degrees (as apparently had to be done to commence the kind of descent observable here), knowing you’re killing 150 people who just want to get to Duisburg (correction 27 Mar 15) Düsseldorf?

[Update 27 Mar 15]:  Well, that didn’t take long.  Already there is at least one German blog that openly accuses the co-pilot of having converted to Islam during the six-month break he took in the middle of his pilot training.  I’m not linking to that site or to any translation of it, however, for three reasons, viz. (a) as easy an accusation as that is to make, and as viscerally attractive a conclusion in a world where the Religion of Peace seems to miss few chances to kill lots of innocent people, I want to see some proof of this alleged conversion before I accept it; (b) conversion is inconsistent with the story he apparently gave to a childhood friend at the time, that he was suffering from burn-out and depression; and, finally (c) when I tried myself to look at the German-language site, I got an Error 404 message.

Even more suggestive that we’re dealing with a crazy man (by the way, at least the German press is being honest enough to label him with the correct name:  “mass murderer”) is the fact that during the search of his apartment the police found (a) no suicide note and (b) no statement of religious confession;, but rather (c) a torn-up medical excuse from work, together with other evidence that Lubitz (the co-pilot) had been for some time in psychiatric treatment.  The medical excuse apparently covered a period inclusive of the day of the crash.  The airline was quick to point out that if he did not voluntarily submit it to his employer, the employer would have no way of knowing.  [I’ll observe that unless there is some exception that I’m unaware of, under HIPAA the same result would obtain for an American pilot.  Isn’t that comforting?]

In more encouraging news, at least for those who fly on American-flag carriers, the FAA has since September 11 followed a two-man rule in the cockpit.  No pilot is ever alone; if one needs to go unburden himself, one of the other flight crew comes in, the remaining (co-)pilot puts on his oxygen mask, the remaining two lock themselves in, and they jointly await the return.  In fact, pilots and co-pilots on US-flag carriers are not even permitted to eat the same in-flight meal, it seems, lest the inedible “chicken” or “beef” give both of them a fatal case of the colly-wobbles at the same time (and it’s good to see the FAA recognizing the safety implications of airline food; now if we could just get them to conclude that charging $4.00 for a 16-oz. bottle of Coke in the concourse junk food shop represents a hazard to aviation).

[Update: 30 Mar 15]:  Now it turns out that Lubitz had been mustering with the rubber spoon platoon for some time, before, in fact, he ever got his pilot’s license.  He was specifically diagnosed back then as being at risk for suicide, and was all the way up to the time of the crash in psychotherapeutic treatment (although apparently his most recent trick cyclists hadn’t noted any suicidal tendencies).  The Düsseldorf state’s attorney’s office has 100 people combing through physical and documentary evidence, interviewing people from his personal and professional circles of acquaintance.  So far they disclaim any provable motive.  Stay tuned, I suppose.

[Update: 01 Apr 15]:  Reports are now that Lubitz informed the aviation school (owned by Lufthansa) of his depressive episode in connection with re-admission to the course, from which he’d taken a six-month break.  Medical records were provided by him as well, it seems.  He claimed, however, that his condition had dissipated.  And of course, he passed whatever medical examination is required for a German pilot’s license.  His report of the episode appears to have been voluntary, by the way.

In further news, the crash site investigators have found a cell phone storage card containing video of the plane’s final seconds.  Although individual people are alleged not to be recognizable, it seems that the passengers were fully aware of what was happening and about to happen.  Screams of “My God!” in multiple languages are to be heard.

Now comes the battle of whether and under what circumstances to release the video.

On which last point I’ll observe that I have mixed feelings about the existence of this video and its contents becoming general knowledge.  However cold comfort it might be to think this about your family’s victim, in plane crashes up until now there was always the thought that, well, maybe the passengers didn’t know and so at least their final moments were not be spent in searing terror.

Where everyone is a videographer now, the existence of such evidence has to be reckoned with from here on out.  We who have not lost a friend or family member to something like this cannot truly think ourselves into the shoes of those who have, of course.  But if I were among those secondary victims, would I want to know that my beautiful teenage child, on whom I’d lavished so much affection over the years and in whom so much of my hopes for the future of my family and of the world in general were bound up, died in gut-wrenching, terrified certainty of his/her imminent violent death?  The mere suspicion that it played out that way would be bad enough, but up until now I could always tell myself that perhaps it was not so.  Perhaps she nodded off listening to her iPad and that’s how she died — with the music she loved best in her ears.  Did whoever shot this video do me any favors?

May God spare me from ever knowing the answer to that last question.



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