New technology recommends ground control to avoid pilot-caused air disasters
T has been revealed that technology that might have averted the German-wings tragedy by remotely seizing control of the plane has existed but has been ignored and resisted by the aviation industry globally.
Support for real-time monitoring of jets from the ground has stalled amid airline fears of the dangers of eliminating pilots and the possibilities of a so-called cyber-hijack by terrorists. Unions representing pilots are also against the move.
The 9/11 attacks on the US, in which terrorists used hijacked aircraft as weapons, sparked calls for new systems to prevent a repeat of the atrocity.
Philip Baum, editor of Aviation Security International, said the tragedy was partly due to ‘knee-jerk’ controls introduced after 9/11.
He told The Independent: ‘The ill-thought reinforced cockpit door has had catastrophic consequences’.
Baum said thinking about airline safety had been skewed by the 2001 terror attacks, adding that there had been ‘excessive attention given to terrorism’ and a ‘failure to address other threats to aviation security’.
Manufacturers in Europe and America have worked on ways of creating a ‘hijack-proof’ aircraft. In 2006, Boeing was awarded a US patent for an ‘uninterruptible autopilot system’.
This would allow pilots, ground controllers or security agencies such as the CIA to activate an automatic flight mode that cannot be turned off by anyone on board.
The system could also switch itself on if terrorists tried to fight their way into the cockpit, with pressure sensors on the door responding to excessive force.
The aircraft’s flight path could be radioed to it by ground control, and it would be brought safely down at a nearby airport using existing automatic landing aids.
Sources at Boeing claimed at the time that the anti-hijack equipment could be fitted to planes all over the world by 2010. But this has failed to happen amid safety concerns from pilots and airlines, and the technology remains unproven.
The ability to direct pilotless aircraft from the ground is well established – military drones have long been used for surveillance and targeted missile attacks.
In 2013, a 16-seater Jetstream airliner became the first passenger plane to fly ‘unmanned’ across UK civilian airspace.
It was controlled remotely from the ground for the 500-mile journey, though a pilot on board handled the take-off and landing.
But the idea of flying a plane carrying hundreds of passengers without any human intervention continues to worry experts.
Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority (BCAA) said there was no remote control system currently available that could cope with navigating the country’s crowded skies.
A spokesman added: ‘There are companies working on it, but the technology doesn’t exist in a practical or useable form yet.’
Pilots’ union Balpa fears using pilotless planes or allowing authorities to remotely take control of a stricken or hijacked aircraft – and believes it could leave planes in danger of being ‘hacked’ from afar.
A spokesman said: ‘Having at least two pilots on the flight deck has helped make flying an incredibly safe form of public transport. The focus in the wake of this tragic accident is likely to be on ensuring that both pilots always have access to the cockpit and cannot be prevented from re-entering.
‘With this and any other measures we must act with careful consideration to ensure we don’t create new safety risks or concerns such as those raised by the vulnerability of any form of remote control of a passenger aircraft.’
Aviation safety analyst Chris Yates said there had been frequent calls for remote-controlled aircraft takeover systems since 9/11. But he also argued that this could pose more risks to passengers, with ground controllers unable to see all that a pilot on board could see.
There is also a danger the technology would allow cyber-terrorists to hack into an airliner’s controls.
Yates added: ‘There has always been a desire to have the ability to control planes from the ground … But the ground element of that was entirely pooh-poohed by the aviation industry for a whole variety of reasons, not least of which is aircraft safety.
‘Questions will always be posed as to whether pilots should be taken out of the equation in the event of something like this so ground control would take over … I personally would not feel comfortable getting on any airliner where control could be taken away from the pilots and co-pilots.’
9/11 rules allowed tragedy to happen. The German-Wings disaster was made possible because of rules introduced after the 9/11 attacks to keep hijackers out of aircraft cockpits. Here Sam Marsden and Ray Massey analyse how co-pilot Andreas Lubitz took advantage of his colleague’s toilet break to crash the plane.
The days when aircraft captains wandered through the cabin chatting with air-hostesses and children are long gone. In general, both pilots must remain in their positions at the controls of the aircraft at all times, and on short-haul flights, they generally do not budge.
But once the jet is safely in the air, they can get up to use the toilet as long as they are not absent any longer than it is necessary.
Access to the cockpit door on the German-wings Airbus A320 (like the one above) can be disabled from inside the flight deck to prevent hijacking.
Many airlines have a rule that another crewmember must replace the pilot or co-pilot while they go to the toilet.
But, in line with German aviation authority requirements, German-wings did not stipulate that a pilot could not be left alone in the cockpit.
Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority has changed its guidance in light of the German-wings disaster and now urges UK airlines to enforce the two-person rule. Several European airlines, including Easy-Jet, have announced that they will now insist that two crew remain in the cockpit at all times.
The black box voice recorder recovered from the wreckage of the German-wings reveals that Sonderheimer first knocked gently on the door seeking to get back in after his brief toilet trip.
As the minutes passed and he realised his crazy co-pilot was steering all 150 people on board to their deaths, he became increasingly desperate and attempted to smash the door down.
But Lubitz was able to barricade himself inside the cockpit, thanks to the armoured-bullet-proof door designed to protect passengers by keeping out terrorists. These were made mandatory after the 9/11 terror attacks on the US.
To save weight, the reinforced cockpit doors often contain bullet-proof Kevlar and other super-strong composite compounds, as well as metal.
The Airbus A320 has a keypad outside the cockpit which allows cabin crew to gain access by tapping in a secret code if the pilots become incapacitated for some reason. But the pilot can flick a switch to lock the door from the inside,
which deactivates the external keypad for between five and 20 minutes.
Top airlines use psychological testing to check that would-be pilots are able to cope with stressful situations as well as possessing the skills needed to fly a large aircraft.
Anyone found to have a history of alcohol or drug addiction or a serious mental health problem faces rejection.
Flight crew have regular medical check-ups. Those under 40 are examined once a year, while older pilots undergo tests every six months.
Doctors look for health issues, including signs of stress, fatigue, drug or alcohol abuse that may point to deeper psychological problems. Without their medical certificate, pilots are not allowed to fly.
Aviation psychologist Professor Robert Bor said: ‘Every time they arrive at an airport they have to check-in and meet with other staff –not to spot a pilot with mental health problems would be rare.’
Lufthansa, the parent company of German-wings, said its air crew were chosen extremely carefully and subjected to psychological vetting.
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