Search This Blog

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Contemplating the Incomprehensible

[Yes, this is late to need, even by my dodgy standards. But shifting continents and going without teh intarwebz will do that.][Along with a desperate wish to avoid the subject entirely.]

When I first heard the circumstances of MH370's disappearance, I immediately saw it for what it was: a mass-murdering suicide.

The day Germanwings 3252 crashed, I was having dinner with some friends in Los Angeles. Aware that I have some expertise in the field, the very first topic of conversation was: What happened?

So I fired up the Speculamatator™. Based on the few known facts, I worked my way through each possibility: decompression, fire, hijacking, engine failure. Each ran into insuperable difficulties long before the airplane hit the ground.

Oddly, given that I was so quick to suss MH370, the idea that GW3252 was also a suicidal hijacking never crossed my mind.

After all, even leaving MH370 aside, it isn't the first time it has happened. (That article leaves out another case of pilot suicide, this time using an A-10 by a guy I happened to briefly meet a couple months before his fatal flight.)

The MSM have covered this story reasonably well, considering reporters have very little insight to a profession that is, in many respects, so unique as to defy more than passing comprehension. By that I mean the MSM got most of the basics right, but had nothing beyond that.

First, some perhaps dispiriting news. In contrast to what I have read in a few places, pilots are not subject to any systematic psychological testing. Some airlines make a stab at it during the hiring process. One I know of used the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory; having taken it, I doubt it would successfully diagnose a serial murderer caught in the act. However, at least at the major airline level, the interview process itself is very stressful. There is a great deal at stake, and every step along the way, of which there are a great many, is designed tighten the rack another notch. All of this makes sense. Pilots need to be cool under pressure, highly skilled, at least reasonably intelligent, and well adjusted enough to get along with other people for long periods in confined conditions.

Having passed that hurdle, though, there are no psychological examinations worthy of the name. I take a Class I flight physical from an FAA approved examiner twice a year. The joke is that there are two requirements to pass: be able to fog a mirror, and sign a credit card receipt.

So we are all just playing Russian roulette, then, right?

Well, yes, but mostly no. There have been aircraft suicides in the US, but aside from the A-10 I mentioned above, all have involved light aircraft. To merely hope to get an interview at a major American airline requires extensive, successful, experience: at least 2,000 hours as pilot in command of turbine powered aircraft. US airlines can hold that line because the civil aviation sector has not yet been taxed into a coma, and the military still produces a decent number of pilots.* This is also true of England and Australia.

Most of the world's airlines outside the Anglosphere do one of two things: hire pilots from the Anglosphere, or resort to ab initio flight training. In ab initio training, airlines hire people with little or no experience, run them through a training program that, in a year or so, puts butts into airliner first officer seats.

That is how GermanWings has a 630 hour A320 first officer; in the US, it takes 1,500 hours just to get an Airline Transport Pilot certificate.

Which could be why, while there have been pilot suicides in the US, none have yet involved airliners.** Profoundly disfunctional people can fake normalcy, but it is a real tough act to pull off for very long.

Then there are the pilots themselves. There is no more self-similar group anywhere. More than 94% male. In Western countries, about 98% white, 98% conservative, and roughly 130% own guns. To the extent my gaydar is correctly calibrated, virtually none are gay; in 37 years of flying, I know of two.

We all dress the same -- negligently -- have the same hobbies, and talk about the same stuff: a few words about the family, more about hobbies, toys, guns. Some shots at the circus act in the White House. Then mostly nothing, unless it is about flying.

I have no data, but I suspect that alcoholism is lower than the general population. Not because pilots are better somehow, but rather that the nature of getting the job filters out all but the most high functioning addicts. Which isn't to say we don't drink -- almost all of us do, and we make a point of it. But over 15 years in this job, I have only flown with one guy who drank too much, and his hangover, vicious though it surely was, didn't bleed over into the next flight.

Similarly with emotional issues. For the most part, unless sarcasm is counted as an emotion, pilots don't have any. The rate of expensive divorces is disturbingly high, as is the rate of marriages to flight attendants. The insufferable fundament rate is far less, although not invisible.

What I'm getting around to here is that where winnowing has a chance, the chaff will get left behind.

This is getting dangerously close to affirming that merit matters. Just as it is getting dangerously close to recognizing that protections we put in place for the vast majority of those with mental issues put as at the mercy of those whose issues are one more step beyond. We protect the rights of the Adam Lanzas, and the Andreas Lubitzes. Why? Because there are thousands of not quite, and, before the act, indistinguishable from, Lanzas and Lubitzes.

The problem is even more fiendish than mere numbers. Addiction is the perfect analogy. Until twenty or so years ago, admitting addiction, alcohol or otherwise, was a career death sentence for pilots. Finally, reason prevailed: the smart way to do things was not to punish admission, but rather subterfuge. Admit to addiction outside the flight deck, and your job is protected. You will have to undergo extensive addiction treatment and testing, true, but your livelihood isn't at risk.

The results speak for themselves.

Unfortunately, the model doesn't hold for the mentally ill. There is no test for that. Impressions are subjective. Germanwings (an airline I fly frequently these days) has absolutely no interest in retaining a pilot that has mental health issues. Unfortunately, the individual has every incentive to hide those issues from the company, and the system itself has nothing to offer. In Europe, there seems to be a greater tendency Not a lot.

The report with the recommendations, which has been presented to the European transportation commissioner, Violeta Bulc, for review, follows more than two months of discussions led by the regulator, the European Aviation Safety Agency, after the March 24 crash of a Germanwings airliner. The flight’s co-pilot had a history of severe depression and had shown suicidal tendencies.

The mind boggles.

If accepted by the European Commission officials, the changes could take effect within the next year. But the initial proposal has already been watered down, notably because of privacy concerns from Germany, and officials said they were prepared for delicate negotiations over the coming months with European pilots’ unions, which have until now resisted such monitoring as overly intrusive and only minimally effective in improving safety

There are some jobs, easily enough identified, that by their very nature put themselves beyond "privacy concerns". If you wish your privacy concerns to be paramount, find something else to do. Just as, in the US, the FAA doesn't give a damn about probable cause: if your number comes up for a random urinalysis, then a urinalysis you will do.

Aside from its new medical oversight proposals, the task force that issued the report said it would maintain its recommendation that two crew members be present in the cockpit at all times. The two-person rule, which was standard in the United States and other parts of the world after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, was not widely adopted in Europe before the Germanwings crash.

Well, duh. Flight attendants don't have a clue about how to fly the airplane, but they do know how to make a move to the door. The standard practice for FAs in the US is to sit in the vacant seat, which does no good whatsoever. If I was Head Dude What's in Charge, I would have them stand right at the flight deck door, ready to open it at the first sign of homocidal insanity.

So, where does that leave us?

Largely subject to fortune. There is no getting around that if a pilot wishes badly enough to kill everyone en route to his own suicide, he is likely to achieve his goal. MH270 has proved that***. Insisting upon a regime that treats all occurrences of depression as another mass murder will eliminate self-admission; yet, even self-admission is scarcely any better. Unlike alcohol, there is no blood-depression test.

For the US residents in the audience, your sleep will be less troubled in knowing that the experience requirements are high enough to have, so far, almost, provided a sufficient barrier to letting homicidal maniacs at the controls. As for everyone else, you can spend more time wondering just why it is that suicides occasionally insist upon including so many others in their desire for self destruction.

* Civil aviation costs in the US aren't at the prohibitive levels of Europe, but they have been heading skyward over the last 40 years (h/t !@#$%^& scum bag *&^%$#@! lawyers). At the end of the Cold War, the Navy and Air Force were producing about 3,000 fixed wing pilots per year. Now that number is below 900. A few weeks ago, I saw a presentation from our Chief Pilot. According to him, US airlines will run out of qualified candidates in three years.

** Some luck is involved here. FedEx 705 should have been an absolute horror show: the intent was to crash the plane into the Memphis hub.

*** The recent discovery of a piece from MH270 should shed some light. Having been through a mishap investigation course, I have some knowledge as to how much information metallurgists can get out of a piece of airplane: more than you would think possible. To my amateur eye, the piece separated without significant impact damage, which suggests that the attach points failed. Therefore, my guess is that the suicidal pilot ditched the airplane, which, in turn, makes the search area so large that we can confidently predict we will never find the wreckage.


Clovis e Adri said...

They say severe depression is more than a deep sadness, it also comes with angst and hatred. This last part must be what makes them to take down others in their final act. It is still part of the disease, instead of intrinsic evilness, or so they say.

erp said...

Thanks Skipper for shedding light on a very scary situation.