On Pilots and the Sacred Trust

A violation of trust, an act of murder.

Like most other frequent airline travelers, I was horrified to learn this morning that the cause of this week’s German Wings airplane crash in the French Alps is most likely the deliberate action of the “co-pilot” (i.e., First Officer), who locked the “pilot” (i.e., Captain) out of the “cockpit” (i.e., flight deck) and put the airplane into a steep descent that ended when it hit a mountain.

The only good thing to note about this is that men, women, and children on board likely never felt a thing as their lives were extinguished, like a candle’s flame between two calloused fingers.

As a pilot, this was more horrific to me. Why? Because the pilot who is responsible violated what I consider a sacred trust.

Let me try to explain. When I fly my helicopter, there is nothing more important to me than my passengers. By climbing aboard my aircraft, whether it’s for a 7-minute “hop ride” around town or a cross-country journey lasting hours, they have proven to me that they trust me with their lives. I don’t take that trust lightly. Maybe I pay closer attention to details, like the wind speed and direction or the way the helicopter lifts off the ground into a hover with their weight distribution. Maybe I fly a little higher, to reduce mechanical turbulence on a windy day and ensure that I’m well outside the “Deadman’s Curve” in the unlikely event of an engine failure. Maybe I keep my bank angle on turns a little flatter and my approaches and departures a little shallower to ensure a smooth flight.

I want my passengers to be not only safe, but comfortable. I want their memories of flying with me to include only the pleasant experiences they have during the flight.

I know a lot of pilots who don’t seem to think this way. Their goal is to impress their passengers with what they consider their flying skill. They want to give “E-Ticket rides.” For some reason, they think this is what their passengers want — and maybe some of them think they do.

But what passengers really want is to get off the aircraft in the same condition they got on it: safe, unharmed — and yes — alive.

And that’s what I call a sacred trust. The passengers trust the pilot to ensure their safety. If the pilot does anything to compromise that safety — whether it’s buzzing a backyard barbecue or diving into a mountain in France — he’s violated that sacred trust.

Pilots who even consider doing dangerous or suicidal things with passengers on board should not be in control of an aircraft.

I’m about to get on this airplane for a flight from CA to WA. Do I need to worry about the mental state of the pilots?

As a pilot, I’m upset that a young German pilot decided to kill himself and the 149 people who trusted him with their lives in such a horrific act. I’m worried about what future passengers will think about their pilots’ mental state of mind. I’m worried that people will use this incident to fuel their fears of flying, to avoid flying altogether. I’m worried that the FAA or airline management or other authorities will enact knee-jerk rules and regulations — like the one that made cockpit doors impregnable — that further burden responsible pilots with tests and paperwork that add to their stress and workload.

Most of all, I’m angry about the half-informed media coverage and their “experts,” jumping to conclusions and exploring crazy conspiracy theories, grasping for someone to blame, instilling fears in viewers and listeners and readers.


Let’s get this straight: it’s all about a pilot who betrayed his passengers’ sacred trust.

This is not just suicide by airplane. This pilot committed murder, pure and simple. In doing so, he sullied the reputation of other professional pilots who take their responsibilities as a pilot seriously.

And that’s what upsets me most of all.

28-Feb-15 Update:Pilot Who Downed Airliner Vowed ‘To Do Something’ To Be Remembered” might shed some additional light on his state of mind.

17 thoughts on “On Pilots and the Sacred Trust

  1. Now they say he was mentally ill and had a nervous breakdown and took a leave of absence some time ago, and yet they do no psychological screening. What’s up with that?

  2. Can’t agree with you more. I’m sure I’m not the only one thinking that the whole “cockpit fortress” idea might have to be revisited at some point.

    • One thing is for sure: this will put a real damper on the industry’s desire to cut costs by having only ONE pilot in the cockpit at all ties.

  3. thank you. another author stated “you cant stop crazy”. probably true, but its time that aircraft manufactures and airlines realize the relationship between safety and passenger/pilot trust is eventually going to have to be fully reconciled in an age of increasing lawlessness and increasing dependence on commercial aviation. the new cry for passengers will be “remember 3/24”

    • In a way, I agree that you can’t stop crazy. The trouble is especially bad with pilots who have no regard for the safety of their pilots — I guess that was my main point here. If this guy was crazy/suicidal, why did he have to take 149 people with him? This might shed some light on that: http://nwpr.org/post/pilot-who-downed-airliner-vowed-do-something-be-remembered

      What I hope is this: from now on, two crew members will always be required in the cockpit. That’s already a U.S. rule; it should be enforced worldwide. Maybe that can stop some future crazy — who knows how much it has already stopped?

  4. Logistically,an “always 2 at the controls” rule would make it impossible for a pilot to use the toilet while flying. While this isn’t really an issue with us helicopter types, how would you make that work on those 8+ hour long overseas flights? NASA-style diapers? I don’t think that would be very well received.

    Unless they go back to 3 crew members (remember flight engineers?) it’s inevitable that there WILL be times when only one pilot is up front. Since they’re already paying some commuter pilots less than poverty wages, I can’t really see them adding yet another paid seat up front. The obvious solution is for the cockpit door to be lockable/unlockable from the outside, not just barred from the inside. Perhaps it could be a double combination lock that the PIC and co-pilot set separately before every flight, there has got to be a way to make it work.

    Of course, my idea to solve the original 9-11 hijacking problem was a lot simpler than an armored cockpit door. I proposed that the airlines just clip a Louisville slugger to the back of every passenger seat. Now that we all know the fate of a hijacked airplane is to be shot down, there is NO possibility that anyone would ever be able to take control of a flight unless they co-opt every passenger present. It might be a bit messy, but it would work.

    • I’m not sure who said “always two at the controls.” I said “always two in the cockpit.” That’s how they do it in the U.S. If a pilot needs to use the toilet, a flight attendant comes into the cockpit until the pilot is back.

      As for the door, on the Airbus there IS a way to open it from the outside — but it requires that the person on the inside NOT try to block entrance. This was covered on a few of the articles I read.

  5. Thanks Maria for this post! What you describe of your behaviour is how I imagine pilots should be like. But I always worry at the same time, not that there will be someone criminal in the cockpit, but about what ego and the status and prestige of being a pilot may do to people. That they may be overestimating themselves, underestimating the danger, not realising what’s at stake. That’s the sort of things I’m afraid of. Things that are human and not pathological nor criminal per se but that I’m just not sure are under control, because… well for one thing they’re not really mentionned anywhere in the ton of articles on the subject right now. When people reply to my fear of lying with statistic and ‘trust the pilot they’re super trained and they’re great and basically potential superheroes’ I’m more scared. I’ve got the same feeling than when it’s a doctor: it’s my life that’s at stake. And I feel like, if the person taking responsability for it is so trained and superhero-ical, how much do they really relate at all to how things look like from where I’m standing? There’s an Airfrance pilot out there who I really like. Of course I have no idea who he is. But I know I flew with him at least twice within 5 years – because both times he made a speech after landing telling everyone to drive safe and that the safest part of the trip was now over with… and the first time, even a joke about getting moon-burned when discussing the weather. Talking like that (or be it only to tell everyone what’s up after something not dangerous, but impressive, happened…) just shows you know you have people on board and you don’t despise them. I really wish more pilots would write stuff about this right now because that would really help me with my fear (and the cockpit becoming a sort of panic room and isolating the pilots in there doesn’t, even if I rationally understand the reason).

    • You’ve got some really good points here. I’m not going to tell you not to be afraid — heck, I have some fears when I climb into a metal tube for a flight at 30,000 feet! But you need to try to rationalize the situation. That’s where the statistics and assurances from others help. Flying is still the safest way to travel.

      That said, I want to mention that I know quite a few airline pilots. Most of them are around my age and have been doing it for some time. Some of them are extremely enthusiastic about flying and sharing the joy they still feel as pilots with their passengers. The Airfrance pilot you mentioned is probably like that. They often try to point out places of interest on the ground or warn about light turbulence. One of my friends, who often flies to or from Seattle will actually ask air traffic control if he can fly between Mt. Rainier and Mt. St. Helens on departure so he can give passengers on both sides of the aircraft something to see. I often fly out of Seattle these days and have been on many flights that follow the same path on a nice day.

      And while not all of my airline pilot friends are so enthusiastic about flying, all of them are aware of their responsibility for the safety and well-being of their passengers. All of them. I’ve got one friend who prefers “standby scheduling” where he flies only when a spare pilot is needed. He only flies a few times a month. Yet he’ll tell me stories about how he worked with air traffic control to find smoother air for a flight or did something else to make the flight better.

      Keep in mind that not all pilots like to talk on the intercom and not all passengers like their flight “bothered” by interruptions. A quiet pilot isn’t any less safe or caring than a chatty one.

      But nothing is certain in life and I think that’s one of the lessons the Germanwings crash taught us. I’m hoping that one of the lessons learned is that the cockpit door should not be impregnable. But I’m also hoping that it doesn’t cause the FAA and other aviation authorities to run pilots through yet another regular battery of tests to check their psychological state of mind. Only a small percentage of pilots — as with any other group of people — might be suicidal and it’s a very rare instance indeed when a person intent on suicide is uncaring enough to take 149 people with him to his death.

      And that was the point of my post: most pilots care enough about their responsibility to their passengers to keep them from harm.

      Even though I dislike squeezing into a metal tube for a flight at 30,000 feet, I try hard to enjoy the experience. I sit by a window, I look out at the view. I identify places I know from the air — rivers, lakes, mountain ranges, roads, cities. I’ve flown extensively throughout the west and have gotten pretty good at it. If it’s my fate to die in a plane crash, so be it! I’m not going to let thoughts of that disrupt my life. I hope you’ll do the same!

      Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  6. Good points all, Maria. Everyone in our society routinely takes risks that are FAR higher than airline flying without obsessing about them, like driving on undivided highways. The closing speed of a head-on collision is typically well over 100 mph, and all that separates us from those thousands of potential collisions is a stripe of paint and the good behavior of the other drivers. There is just something about the perceived lack of control when flying aboard an airliner that seems to make people irrationally nervous. This is true even when they KNOW that the airlines are statistically much safer than driving around on the roads.

    The truth is that there is no realistic way to prevent every possible airline crash other than just not flying at all. People make mistakes, machines don’t always work as expected, weather is inherently unpredictable, and sometimes just plain back luck rears its head as well. Even with all that working against us, there has never been a safer form of long-distance travel, and there likely never will be, at least in our lifetimes. Wilber Wright had it down back in the very beginning of aviation when he said “If you are looking for perfect safety, you will do well to sit on a fence and watch the birds…”

    • The undivided highway point is excellent — although very scary. Reminds me of this: https://youtu.be/BGPcSd7DDLk

      Agreed: crashes can’t be prevented. Whenever you leave the safety of your home, you’re putting yourself at risk of injury or death due to someone else’s action. Or even your own. And even that can happen at home. But what’s the solution? Living in a padded room? Or regulating everything to the point where pilot (or truck driver or train engineer, etc.) jobs are impossible to get without lying — which is exactly what the Germanwings pilot did anyway?

      There’s no answer, but I’m not losing sleep over it.

    • I’d totally forgotten about that scene, eerie, isn’t it? I especially like the haunted look on Allens face when he’s riding with him as a passenger afterwards. You can tell exactly what he’s thinking even though he doesn’t say a word. In my years as an EMS helicopter pilot I’ve been to many horrible head-on crash sites, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if it turned out that some of them were deliberate. In NM it seemed like most (far too many) of them were alcohol related, but in others they never really do find out why the car crossed the centerline.

What do you think?