When an airline captain has a nervous break-down in flight

On 27 March 2012, an airline captain had a nervous break-down in flight when he couldn't get into the lavatory. The crew and passengers subdued the captain and the copilot performed an emergency landing. The CEO of the airline involved acted surprised, as the pilot was a “consummate professional”. He commended the actions of the crew and of the passengers leading to a safe resolution of the high-above-the-ground drama.

A few months before, I read the book "The Pilot", a novel written by Robert P. Davis in the seventies (Morrow, New York, 1976. There is the film version too, directed by Cliff Robertson, starred by Robertson himself and Diane Baker, Summit Films, 1980). The episode of "let me in!" into the lavatory was present there. Do you know what the pilot in the novel was hiding inside? (Warning: story spoiler here. You may jump to the next paragraph after "OK" if you wish) He contrived a way to have at hand, in each and every flight, his much-needed flask of bourbon whiskey. Can you imagine? Tens of thousands of commercial "consummate professional" pilots out there and... no one of them with this kind of problems? Did you ever have an acquaintance with a drinking problem? Notwithstanding the "medical situation", you see him or her taking his or her car every day in the morning to go to his or her high-paying job. Nobody knows, only you and his or her spouse. The news story points out that all pilots have to pass yearly medical examinations, including "questions" about their psychological health. I rely more on yearly full blood and urine screenings.

OK, let's spare his poor family in this case and let's say that it is not bourbon.

Anyway, a normal person, "consummate professional", can handle stressful situations for months or years in a row (say 9/11) until you need some serious medical help to stop your increasingly spiraling wild thoughts. This poor airline pilot is made of flesh and bones, not aeronautical duralumin. Let's say that Osama bin Laden (and his counterpart in his tango) did get into this poor captain's mind and succeeded in making him wake up in the middle of the night, sweating and yelling: "We are in flames! We are in flames!". So when that happens go to your shrink and she or he might give you a prescription. Oh, and don't forget to tell your airline that you will take a leave of absence of a full year while clonazepam ("do not operate heavy machinery") does its job. Simple. Quite utopian simple.

In an Internet forum, a gentle person asked if he or she can take a flight after this incident. Yes, you can fly. As well as you can drive among all those crazy drivers in the highway.

Another gentle private commentator (a pilot her- or himself) reminded that airliner cockpits are almost claustrophobic and this doesn't help with mental sanity. Yes, dear commentator, you are right. Few people know that "the pilots' office" in airliners are not actually located in the main fuselage but packed toward the nose cone. But I tell you: what is not designed for safety is the paranoid environment in the departing airport. By the way, General Dynamics has the answer for much relaxed experiences: US$ 65-million private Gulfstream 650s: no queues, no x-rays, you can take your shampoo bottle with you, better psychological environment for everybody. Though the constant route changes of customized air rides reduces the proficiency of the crew with respect to terrain, runway headings, etc. to a level below those of the airliners', and so the safety statistics lag behind.

Airbus thought they have nailed the answer in the late eighties with computer-supervised, pilot-overriding fly-by-wire controls, but now they have one less redundant pair of arms in the cockpit to subdue the crumbling-down crew member (actually it was Boeing who rid away with the flight engineer in the sixties, with the 737). The question is: when will we get the order-of-magnitude increase in safety promised by quadruple-redundant autoland systems and the like? What is happening? Is the tug-of-war between pilots and engineers, that professors at college use to tell us about, really interfering with air safety? (Pilots: "You engineers do not know how to fly an airplane". Engineers: "You pilots do not know why an airplane flies", etc.)

Astronaut legend Michael Collins wisely put it in his autobiography "Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut's Journeys" (with a foreword by Charles Lindbergh, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York, 1974) that beyond all that technological miracle you see at plain sight hides the fallible hand of human beings. So, all failure in a marvelous machine like a modern airliner is ultimately reduced to a human error committed somewhere in the line from initial conception to production to operation of the machine. Now we have witnessed one of those human errors: a clonazepam-needing pilot that no aeronautical engineer envisaged. Luckily, "customers" did their job, as the CEO put it. If this is not a shame for the Aeronautical Industry, I don't know what it is.

Please allow me to explain myself: my guess is that we are being pushed toward some Corner of a Man vs. Machine Envelope, analogous to the infamous Corner of the Flight Envelope where the airplane is flying too high and too fast and if you touch anything your airplane will drop a wing and you know. From now on, do we have to factor quadruple-redundant "customers" into the x-, y- and z- static, aerodynamic stability equations? Or do we have to get rid of the flesh-and-bones components altogether and put "HAL-nine-triple-zeros" at the helm? (don't laugh: the military is heading this way at this very moment).

Apollo 11 had triple-redundant drivers onboard (a known fact is that Mike Collins felt disturbed at thinking that he was trained by NASA to bring the Columbia Command & Service Module back to Earth all by himself, just in case...). And it carried no passengers. Now we have 800-passenger giants with only double redundancy at the front end. Obsessive-compulsive Aviator Howard Hughes lifted off with the largest plane in History with a flight crew of 18, not counting management and engineering people.

Speaking of helms, on 28 April 1789 a reportedly, unreasonable captain was subdued by his crew and kicked-off the ship. That was of course, the "Mutiny of the Bounty". Now please, engineer this: a wacko captain comes up with an input mode like "I gonna nose-dive this metal tube into the ground" but his single redundant human back-up system reacts in the mode "No way, sir, we are going to straighten up these wings and fly right". Who wins? Does anybody think this is an impossible scenario? Do you remember Flight 185, Flight 990?

Yes, we have to engineer for that too. That was the lesson taught to us on Tuesday, 27 March 2012. And please, don't include the "customers" into the equation: they are not paying for that.

Aldo Loup.

Post Scriptum.: R.I.P. Flight 4U9525.

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Photograph: From inside a modern jetway at Incheon International Airport serving Seoul, Korea, 19 September 2007. Credit: Jens Petersen (original license, of the photograph only, obtained at: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en). With permission from Jens Petersen.