Running Under Pressure: Lufthansa Announces “Random Medical Checks”

The unexpected can happen? Sure it can. Now Lufthansa is considering random medical checks for pilots, to help prevent any future disaster like the Germanwings crash that killed 150 people.

In a recent interview with a german newspaper, Lufthansa chief executive Carsten Spohr announced medical checks for pilots could be introduced, which in terms of the surprise factor would be similar to doping tests for sports men and women.

It is suspected that Andreas Lubitz, the Germanwings co-pilot deliberately crashed a plane in the Alps in March. Until today its unclear why he did so.
Andreas Lubitz, 27, is thought to have suffered some sort of mental breakdown. Prosecutors in Duesseldorf found evidence of “an existing illness and appropriate medical treatment”. They found torn-up sick notes at his home.

Germanwings is a budget airline managed by Lufthansa.

He said that in certain cases a doctor might have to be released from the duty of confidentiality, to reveal concerns about a pilot. Random checks might for example detect a drug that the pilot had concealed from his or her employer.

Since the disaster Lufthansa and other airlines have ruled that there must always be at least two people in the cockpit.

It is interesting to know what selection criteria would be applied for these “ramdon medical checks”.

Air accident investigators have staged a test flight to reconstruct conditions on board the Germanwings Airbus A320 which disintegrated on a mountainside in the French Alps after being put into a controlled dive.

The German tabloid Bild says experts flew an identical plane, which took off from Hamburg and returned there after flying in German airspace. It took place on 12 May, a spokesman for Germany’s crash investigation authority BFU said.

French investigators say they hope the reconstruction will help them analyse sounds recorded in the cockpit of Flight 4U 9525. The flight copied the various altitudes, speeds, the cockpit door locking mechanism and pilots’ breathing noises.

Capt. Ivan

AUTOMATION: Do We Really Need Someone in the Cockpit?

The recent Germanwings disaster has once again reminded us that human pilots are not always failsafe. One only has to look back as far as 2012 to find examples of unruly pilots being subdued by passengers, and of course 9/11 highlighted the extremes of hijacking. With such incidents, the question is inevitably raised as to whether it is feasible or desirable to have commercial flights that do not require a human pilot.

Mary - Missy - Cummings is the Director of Humans and Autonomy Lab at Duke University.  She was a Navy Officer and military pilot from 1988-1999, one of US Navy first female fighter pilots.  She is currently an associate professor in the Duke University Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials.  Alexander Simpson is a postdoctoral associate at Duke University working in the Humans and Autonomy Lab.

Mary – Missy – Cummings is the Director of Humans and Autonomy Lab at Duke University. She was a Navy Officer and military pilot from 1988-1999, one of US Navy first female fighter pilots. She is currently an associate professor in the Duke University Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials. Alexander Simpson is a postdoctoral associate at Duke University working in the Humans and Autonomy Lab.

With the development of new automated technologies, the workload in the cockpit has been dramatically decreasing – so much so that pilots self-report only touching the controls for about three to seven minutes during a typical flight. In fact, there exists a standard approach category (CAT III) in which the pilot does not touch the flight controls during approach and landing. This category most commonly exists during severe weather (e.g., heavy fog), which creates the most difficult conditions for approach and landing. If left to human pilots with physiologic limits to vision and reaction times, these landings could not happen.

And while there are cases of heroic pilots saving aircraft in emergency situations (most notably the US Airways Hudson River landing in 2009), human pilot error is responsible for 80 percent of all accidents in military and commercial flights.

Given the central role human error plays in most aircraft accidents, and the fact that intentional malicious acts like those in the Germanwings incident are possible, it is relevant to ask what can be done in terms of automation to improve safety, as well as to reduce costs.

Many airlines and government organizations, including NASA, have already been investigating reducing the number of pilots on a standard commercial flight from two to one. World-fleet-wide, over a 20-year service life of an aircraft, this move has possible savings of $6.8 trillion.

From a technical standpoint, even current commercial aircraft are able to fly themselves through most or all phases of flight. Large drones the size of commercial aircraft routinely fly themselves from takeoff to landing, including conducting emergency landings when equipment fails.
Moving to single-pilot operations (S.P.O.), however, is very different from moving to pilotless aircraft. The idea of having no human pilot in the cockpit to deal with emergencies would likely not sit well with passengers. The concept of “shared fate” comes into play here: People are more comfortable with the idea that pilots in control will try their hardest to save their own lives, and thus save the lives of everyone on board. Given this psychological need, passengers will likely be resistant to the idea of having no pilot on the plane.

There are other reasons to maintain airline staff on board beyond flying the aircraft. Providing services and dealing with unruly passengers are just two of the items that require employees who are seen as a legitimate authority and keep order.

Because of this, what we may see is a transition of roles for the pilot and other staff on board commercial passenger aircraft. Instead of having a dedicated pilot, attendants may be required to be certified as pilots to allow them to both provide services in the cabin and be able to take over for the automation in the case of an emergency. The idea that one or more people on board are able to safely fly and land the aircraft may be enough to encourage acceptance of moving more and more functions to automation.

The shift to pilotless commercial passenger aircraft is not imminent, although commercial cargo does not suffer from the same limitations and will likely become fully automated in a shorter period of time.

The transition to single-pilot operations, however, is likely. Recent technological advancements in automation and the amount of money that could be saved by applying this technology make it a logical choice. The potential savings, coupled with both intentional and unintentional human error, will continue to motivate research and development in support of S.P.O., which will ultimately make for safer and more cost-effective air travel.

By: Mary Cummings and Alexander Stimpson; Former F-18 Pilot, U.S. Navy; Researcher, Duke University Humans and Autonomy Lab.

Video Cameras in the Cockpit. Another Lost Battle?

The debate over video cameras in airplane cockpits has just begun and is heating up, after a list of high profile aviation disasters raised authorities concerns over available information to accident investigators.

According to the Wall Street Journal, ICAO is planning a big push this year to install video cameras in airliner cockpits, although the discussion over the additional technology will likely take years; the regulation will ultimately fall into the hands of individual countries.

Airline pilots and unions have long opposed cockpit video cameras, arguing that images or footage may be used not only with the purpose of an accident investigation. Pilots fundament that the information provided by the CVR – Cockpit Voice Recorder and the FDR – Flight Data Recorder — neither of which collect visual information — is enough to carry on an investigation. Other concerns are that the cameras may be also used for routine monitoring of pilots.

Last week, Christopher Hart, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, stated in front of a Senate panel that in the crashes of SilkAir Flight 185 and EgyptAir Flight 990 in 1997 and 1999, respectively, information from cockpit cameras would have been able to confirm the suspected pilot suicides. Instead, both investigations turned up inconclusive despite strong evidence of a deliberate crash.

Capt. Ivan

FAA – Boeing 787 Software Bug Can Cause a Complete Electrical Shutdown.

The FAA – Federal Aviation Administration issued an AD – Airworthiness Directive to warn over a software bug that causes a complete electric shutdown of Boeing’s 787 and potentially “loss of control” of the aircraft.
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In the latest of a long line of problems plaguing the Dreamliner, which saw the company’s fleet grounded over battery issues and concerns raised over possible hacking vulnerabilities, the new software bug was found in plane’s generator-control units.

The plane’s electrical generators fall into a failsafe mode if kept continuously powered on for 248 days. The 787 has four such main generator-control units that, if powered on at the same time, could fail simultaneously and cause a complete electrical shutdown.

“We are issuing this AD [airworthiness directive] to prevent loss of all AC electrical power, which could result in loss of control of the aeroplane,” said the Federal Aviation Administration directive. “If the four main generator control units (associated with the engine-mounted generators) were powered up at the same time, after 248 days of continuous power, all four GCUs will go into failsafe mode at the same time, resulting in a loss of all AC electrical power regardless of flight phase.”

Should the electrical shutdown happen at a critical phase in flight such as take-off or landing, or while manoeuvring in the air, the loss of control could be catastrophic.

The FAA considered the situation critical and issued the new rule without allowing time for comment. Boeing is working on a software upgrade for the control units that should rectify the bug.

“The airworthiness directive action addresses a condition that only occurred in the lab. Simulated testing determined that this condition is possible in cases where an aeroplane’s power is left on for more than eight continuous months. No airplane in the fleet experienced that condition,” a Boeing spokesman told the Guardian.

According to Boeing’s records, all of the 787s currently in service have been turned off and turned on again as part of maintenance. The FAA’s directive mandates action recommended by Boeing on 19 April.

“If there is a definitive record of a powercycle within the last 120 days, no operator action is immediately required. Operators will perform periodic power cycling at scheduled intervals until incorporating a software update. Boeing will issue in the fourth quarter of 2015,” said the Boeing spokesman.

Capt. Ivan

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