Terror in the Sky

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Terror in the Sky

(Photo: Mark Harkin/cc/flickr)

The  horror of the Germanwings suicide-mass murder hits me with particular force because  I went through a similar nightmare myself, and because I know very well the exact Alpine area where the doomed airliner crashed.   

The passengers aboard the ill-fated German A320 aircraft must have had 3-5 minutes warning that something was terrible wrong.  The aircraft’s captain was locked out of the cockpit and trying to break down its armored door.  The aircraft was going into a dive.

As a constant flier since the age of six, to me their plight is one of the worst nightmares associated with flying.  I know the sense of utter helplessness and terror they felt.

In 1993, two friends and I were on a Lufthansa A310 flight from Frankfurt to Cairo.  A lone Ethiopian smuggled a pistol aboard and got into the cockpit by threatening to begin killing the flight crew.  Once inside, he held the pistol to the pilot’s head and ordered him to fly to New York City.  We stopped for fuel at Hanover, then headed over the North Atlantic.

By some quirk, we could overhear on the entertainment system the hijacker talking to the FBI in New York.  Endless hours went by as many of  the passengers screamed, prayed and cried.   My friends and I wanted to jump the hijacker and kill him but he would not come out of the cockpit. 

As we neared New York, we heard the hijacker threaten to crash our plane into Wall Street unless he was pardoned and given US residency – his goal in this mad enterprise.   The danger posed to high rise buildings by large aircraft did not emerge again until 9/11 2001

We felt utter helplessness and horror until we landed in New York and the FBI stormed the plane.  I broadcasted for 24 hours straight, then got an Egyptair flight to Cairo.  

It seems clear that the Germanwings second pilot was determined to kill himself and 149 innocent passengers. I’ve been a voice in the wilderness for decades calling on airlines to keep a third pilot or flight engineer in the cockpit.  I’m usually bombarded by airline pros claiming automation has eliminated the need for a third crew member.  

They are quite right – until something goes terribly wrong. That’s when you need a third pilot.  I’d be happy to pay a little more for this extra safety.

This week’s crash in France reminds us that pilot-suicide is not all that uncommon.   In 1997,  a SilkAir pilot dove his plane into the sea off Singapore.  He was suffering severe financial problems and had heavy death insurance.  

In 1999, an Egyptair flight from Los Angeles to Cairo dove into the Atlantic, killing 217.  US authorities ruled it was suicide-mass murder; Egypt continues to blame the Boeing 767 aircraft, a very safe plane.   Pilots in Mozambique and Morocco also crashed their aircraft in 2013 and 1994.

By coincidence, I happen to know the mountain slopes where the Germanwings flight crashed at 700kph and shattered into fragments.   The accident site lies very close to the Col (pass) de Restefond, one of the highest points on the southern arm of the Maginot Line fortress system.  The quaint town of Barcelonette, settled in the 19th century by French returning from Mexico -  is not far off.  I have walked much of this region.

This is the heart of France’s wild, vertiginous Maritime Alps that rise to over 2,800 meters along the border with Italy and are snow-bound for almost half the year.  The region is so remote and forbidding that most French have never visited it.  Helicopters are necessary to reach the crash scene.

It’s likely German and French investigators will discover some skeletons in the suicide pilot’s private life: drugs, romantic heartbreak, money issues.  Such were the causes in previous suicidal air crashes.

I also grieve for Lufthansa, one of the world’s top airlines with great devotion to safety and punctuality.  I’d fly Lufthansa tomorrow.  I am not so sure about some of Europe’s national carriers.  Inevitably, critics will claim the Germanwings crash had something to do with it being a budget carrier.  I don’t like them at all, but this awful disaster was  a random act of madness that could have been forestalled by a third pilot.

Eric Margolis

Eric Margolis

Eric Margolis is a columnist, author and a veteran of many conflicts in the Middle East. Margolis recently was featured in a special appearance on Britain’s Sky News TV as “the man who got it right” in his predictions about the dangerous risks and entanglements the US would face in Iraq. His latest book is American Raj: Liberation or Domination?: Resolving the Conflict Between the West and the Muslim World.

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