I worked as a pilot for about 10 years before going back to school to become an architect. There are a few oddballs I can remember flying with, but mostly we’re just talking quirks and eccentricities. Never did I fear a colleague intended to kill himself, or everyone onboard.
Being a pilot is a unique working environment. You’re stuck with someone one on one, mostly in a tiny room, for days on end. On some layovers, I’d be happy to hang out with whomever I was working with. Other times, if we didn’t have much in common, we’d just do our own thing.
The part of a pilot’s life that had to be utterly consistent was the routine of operating the aircraft. Personality was not supposed to be an issue in the cockpit.
Everyone was to perform exactly the same way, every time. Preflight procedures, engine start, taxi, takeoff, landing and emergencies were all highly choreographed by a question-and-response checklist of interactions between the pilots. We ran through these scenarios over and over. In training, we also rehearsed what to do if the other pilot became incapacitated, or showed up drunk, or if we had an unruly passenger. All my flying job interviews had questions on how I’d handle those types of situations.
My father was a Navy pilot who flew the P-2 Neptune in Vietnam and went on to a 30-year career with Delta Air Lines, flying 727s before he retired. The standards were exacting when he started. The major airlines demanded thousands of hours of flight time in jets, a college education and perfect eyesight. No longer could you be a crop-duster one day and an airline pilot the next. Even so, my dad had three jobs waiting when he got out of the service.
I wanted to follow in his footsteps, but chose the civilian route. I got my pilot’s license in high school and then had to work every job I could get. I felt lucky to be flying freight in the middle of the night through thunderstorms in Texas, just to rack up precious hours of multi-engine time. I ended up flying 30-passenger commuter turboprops for US Airways Express, and then eight-passenger private jets for NetJets.
In the 1960s and ’70s, several crashes were judged primarily a result of pilot error, some stemming from the hierarchical relationship between the captain and the co-pilot. Co-pilots were often afraid to challenge the captain’s decisions, and the results could be disastrous. In training, they played us a cockpit voice recording of a co-pilot timidly telling the captain they were running out of fuel; he didn’t mention it again before the engines flamed out.
As planes have become more automated, pilots do less physical flying and more information monitoring. Some planes (including the Airbus A320, the type that crashed in France on Tuesday) have an “autoland” feature. For some pilots of large international carriers, the only time they may “hand fly” a landing will be in recurrent training.
My dad told me about a captain he flew with when he was a co-pilot. The guy was known to panic. A baggage truck backed into the plane while it was on the ground. It shook it only a little, but the captain yelled over the intercom, “Everyone evacuate!” Crew members blew the emergency slides, people fell off the wings trying to get out; there were injuries. It was a cautionary tale of how personality can inform a situation.
I flew many times with a born-again Christian who talked constantly about Adam and Eve and other Bible stories. Could his religious beliefs have caused us to handle an in-flight emergency differently? It never happened, so I can’t say. Another pilot would tell me about his crazy sex life on the road. He’d kiss his wife and kids goodbye and then become a totally different person for seven days.
But these are ordinary varieties of human behavior — nothing that would predict some catastrophic course of action. When we discussed the Germanwings tragedy, in which 150 people died when the 27-year-old co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz, apparently crashed the plane on purpose, my father was struck by how little flight time the co-pilot was reported to have (only 630 hours). According to news reports, he also took a leave of absence during training.
That’s very unusual. By the time most pilots are lucky enough to land a job, they don’t bail out in the middle of training. But would that raise a red flag about his mental state? Hardly.
I never met with a psychologist, and I had to take only one written psychiatric evaluation in my career. It asked questions like “Do you ever feel angry?” By coincidence, I took the exam right after watching on TV the second plane fly into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. I passed and got the job.
Perhaps, though, it’s time to take a more searching interest in the minds of those to whom we entrust our safety when we fly. The industry tests its pilots regularly to see how they would handle an emergency, but it barely evaluates the risk that they might cause one themselves.
Andrew B. McGee, an architectural designer in New York, was a commercial pilot from 1993 to 2004.