The co-pilot who intentionally crashed a Germanwings flight into a mountainside remained calm during the last 10 minutes of his life. French investigators have described the sound of even breathing on the cockpit audio preserved in the doomed flight's black-box recorder. Accounts of the crash invariably reconstruct those final moments: Andreas Lubitz, the 27-year-old first officer, alone on the flight deck; the captain locked outside, frantically banging on the fortified door as warning alarms sound. Lubitz doesn't speak a word before the deadly crash.
All the information comes from sensitive microphones designed to capture cockpit communications, which accident investigators pair with digital data about the airplane's performance. There's no video footage from inside the cockpit of the Germanwings flight that left 150 people dead—nor is such footage recorded from any other commercial airline crash in recent years. Unlike police cruisers, school buses, ocean liners, Russian taxis, and many other vehicles operating with heightened safety concerns, airline cockpits don't come with video surveillance.
The reason, in part, is that airline pilots and their unions have argued vigorously against what they see as an invasion of privacy that would not improve aviation safety. Even after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks saw virtually all airplanes equipped with reinforced cockpit doors, commercial airplanes still aren't equipped with video surveillance of the flight deck.
The long debate on whether airplane cockpits in the U.S should be equipped with cameras dates back at least 15 years, when the National Transportation Safety Board first pushed regulators require video monitoring following what the agency called “several accidents involving a lack of information regarding crewmember actions and the flight deck environment.” The latest NTSB recommendation for a cockpit image system came in January 2015 and cites two recent disasters—the 2009 Air France crash into the Atlantic Ocean and the 2010 destruction of a UPS Boeing 747 in Dubai—in which investigators have been unable to confirm certain instrument settings from the black-box data.
The incidents used by the NTSB to build its case for cameras also include two crashes blamed on suicidal pilots: the 1997 SilkAir flight in Indonesia and the 1999 EgyptAir flight off the coast of Massachusetts. On Friday, meanwhile, French investigators had turned their focus to the health of the Germanwings co-pilot. A person close to the probe told Bloomberg News that Lubitz suffered from an unspecified mental illness.
The EgyptAir crash, which U.S. investigators attributed to a suicidal pilot seeking revenge on an airline executive on board, turned the son of two passengers into a proponent for flight cameras. “I think video in the cockpit could answer a lot of questions,” says Jeff Kowalsky, 49, whose parents, Edith and Larry Kowalski of West Bloomfield, Mich., died along with 215 others in the 1999 crash. “Nowadays, you go anywhere—the 7-Eleven—the clerks are on surveillance every minute they’re on the job. There’s a way to meet the pilots’ privacy concerns and still have the information.” (Kowalsky, a freelance photographer in suburban Detroit, has sold news photos to Bloomberg LP.)
The Federal Aviation Administration is expected to respond in April to the latest NTSB call for video on the flight deck. In the past, the FAA has decided flight data and voice recordings are sufficient for accident investigations, with nothing significant added by video footage. That’s also the position of the largest U.S. pilots union, the Air Line Pilots Association. The union warns that videos would become an “irresistible gimmick” for plaintiffs’ lawyers to use in court and would likely become prurient, voyeuristic content across the Internet and television news. Many pilots also believe that cockpit video would offer airlines a new way to supervise and punish them.
“Cameras in the cockpit will not prevent an accident," the pilots' union said Friday in an statement. "ALPA has long recommended that resources should be focused on enhancing current systems to record more data of a higher quality as opposed to video images, which are subject to misinterpretation and may in fact lead investigators away from accurate conclusions.” Former ALPA President Duane Woerth told a congressional hearing in 2000 that cockpit video and psychological testing of pilots hold “the false allure of the all-inclusive solution to the nature and cause of every aircraft accident and incident.”
Pilot opposition to any intrusions in the cockpit was demonstrated again on Friday when the SNPL, the largest pilots union in France, told the Associated Press it plans to file suit over the release of information about the cockpit voice recorder. Investigative information is to remain confidential during active inquiries, according to French law.
Kowalsky agrees that any video recorded in the cockpit should be kept from the public and used only by accident investigators. “For something like this, I don’t think the families should have to see this,” he said, referring to the Germanwings crash. “Maybe if the pilot does something heroic, then release it.”