The apparently intentional downing of a Germanwings airliner by the co-pilot has us riveted, as commercial plane crashes usually do.
In each terrible instance, we put ourselves in the cabin, imagining what our last thoughts or actions would be. Would we close our eyes and pray? Would we scream? Would we seize the person next to us, desperately grasping at one last human connection?
What is it like to realize your plane is out of control and there’s nothing to be done? Or that, inconceivably, your pilot or, in this case, your co-pilot, is out of control?
Such dark thoughts capture our imaginations briefly before we shove them back into some remote recess of the mind never again, we hope, to be retrieved. This conscious act of self-defense protects us from the horrifying possibility that someday we, too, might find ourselves strapped into a missile on a suicidal mission.
Unthinkable is the word for it.
We remind ourselves that these are, indeed, rare events. And though this is not the first apparent suicide crash, we might hope it’s the last. After all, as we’ve heard countless times, you’re more likely to die in a car crash than a plane crash. And the most convincing rationale for flying without fear is the eye-rolling reminder that no one talks about all the safe landings every day.
We do, however, remark when a pilot makes a heroic landing, bringing his mammoth flying machine to a safe halt — in a river, no less. Nearly every American knows about Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and his “Miracle on the Hudson.” We love the lifesavers and worship the heroes whose awesome competence reassures us that the end is not yet here.
Sully was John Wayne of the skies — a good man, solid and true, reliable, brave and cool under fire. Contrast him to the Germanwings co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz, who is every bit the monster the terrorist is. Perhaps worse.
The latter-day, knife-wielding infidel-slayer kills an innocent in a brutal, hands-on act of extreme human interaction. The co-pilot bars himself from the people he intends to destroy, methodically resetting the jet’s autopilot to an altitude that will ensure death to 149 strangers.
Rod Serling’s gremlin on the wing, ripping out the guts of one of the plane’s engines, is a bedtime story compared to the cool detachment of the co-pilot apparently flipping a switch to lock out all others and begin his self-imposed descent into smithereens.
Did he enjoy the agony of the pilot flailing hopelessly against the locked door? Did the screaming of passengers moments before death bring him satisfaction?
According to French investigators, the last words the pilot uttered to his 27-year-old co-pilot as he stepped out of the cockpit, apparently for a restroom break, were: “You are in control.” In fiction, these now-chilling words would be a not-so-subtle foreshadowing of doom. For the passengers and crew, they were a death sentence.
Alone in the cockpit for the eight minutes it took to crash, Lubitz’s breathing was captured on the voice recorder. Breathing in, out, in, out, in, out. What a vile soundtrack, what evil commentary on the soon-to-be breathless.
His poor parents. But not, please, poor Andreas Lubitz. He may have been depressed, they tell us. He may have broken up with his girlfriend. Oh, too bad. He seems to have suffered an “illness” on the very day he flew, according to torn up “medical leave” notes found in his home.
All. Too. Bad.
It wasn’t enough that air travel has become near torturous. Squished in seats too small for the petite, passengers try to retract their fleshy edifices into cocoons of personal space, praying for an uneventful journey and a slender seatmate. To such discomforts, we’ve now added the possibility that the pilot might have had a bad day.
Most are familiar with the old fatalist saw: Hey, when it’s your time, it’s your time. May as well have a drink and enjoy the ride, says the jovial frequent flyer, his breath a mix of whiskey and weariness.
In his bravado, we find consolation — and pray for contagion. Yes, of course, bring on the Fates! But we also know the end of the joke: Yeah, but what if it’s the pilot’s time?
Thanks to Lubitz, travelers will give this question more serious consideration. With a second glance into the cockpit as they board, passengers are bound to wonder: Who, really, is in control?
Kathleen Parker is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group.