The recent Germanwings flight from Barcelona crashing into the French Alps is a human tragedy. The media jumps on this as usual and news channels are full of analysis. How did this happen and who’s to blame. Talking heads, experts and politicians call for changes to fix the system and “to make sure this never happens again.”
Similarly, the events of Sept. 11, 2001, changed the air transportation industry forever. Changes were demanded and new technological advances were spawned in the wake of the overwhelming call “to make sure this never happens again.”
In 2001 my company was in the right spot when there was a call for a bulletproof, explosive-proof, human-proof and otherwise impenetrable cockpit door. After 9/11, airline demand dropped. The airlines slowed and even stopped buying new airplanes. In turn the aircraft OEM’s slowed our purchase orders, and subsequently we had a lot of folks looking for something to do.
The secure cockpit doors division was born. We put our best engineers and scientists in the company to work designing and analyzing cockpit doors. We experimented with exotic materials, new ways to manufacture and fabricate things. We tested and tested and tested. We tested, failed and then tested again. We figured out how to make doors that would withstand a bullet from a threat-level IIIA ballistic test. It calls for the firing of .44 Magnum and 9 mm bullets at 1,400 feet per second into the door panel material, from a distance of 16 feet.
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We recognized that the strongest cockpit door is only as strong as the structure it is installed in, so there were major redesigns in bulkhead structures and methods of attaching them to aircraft structure. We were very successful at what we did. A quote from my company website is that “we were the first company to receive FAA certification on a reinforced cockpit door. Our doors use a proprietary energy absorbing composite panel that makes it both bulletproof, and lightweight. This panel is also applied to other monuments that require a reinforced forward wall.”
We retrofit over 6,000 aircraft with secure cockpit doors. We are the current supplier of cockpit doors for many aircraft models. If you fly out of the Boise Airport with Skywest, Southwest or Horizon, our doors are probably on your aircraft.
While not our door, the secure cockpit door on the Airbus A320 meets the same robust requirements and bulletproof requirements that we design our doors to. It was a door that was impenetrable by Capt. Patrick Sonderheimer of the doomed Germanwings flight from Barcelona. There are reports he could not gain access through the reinforced cockpit door with an emergency ax. Society demanded the door was impenetrable and it was.
So now what will happen in the wake of the ill-fated Germanwings flight? More technology so that a crew member outside the cockpit can override the impenetrable, bulletproof door locking mechanisms? I’m sure we can figure out how to do that. More studies in psychology to better understand depression in the workplace? Someone in the mental health field is surely capable of coming up with new enhanced evaluations and screening methods for our pilots. We will again end up paying “to make sure this never happens again.”
The one thing I am 100 percent sure of is that we can never make 100 percent sure that nothing bad happens.
Ronald O. Davis, Eagle, is chief product engineer for C&D Zodiac.