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Airbus 'nearly crashed' when pilots fell ill
Photo: DPA

Airbus 'nearly crashed' when pilots fell ill

Published: 28 Sep 2012 10:21 GMT+02:00
Updated: 28 Sep 2012 10:21 GMT+02:00

An airbus carrying around 150 people nearly crashed at Cologne airport, when both pilots were so badly affected by contaminated air in the cockpit they were almost unconscious – but details are only emerging now, two years later.

The budget airline Germanwings was accused on Friday of deliberately playing down the incident so that no investigation was launched for a year, by which time the black box and cockpit recorder information were no longer available.

Friday’s Die Welt newspaper worked with public broadcaster NDR to dig up reports on the incident which could have ended in catastrophe – and yet was reported to the air safety authorities in such a harmless manner that no investigation was undertaken.

But pilot association Cockpit on Friday accused Germanwings of "irresponsible downplaying" of the incident.

Flight 753 from Vienna to Cologne on December 20, 2010 was starting to land when first the co-pilot and then the pilot became cripplingly nauseous and barely conscious, the report says.

“You land the bird, I can't fly anymore,” the 26-year-old co-pilot told the 35-year-old captain before reaching for an oxygen mask. His arms and legs had gone numb and he had the feeling he could no longer think clearly.

Yet as he took the controls, the pilot felt tingling in his hands and feet, began to get tunnel vision and became badly dizzy – all this as the plane began decending at more than 400 kmph.

A medical examination afterwards showed the captain had a blood oxygen level of around 70 percent, while that of his co-pilot was less than 80 percent. Healthy people have a blood saturation level of nearly 100 percent, while 70 percent is close to the level at which people pass out, Die Welt.

The co-pilot wrote in his report that the plane would have crashed into the ground in Cologne with 144 passengers and five crew – and eight tonnes of fuel. The captain said he was in fear for his life.

Yet they managed to land the plane without incident, and accompanied by emergency teams, it taxied off the runway and came to a halt, whereupon passengers watched as the two men were driven in an ambulance, said Der Spiegel magazine.

Although Germanwings submitted a report to the German Federal Bureau of Aircraft Accidents Investigation (BFU), the incident did not appear in the BFU’s monthly bulletin and no further action was taken. Experts now believe this is because Germanwings – a subsidiary of Lufthansa – downplayed the event to avoid investigation.

Die Welt said that it was only a year later that experts received new information and started looking into what had happened – by which time no information from the black box and cockpit recorder remained.

A spokesman for Germanwings told Die Welt there had been no problem and the pilots had not suffered any reduction in their capacities.

But the paper said it had seen a medical report from Lufthansa referring to an examination of the co-pilot six months after the incident, which said he was fully capable of service – after six months of being incapable. He had undergone weeks of counselling.

It is though the bad air may have been due to de-icing fluid getting into the cockpit’s air supply.

Contaminated cabin air was scheduled to be discussed by MPs in the lower house of parliament on Friday afternoon.

The Local/jcw

The Local (news@thelocal.de)

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Your comments about this article

17:48 September 28, 2012 by hanskarl
No surprises here. On a recent transcontinental flight on an Airbus the cabin air was so terrible I begged the stewardess to have the pilots increase the exchange of cabin air with outside air. They hate to do it as it makes the planes less efficient in cruise and therefore Euros in operating costs. Notwithstanding, Lufthansa had us packed in like cattle. It was the first time I had ever experienced oxygen deprivation in flight apart from the occasional gastric relief of other passengers nearby.
21:09 September 28, 2012 by Dr.D.11
Comment removed by The Local for breach of our terms.
00:33 September 29, 2012 by The-ex-pat
17:48 September 28, 2012 by hanskarl

No surprises here. On a recent transcontinental flight on an Airbus the cabin air was so terrible I begged the stewardess to have the pilots increase the exchange of cabin air with outside air. They hate to do it as it makes the planes less efficient in cruise and therefore Euros in operating costs.-----------

Not sure what movies (Macgyver probably) you have been watching, but it is IMPOSSIBLE to increase or decreases the the amount of air that enters the fuselage. The only thing that can be altered is the temperature. The amount of air in the cabin is a direct result of maintaining around 8000 feet of equivalent outside value air pressure in the cabin during the flight. You are correct though, cabin air is exchanged with "outside" air, bleed air from the engines, but that is also a fixed non adjustable amount. As I said, cabin air is a direct reflection of the required amount of pressurisation in conjunction with aircraft altitude. Most probably, the cabin temperature had been increased if it was a long flight as this especially after a meal makes most passengers sleepy.............and means the cabin crew get a bit of a break (but you did not hear that from me............)

PS before you disagree I am a licensed engineer or Boeing, Air Bus and Bombardier aircraft...........
09:37 September 29, 2012 by nota LAME
@Hanskarl:

I do disagree. I suggest your explanation omits some detail.

Whilst the rate of bleed air input to the cabin may be fixed, the outflow rate is variable. The flight-deck crew still have control over choosing the cabin altitude. This being achieved by controlling the rate at which air escapes the cabin via the outflow valves. Thus the pilots might select a cabin alt. of anywhere between 5-8000ft and the outflow valves are regulated automatically to maintain the selected alt. Therefore, for a lower selected alt. air escapes the cabin at a lower rate to achieve the selected pressure altitude and a lower alt. has greater relative air pressure, hence more fresh air (or a greater concentration of oxygen) in the cabin.*

All of which is academic in the case of contaminated air to the extent of the crew affected in this instance. Oxy masks and expedited landing is what you need in such a situation.

* Disclaimer: Studied this a while back. Nothing new about how it's done (unless the laws of physics have changed recently).
10:21 September 29, 2012 by The-ex-pat
The crew do not select anything other than the landing elevation so that the cabin pressure elevation reached ground level at the same time as the aircraft and the cruise altitude. The rest of the time they do not touch it. It is computer controlled system. They set it and then do not touch it again. But as you say, academic.

However what is interesting, the crew get their air from the same supply as the passenger. Why were the passengers not effected in the same way as the crew??
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