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14 May 2015

Why the Amtrak train crash in Philadelphia is like a plane crash

The crash of Amtrak Northeast Regional Train 188 in Philadelphia, PA on May 12, 2015 involved an Amtrak passenger train, but in many ways this train crash was like a plane crash, specifically in the ways that the major US media outlets responded to the event. It is extremely rare for train crashes to generate intense media interest, but this kind of attention is routine for airline crashes. Upon closer review, the media response to the Amtrak crash is not so surprising.

Although it has only been a couple of days since the crash, the NTSB accident investigation team has revealed key details of the events that led to the crash. In short, it looks like the train was traveling just over 100 mph (161 kph), and derailed after entering a curve that had a 50 mph speed limit.

There were five crew members and about 240 passengers on board. Seven of those passengers were killed, and several dozen passengers and crew members were injured.

NTSB Board Member Robert Sumwalt at crash site

Amtrak accidents are common
While this accident has received the kind of attention usually given a major plane crash (for example, continuous coverage from major news networks that includes having news anchors at the crash site), Amtrak accidents are actually quite common. According to the Federal Railroad Administration, over the last decade, Amtrak has been involved with accidents and incidents that have resulted in over 1,000 deaths.

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In the last three years, Amtrak has been involved in over 50 accidents per year, with 21 in the first two months of 2015.

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Why this crash stands out
The circumstances around the Philadelphia crash that have led to an intense amount of media attention include where it happened, who was on the train, and perhaps more importantly, who is likely to travel by train on that route.

The crash took place on not only the most heavily traveled route in the Amtrak system, with over 12 million riders in 2011, it is also a route that connects New York City with Washington, DC, two metropolitan areas where many members of the US financial, political, and media elite live and work.

Many of the elite members of US society, even if they don't live or work in New York or Washington, have either traveled on that route on many occasions, or know friends, colleagues, or family members who do. A quick review of some of those killed in the crash can give you an insight into the kinds of people who regularly travel on this route. The dead include:

  • A tech company CEO
  • A software architect for a major news media organization
  • A US Naval Academy midshipman
  • A university dean
  • A senior vice president of a Fortune 100 company

Given the ongoing media coverage, it is very likely that the most influential business, political, and media decision makers throughout the US are not only keenly aware of the accident, but can also imagine circumstances where they could have been on that train that night. If it had been a jet airliner traveling between major cities in the northeast US, the airliner's passenger list would have likely reflected the profile of the people on that Amtrak train.

These are the reasons why the traveling public, especially the more influential members of the traveling public, may feel about this train crash the same way they would perceive a plane crash, as something that could happen to them.

Additional resources
Amtrak Northeast Corridor overview 2011

Federal Railroad Administration
National Transportation Safety Board

07 May 2015

Ongoing Harvard health studies need input from pilots and flight attendants

Flight attendants and pilots face unique stresses and risks due to exposures that occur in the aircraft, as well as from issues outside of the aircraft such as fatigue brought on by disrupted sleep patterns. Understanding what those risks are, and what factors are associated with those risks, is a difficult and ongoing challenge that is being addressed in part by the following two studies from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. has teamed up with Harvard to encourage pilots and flight attendants to participate in a pair of studies that will help improve the scientific understanding of health issues faced by airline professionals.

Flight Attendant Health Study
All US flight attendants are encouraged to participate in this flight attendant health study by taking the survey at

Past studies have found that sleep disorders, fatigue, depression and heart disease were greatly increased in female flight attendants compared to the US population. Check out the survey today to help make it both larger and more comprehensive than previous studies.

Airline Pilot Health Survey
Past studies on flight attendants showed significantly higher prevalence for some types of health risk. This current study intends to collect similar information from pilots to see if their work environment is also associated with increased health risks. All current and former airline pilots, from any country, are encouraged to visit to take this anonymous survey.

About your privacy
The researchers have taken steps to ensure that your surveys will be anonymous, and that it will not be possible to link any survey to a specific individual. In addition, you can skip any questions that you do not wish to answer, or withdraw from the survey at any time.

06 May 2015

French authorities release preliminary report on the Germanwings crash investigation

On 6 May 2015, the BEA (Bureau d'Enquêtes et d'Analyses pour la Sécurité de l'Aviation Civile) released a preliminary report on the crash of Germanwings flight 4U9525 which highlighted the following findings:

  • At about three minutes after the aircraft reached its cruising altitude of 38,000 feet, the captain left the cockpit.

  • Within 30 seconds of the captain leaving the cockpit, the first officer commanded the aircraft to descend to 100 feet, which is well below ground level.

  • Within five minutes of the commanded altitude change, the airspeed was changed at least ten times, reaching a maximum of 350 knots (402 mph, 648 kph).

  • The descent rate reached a maximum of 5,000 feet per minute, and averaged about 3,500 feet per minute.

  • The descent was continuous, and controlled by the autopilot.

  • Air traffic controllers and the French military attempted to contact the aircraft several times, but received no response.

  • Before the collision with the terrain, there were multiple aural warnings heard on the CVR.

  • The aircraft impacted the ground about 10 minutes and 13 seconds after the aircraft started its descent.

  • Autopilot and autothrust remained engaged until impact.

  • On the previous flight, while the captain was out of the cockpit, the first officer twice commanded the aircraft to descend to 100 feet for short periods of time.

The role of the first officer in the crash
The preliminary report did not state a definitive cause of the crash, but it did state that during the cruise phase, the first officer was alone in the cockpit and intentionally modified the autopilot instructions to order the aircraft to descend until it collided with the ground. The report also stated that the first officer did not open the cockpit door during the descent, despite requests for access made via the keypad, with cabin interphone, and by knocking on the door.

Aircraft trajectory

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First officer training history
The preliminary report provided an outline of the first officer's training history, including the fact that he started his flight training at the Lufthansa Flight Training Pilot School in Germany on 1 September 2008, but that his training was suspended for medical reasons for over eight months, from 5 November 2008 to 26 August 2009. It was during this period, specifically from April to July 2009, that the first officer did not have a valid medical certificate due to depression and his medical treatment for his condition.

From October 2010 to March 2011, he continued his flight training in the US, but was under contract as a flight attendant with Lufthansa for over two years before beginning his training to become an A320 first officer. He was appointed as an A320 copilot in June 2014.

Related information
Germanwings crash details from
Lufthansa plane crashes
Other A320 crashes
Germanwings Wikipedia page
Flight 9525 Wikipedia entry