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Hero pilot: It's beyond belief that Germanwings co-pilot would kill passengers deliberately

Published 02/04/2015

Brave act: Captain Bill Hagan who fought off a suicide hijacker during a flight
Brave act: Captain Bill Hagan who fought off a suicide hijacker during a flight
Singer Byran Ferry on Captain Hagan’s Kenyabound flight as the hijacker is restrained
Rescuers stand as relatives of Japanese victims pay their respects on March 29 2015 near a commemorative headstone in Seyne-les-Alpes, the closest accessible area to where a Germanwings Airbus A320 crashed on March 24 in the French Alps, killing all 150 people on board
Scenes after the crashed Airbus A320
Bill with one of the passengers, Lady Annabelle Goldsmith
Andreas Lubitz

The pilot who saved 400 lives after he bravely fought off a suicide hijacker he thought was going to crash his plane 15 years ago says the air disaster in the Alps shows that security on flights around the world can never be guaranteed.

Belfast-born Bill Hagan, who says he was horrified that pilot Andreas Lubitz could have killed 150 people on a Germany-bound plane last week, insists: "The only thing we can do is foresee the risk and try to reduce it. But nothing can ever be 100% safe."

Bill, who's now retired, became a worldwide hero and was dubbed Captain Courageous after he overpowered a 6ft tall Kenyan at 35,000ft who had stormed the cockpit of his Boeing 747 and grabbed the controls as it flew from Gatwick to Nairobi.

Last year Bill, who received a bravery award for his actions, played down suggestions that the disappearance of the Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 might have been linked to one of the pilots.

In an interview with the Belfast Telegraph, Bill was wary of widespread speculation that the plane with 239 passengers on board had been downed deliberately.

He said at the time: "I found the suggestion unlikely, not only because of my high regard for pilots but also because it's unlikely that any pilot would have waited so long into the flight to do it. Any pilots wanting to take their own lives could do it at any time on any day of the week. They wouldn't have to make devious plans to do so."

But now the nightmare scenario has been played out for real with devastating consequences after it was confirmed that German pilot Andreas Lubitz locked his colleague Captain Patrick Sondenheimer out of the cockpit after he had gone to the toilet.

He then flew the Germanwings A320 Airbus flight 4U 9525 into a remote mountain valley in France and the authorities now say some of the 150 bodies may never be recovered.

Bill Hagan says: "I can't understand how Lubitz could have done it - knowing that he was going to kill all his passengers and his colleagues. I would find it very difficult to kill anyone even if I had to."

And Bill did have to consider that chilling final option as he came face to face with his would-be hijacker 15 years ago.

"If I'd had to take his life to preserve my aircraft I would have done so without hesitation, but thankfully it didn't come to that."

Bill, who was raised in Newcastle, Co Down, was on board British Airways flight BA2069 in December 2000 when crazed Kenyan student Paul Mukonyi stormed into the cockpit of the Boeing 747 and tried to seize control. Bill's wife and two children were on the flight and rock star Bryan Ferry was also among the passengers when Mukonyi, a paranoid schizophrenic, launched his assault.

Bill, who was taking his turn to have a nap - dressed only in his underwear - in the crew's bunker, leapt up to tackle Mukonyi as the plane went into a steep dive, quickly falling 15,000ft, heading for the ground and almost flipping upside down in the process.

Bill, who unsurprisingly was motivated by a desire to save his family as well as the other passengers, tried to haul the hijacker from the pilot's seat and eventually stuck his finger into Mukonyi's eye socket.

A number of passengers rushed to the aid of Bill and his crew and wrestled Mukonyi to the floor.

Last week when Bill, who flew for 32 years with British Airways and for EasyJet for another decade, heard about the crash in the Alps he didn't initially think that a pilot could have caused it deliberately.

"That was the one possibility I excluded because I couldn't believe that a pilot would send an aircraft into a descent towards the mountain intentionally, even though there have been a couple of instances of that happening in the past. But only a couple.

"I was looking for a more logical explanation but I couldn't find one.

"My first thoughts were that the pilot had become incapacitated and accidentally disconnected the auto-pilot by leaning forwards and his hand touching one particular small button.

"But I thought that was extremely unlikely because that wouldn't have commenced the descent because the controls of the Airbus are side-stick controls, so you wouldn't fall onto them."

When it was established beyond doubt that Lubitz caused the crash Bill Hagan was stunned.

"I found it staggering that such a thing could happen. I wondered how on earth one of my colleagues could ever have contemplated doing what he did," he said.

'And even though pilots frequently never meet the colleagues sitting beside them in the cockpit before, a bond of trust exists as well as a set of standard and well-rehearsed operating procedures which are followed to the letter.

"And that's what seems to have happened on the Barcelona to Dusseldorf flight at the start. The conversations on the cockpit voice recorder were entirely normal up to the point of Lubitz's colleague leaving to go to the toilet."

The Alps crash has reopened the debate over whether or not cockpit doors on planes should be locked.

The move, which was introduced across the world after 9/11, had actually been under consideration following Bill Hagan's Nairobi experiences.

"The introduction of the locked cockpit door controlled by a keypad with a code was controversial." says Bill.

"Not all pilots wanted it but the Civil Aviation Authority decided that it was the best way forward"

After the Alps disaster, many airlines are insisting that there must now be two people in the cockpit at all times but doubts have been expressed about what a cabin crew member might be able to do in the event of a disaster.

Bill says one possible improvement to security and safety might be the introduction of three pilots in the cockpit, which would involve the aviation industry recruiting and training more pilots - a costly exercise all round.

The increase in the number of pilots would, according to its advocates, spread the workload on flights and would reduce what's called 'pilot burn'.

Bill concedes that the pressures on pilots nowadays are immense, though he doesn't believe that was a factor in the Alps disaster.

"There's more to this tragedy but pilots are working so hard that they begin to suffer from burn-out. Airlines have to be careful about how hard they work them and don't induce depression," he added.

"When I was a pilot we didn't work as intensively as a lot of the airlines do now."

Read more:

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Alps air disaster: Families of victims may have to wait months for remains to be identified  

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