When Andreas Lubitz sent an email in 2009 seeking reinstatement to Lufthansa’s flight-training program after a monthslong absence, he appended what in retrospect was a clear warning signal about his fitness to fly passenger jetliners: an acknowledgement that he had suffered from severe depression. Lufthansa put the young German back through its standard applicant-screening process and medical tests. But it did not, from everything known about the case so far, pursue any plan to assure that he was getting appropriate treatment. Nor did it impose special monitoring of his condition beyond that required for any pilot who had a flagged health issue. Instead, Mr Lubitz haltingly made his way through the training program and ultimately was entrusted as an Airbus A320 co-pilot for Lufthansa’s low cost subsidiary, Germanwings. Lufthansa was so unaware of the extent of Mr Lubitz’s psychological problems that the company and its medical staff had no idea of the tortured drama playing out in his mind, peaking in the two or three months leading up to his final flight. Investigators said he visited a dozen or more doctors as he frantically sought treatment for real or imagined ailment. Mr Lubitz’s journey to the moment when he found himself alone at the controls of Germanwings Flight 4U9525 from Barcelona to Dusseldorf on March 24 exposes how little the aviation industry and it’s regulators have done to acknowledge and address the most extreme manifestation of those psychological strains: pilot suicide.
Mr Lubitz’s increasingly troubled behaviour in the period leading up to his final flight raised no alarms at the airline. Although he has passed his standard medical exam by a flight doctor last August, he had more recent notes from specialists declaring him unfit to work that he never shared with his employer. In the days before his final flight, he seems to have methodically plotted his own demise and that of his passengers. He researched methods of committing suicide, investigators say, and looked into cockpit security procedures. When he left for work on the morning of March 24, scheduled to fly from Dusseldorf to Barcelona and back, his iPad browser, according to one investigator, still had tabs open about two recent airline disasters. They were the mysterious disappearance last year of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 and a Mozambique Airlines flight in 2013 in which the captain was found to have intentionally crashed in Namibia, killing himself, five other crew members and all 27 passengers. Though the highest profile example of the pilot suicide problem, Mr Lubitz was far from an isolated case. In recent years, a series of commercial pilots appear to have crashed their aircraft intentionally. In 1997, a SilkAir Boeing 737 crashed in Indonesia, killing all 104 people aboard. The pilot had recently been demoted in the wake of a complaint about his behaviour and what one United States government report termed “cowboy practices.” Investigators later learned he was also under financial and family strains. United States officials concluded that he had committed suicide. But Indonesian investigators ruled out that explanation. Two years later, an EgyptAir Boeing 767 departing New York crashed into the Atlantic off Nantuket Island and killed 217 people. The United States National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the co-pilot purportedly put the jetliner into a steep dive after uttering repeatedly, “I rely on God.” Under pressure from Egyptian officials, American investigators did not deem the crash a suicide, but ruled out mechanical failures and blamed the co-pilot’s actions at the controls. The lack of substantive evidence of what happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 last year has led investigators to consider the possibility that the plane might be another example of one of the pilots’ delibrately downing the aircraft.
Security measures put in place after September 11, intended to guard against threats coming from outside the cockpit, failed to anticipate a threat from within. Lufthansa, like other European airlines, had installed the armoured cockpit doors insisted on by the United States following 9/11, after they were mandated by regulators worldwide. But Euro regulators did not follow the United States in additionally requiring that two crew members be in the cockpit at all times. The point of the policy was not to guard against a rogue pilot, but to ensure that someone was available to re-open the locked door for a returning crew member while the remaining pilot was at the controls. European airlines instead permitted a lone pilot in the cockpit, but installed cameras allowing that pilot to check on the identity of anyone at the door, and to decide from their seat wether to override keypad entry from the outside. It was only after the Germanwings crash that Europe reversed course and recommended having two crew members in the cockpit at all times. Mr Lubitz visited a series of doctors, complaining first of psychiatric problems and later of difficulties with his vision. He sought medical attention but doctors determined no physiological causes for the vision difficulties, leading investigators to conclude that they may have been psychosomatic. Prosecutors say Mr Lubitz did not go to Lufthansa for help with his medical condition. That could have grounded him- and possibly cost him his job. In fact, Mr Lubitz had recent notes from specialists- though not a flight doctor- pronouncing him unfit for work, but he never told Germanwings. He tore up one of the notes and threw the scraps in his waste basket, where they were found by investigators after the crash.
And so the jetliner took off from Dusseldorf to Barcelona shortly after dawn at 6:40am on March 24. The captain, Patrick Sondenheimer, flew to Spain but it was agreed that his co-pilot would fly back. The aircraft spent one hour on the ground at Barcelona El-Prat Airport. Mr Lubitz never left the plane, only exiting the cockpit for a moment to exchange greetings with a catering officer. There were few empty seats on the A320, the workhorse of the Airbus fleet, which was filled with students returning from a high school exchange, a pair of highly regarded opera singers and workers in the fashion industry, among many others. The plane departed from Barcelona 26 minutes late at 10:01 am, the flight path a scenic route over the Mediterranean, the Cote d’ Azur and the snow capped French Alps. Before long the plane was cruising at 38,000 feet, the pilots chatting courteously with one another, according to one investigator who had read a transcript of the flight’s cockpit audio recording. The captain decided to go to the restroom at 10:30 am. Mr Lubitz was left alone in the cockpit and he set the aircraft on a gradual descent. France’s Bureau of Investigations and Analyses said the readings from the flight data recorder showed that Mr Lubitz programmed the autopilot to fly the plane down to an altitude of 100 feet. Not once but several times he accelerated the plane’s descent as it hurtled toward the mountain. Captain Sondenheimer must have realised something was wrong, either as the plane began to descend or at the armoured door when his co-pilot blocked his re-entry into the cockpit. Captain Sondenheimer pounded on the door with increasing desperation, demanding to be let in. Air traffic controllers urgently called to say the plane’s altitude was too low. Automated systems repeated their commands for him to pull up. From outside the cockpit came screams from the passengers. Amid this cacophony, Mr Lubitz was silent. Only his steady breathing could be heard on the audio recording as he flew for the last time. At 10:40 am and 47 seconds the plane dropped off the flight radar at 6,175 feet, roughly the height of the craggy mountains. All 150 people on board dead.