Germanwings plane crash: Copilot's mental health under scrutiny

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Germanwings copilot Andreas Lubitz appears to have hidden an illness from his employers, prosecutors said

The troubled mental condition of German pilot Andreas Lubitz came under sharp examination Friday, as German investigators revealed that he had hidden an illness from his employer and torn up a note from his doctor indicating he was unfit to work on the day he apparently crashed a plane with 150 people aboard in the French Alps.

The Germanwings copilot suffered from a “depressive illness” and was experiencing emotional problems after a “relationship crisis” with his girlfriend, friends and investigators in France and Germany told local journalists as they attempted to understand why Lubitz, 27, appears to have locked the chief pilot out of the cockpit and steered the plane into a mountainside.

UPDATES: Latest developments on the crash

The disclosures came as accident investigators began the difficult job of building an access road to a ravine at the remote accident site and continued the search for the flight data recorder, as well as the remains of the passengers and crew members of the Airbus A320 that had been bound for the German city of Duesseldorf.

Authorities have said the crash apparently was a deliberate act, but the background of the copilot's apparent psychological problems came into greater focus as investigators said that they had found a doctor's note for the day of the flight that had been torn up and put in a waste basket at his home.

German officials said he was under treatment for an undisclosed medical problem, and French private television station Metropole 6, citing sources “close to the investigation,” reported that Lubitz had been declared unfit to work March 16-19 because of depression, a condition he is said to have concealed from his employer.

Documents found in a search of Lubitz's family home here in the western German town of Montabaur, and also his apartment in Duesseldorf, “support the current preliminary assessment that the deceased hid his illness from his employer and colleagues,” Ralf Herrenbrueck, a spokesman for the German prosecutor's office, said in a written statement.

Lubitz is believed to have taken a six-month leave during his training with Germanwings, a unit of Lufthansa, and though airline officials have not explained the reason for the hiatus, investigators have told European media that it was also because of depression. Part of the training was conducted at a Lufthansa training center in Phoenix, beginning in 2008.

The disclosures in this remote, idyllic town deep in the country's southwest hit like a bomb: On the cobbled streets lined with century old timber-framed buildings, residents were in shock.

“I don't know. That's the point. It's too soon,” said Martin Boettcher, 27, manager of a local cellphone store; a former classmate of his was among those killed in the crash. “If it is really true that he did this, then he is not human. But it just can't be.”

But that is the issue that international aviation experts were wrestling with Friday, as they considered the far-reaching ramifications of a trusted pilot who is believed by authorities to have committed not only suicide, but mass murder.

The Federal Aviation Administration requires commercial airline pilots in the U.S. to undergo medical examinations every six or 12 months. They include detailed questions about any previous surgeries, blood pressure, speeding tickets, arrests and any mental problems they may have experienced.

But it is not a detailed psychological review, and even if it were, experts are not sure it could help weed out a serious mental illness from the 20% of people who suffer fairly common depression, anxiety or personality disorders.

The FAA does not have any explicit rules or regulations that would determine what mental conditions make a pilot unfit to fly, agency officials said. It is pretty much left to the judgment of medical professionals.

“It is pretty loosey goosey how it is handled,” said Robert Ditchey, an air safety expert and former senior executive at several U.S. airlines. “There is no limit on pilots going to a private doctor to get treatment.”

Ditchey said he had never encountered a pilot who self-disclosed a problem during his career in the industry. At larger airlines, spotting a troubled pilot is difficult, because they are supervised in large groups and managers are not in constant contact with each of them, he said.

FAA officials said their routine examinations include “questions about psychological condition.” The agency specifies: “Pilots must disclose all existing physical and psychological conditions and medications or face significant fines of up to $250,000 if they are found to have falsified information.”

Senior aviation industry experts say most major airlines have a policy of giving pilots up to a year of paid leave to get treatment for alcohol or psychological problems, part of an effort to get the aviators to come forward when they are experiencing stress that would affect their capability in the cockpit.

In many professions, the admission of psychological problems carries a stigma, and that is amplified in a job that involves public safety.

“There is great reluctance to acknowledge problems that may impact your job,” said Lawrence Palinkas, a USC professor of social policy who advised NASA on creating a program for psychological testing of astronauts. “Until the 1990s, NASA had a culture of denying the mental health issues.”

But the problems Lubitz had went far beyond depression or anxiety, if he indeed was responsible for deliberately crashing a plane, Palinkas said. He said the fact that Lubitz was breathing normally for eight minutes as he apparently locked the door on the pilot and set the plane on a crash descent while passengers screamed suggests a well-constructed, premeditated plan.

“I don't think this pilot just happened to decide to do this in the last 30 minutes,” Ditchey said. “This was a premeditated act. People who do this are not just depressed, but have a criminal mind. It gets beyond the run-of-the-mill psychological problem that results from divorce, or financial problems, or a death in the family.”

Here in Montabaur, a town of about 12,500, there was grieving for a native son and continued disbelief that he could have been responsible for the crash.

On Friday evening, dozens of people gathered in a historic square, lighted candles, laid flowers and denounced what they described as a witch hunt that has sullied Lubitz's name.

Participants said they just want to honor his memory and not judge him until more is known.

“I don't believe what they're saying,” said Oliver, a man in his 20s who, like most in town, was reluctant to speak to journalists and refused to give his last name. “It's as if Lufthansa was almost happy that they found a black sheep to pin it all on.”

“It's a tragedy for the whole town,” said Marie, who manages a family-owned bakery in the town's center. “How are we supposed to live after this is over? Everybody is now going to associate us with this suicide pilot, if he really did it.”

Times staff writer Vartabedian reported from Los Angeles. Special correspondents Willsher reported from Paris and Durica from Montabaur.


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6:03 p.m.: This article has been updated throughout.

10:05 a.m.: This article has been updated with Germanwings statement on sick note, Duesseldorf hospital statement and details from crash site recovery efforts.

9:05 a.m.: This article has been updated with new details from the FAA and Scandinavian authorities.

7:15 a.m.: This article was updated with reports from the German tabloid Bild.

6:40 a.m.: This article has been updated throughout with new details and quotes.

The article was originally published at 5:05 a.m.