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Germanwings Co-Pilot Took Training Break to Deal with Depression and Burnout

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It looks as if we have an answer to one of this morning’s lingering questions about Germanwings co-pilot Andreas Lubitz, who evidently seized control of his plane and drove it into the Alps, killing 150 people. Lufthansa earlier divulged that Lubitz took a long break from his pilot training. Now the UK Daily Mail has more details about that episode, saying he suspended training in 2008 “because he was suffering from depression and burnout.”

This account comes from a “schoolfriend” of Lubitz, who told German media he “had once taken a break from his training because of mental health issues.”

The Daily Mail notes that recent acquaintances saw no sign of depression; Lubitz has been described by virtually everyone he had recent contact with as cheerful and friendly.

His friends and colleagues seem universally perplexed by his final actions. His hometown flying club had honored him with a website posting attesting to his “dream of flying,” but apparently they removed it within minutes of French prosecutors announcing a voluntary manslaughter investigation. Interpol is now coordinating with the French police to investigate the crash.

Lufthansa executives confirmed Lubitz’s training break and said he had to complete some extra training to make up for the lost time, but continue to insist he was mentally and physically “100% fit to fly.”  That sounds a bit divorced from the hideous reality of what happened, but it would be difficult to ground every pilot who took time off for seemingly minor issues of job stress and burnout. More details about Lubitz’s complaints and treatment in 2008, and any subsequent emotional problems he might have reported, will be needed to properly assess the decision to let him keep flying.

Although mechanical failure does not yet seem to have played a role in the crash, the Daily Mail reports that this particular Airbus A320 jet was rather old and “less than a year from being grounded for urgent refurbishments” designed to extend its lifespan by another five to ten years.

The Daily Mail has some bone-chilling details of the crash, which occurred with such force that the plane completely disintegrated — rescue workers on the scene expressed amazement that so little debris remained intact. One investigator said “the biggest body parts we identified are not bigger than a briefcase.” Only 14 passengers have been positively identified from the remains thus far; one official said the remainder would essentially be identified through DNA samples.

Several babies were among those lost on the flight, plus a group of sixteen German schoolchildren, who were returning from a trip and sending text messages to their friends back home just minutes before the crash.  Another tragic detail to emerge today is that co-pilot Lubitz’s parents learned what had happened only a few minutes before the press conference where he was accused of mass murder.

The captain of the plane was also identified this afternoon by German media as Patrick Sonderheimer.  He had ten years of experience, and was considered one of Germanwings’ best pilots.  He was married, with two children.


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