The Germanwings story is mutating with incredible speed. At first we were assured by the company that young co-pilot Andreas Lubitz, who evidently crashed the plane on purpose and killed 150 people, was “100% fit to fly,” with no physical or mental problems whatsoever. Then we were told Lubitz took an extended break from pilot training for counseling to deal with “burnout” and emotional stress, but that was back in 2008, so it wasn’t necessarily relevant to his behavior this week.
Now, the UK Daily Mail reports Lubitz “was receiving psychiatric counselling right up until the time of the crash.” The treatment he received after his extended break from training in 2008 lasted for a year and a half, concluding with a recommendation that he should be “examined by a doctor before flying.” He was apparently in the middle of a relationship crisis with his girlfriend, including what appears to have been a broken-off engagement, and might have been a complete breakup with the young lady.
Previous impressions of Lubitz as a happy aviator fulfilling his lifelong dream have been colored with accounts of ribbing from other pilots, who teased him because he worked as a flight attendant before moving up to the cockpit. A friend says they called him “Tomato Andi.” Another of his friends flatly stated to German media that Lubitz “wanted to become a pilot, but he is mentally unstable.”
“The picture of Lubitz which is emerging from his home town and Dusseldorf is of a man who, since he was boy, was determined to become an airline pilot – but who was repeatedly held back by mental health problems,” writes the Daily Mail. Germanwings corporate’s insistence that he passed all his tests with flying colors always sounded a bit tone-deaf in light of what Lubitz ended up doing, but it is beginning to look like a major scandal for the company and German aviation, as the grief of the slain passengers’ families boiling into anger.
The New York Times offers a partial explanation, reporting that Lubitz concealed his medical condition from Germanwings. A number of medical documents were found in his apartment, including a doctor’s note excusing him from work on the day of the crash, which he obviously did not present to his employers. In fact, the Wall Street Journal says Lubitz tore the sickness notes up. According to the Düsseldorf prosecutor investigating the case, evidence found includes “sickness notes that were torn up, still valid, and that covered the day of the act.”
The other documents are said to “support the preliminary assessment that the deceased hid his illness from his employer and colleagues,” according to prosecutors.
The company line has changed dramatically over the past 24 hours, with the chief executive of Germanwings’ parent company Lufthansa sounding contrite instead of merely perplexed. “The pilot has passed all his tests, all his medical exams,” said Carsten Spohr. “He was 100% fit to fly, without any restrictions. We have at Lufthansa a reporting system where crew can report – without being punished – their own problems, or they can report about the problems of others without any kind of punishment. All the safety nets we are all so proud of here have not worked in this case.”
Doubtless there will be extensive reviews of both company policies and German law in the weeks to come, but the Daily Mail notes that the repercussions of the Germanwings crash are already being felt around the world, as airlines in Europe and the Middle East introduced emergency rules to keep at least two people in the cockpit of airplanes at all times. At the moment, these are seen as voluntary policies, although legislation to make them mandatory may be forthcoming.
There has been grumbling about “over-reaction” to the 9/11 attacks leading to the sort of armored cockpit door that turned into an impregnable fortress for a homicidal co-pilot, but that was always understood as a potential risk – there were discussions of how armored cockpits could be problematic soon after 9/11, and it was felt that the degree of pilot control over passenger lives was already so great that shifting the balance of trust decisively into the cockpit, to thwart another 9/11-style hijacking, was reasonable. The pilot’s ability to override the door entry code was necessary to prevent terrorists from torturing the access codes out of captive flight crew. The obvious solution to the Lubitz vulnerability is to keep at least two people at the controls. The question of what Lubitz would have done, if his captain had not left the cockpit to use the lavatory, will forever haunt us; perhaps he would have tried to overpower the captain, or a flight attendant sitting in his place, but it would at least have been another variable in the doomsday equation.
Another major development in the story Friday morning was the police searching both Lubitz’ apartment in Dusseldorf and his parents’ home near Frankfurt, and discovering what the Daily Mail described as “evidence of mental illness.” The official statement from a police spokesman said, “We have discovered a number of things at his apartment which we will now examine and carry tests on to see if they are significant.” Lubitz’s desktop and laptop computers were also taken as evidence.
He claimed nothing they have discovered yet is “crucial,” but much attention seems to be focused on a single object. The only definitive statement the authorities made about this object is that it is not a suicide note. It is not clear if the object of particular concern is the medical documentation referenced by the New York Times, particularly the note excusing him from work, or something else.
It would be remiss at this juncture not to mention widespread speculation on the internet that the mystery object was a copy of the Koran. As far as can be determined at the time of this writing, there is no hard evidence to support this theory. There have also been claims that Lubitz’s now-deleted Facebook page included jihadi language, but we should all be aware of the possibility that “screen shots” can be manipulated or fabricated, and it certainly would not be surprising if ISIS enthusiasts began claiming Lubitz as one of their own. The full truth of his background and motivations will likely be revealed over the coming days. Speculation is inevitable, which makes skepticism indispensable.