On March 24, 2015, Germanwings Flight 9525 left Barcelona's El Prat Airport en route to Dusseldorf, Germany. The plane, an Airbus A320-211 carrying 144 passengers and six crew members showed no problems until it passed the French coast near Toulon when it began descending rapidly. After air traffic control failed to regain radio contact,  a French Mirage jet was deployed until radar contact was lost. The airplane crashed in the area of Prads-Haute-Bleone near the city of Nice. Everyone on board the plane was killed and search and rescue crews found wreckage spread over two kilometers. It was the deadliest air disaster in France of the last thirty years.

Only after locating the plane's two flight recorders were investigators able to piece together what had happened to cause the crash. According to the cockpit voice recorder, the plane's co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz, began showing signs of instability after Captain Patrick Sondenheimer left him alone in the cockpit for a washroom break. When Sondenheimer returned, he found the cockpit door locked.  Though the captain attempted to disable the lock using a special code, Lubitz managed to override him with the cockpit controls.  

After setting the autopilot to begin descent, Lubitz refused to respond to air traffic control and also failed to send out a distress call. The cockpit voice recording  picked up the increasing frantic pleas of Captain Sondenheimer and Lubitz' steady breathing as he ignored what was happening around him. Nothing else was heard except the screams of the passengers just before crashing.

Based on the preliminary report filed by the French Bureau of Enquiry and Analysis for Civil Aviation Safety, the plane had been deliberately crashed. Investigators also determined that Lubitz had practised changing the autopilot level several times during the outgoing flight while the captain was out of the cockpit though this had gone unnoticed.  The report also showed that Lubitz had a history of mental health problems, including going on medical leave for depression in 2008. While on medical leave, his condition worsened and he was briefly hospitalized due to suicide concerns. Lubitz was cleared to fly again in 2009 on the condition that his condition be carefully monitored and that he would lose his pilot's license if there were any signs of relapse.   

In 2014, Lubitz developed serious psychiatric symptoms, including complaints about his vision which he insisted was getting worse.   He also saw numerous medical doctors before being hospitalised for a possible psychotic episode on March 10, 2015. Released after two days, Lubitz was advised to go on medical leave but, for reasons that remain unclear, neither Lubitz nor his doctors notified the airline about his being declared medically unfit to fly.  It was later discovered that Lubitz had conducted extensive online research into methods of committing suicide before deciding to crash Flight 9525.

Though previous incidents like this have occurred, most notably the 1982 crash of a Japanese passenger liner caused by a mentally ill pilot, none of them have matched the Germanwings crash in terms of lives lost.  But what could possibly motivate an airline pilot to crash a plane and kill passengers and crew?

An editorial recently published in the journal Crisis provides an in-depth look at the Germanwings crash and how future tragedies like it can be prevented.   Written by Jean Pierre Soubrier of the Centre de Ressoures de Suicidologie (CRES) in Paris, France, the article provides a psychological autopsy of Andreas Lubitz and what led to the crash.  Though   the lack of a suicide note makes it difficult to know Lubitz' reasons for crashing the plane, Soubrier outlines key factors that include:

  • Lubitz' declining mental state allowing his major depression to progress into a confirmed psychotic condition without proper follow-up
  • The failure of his doctors to notify the airline of Lubitz' worsening state.  Under German law, medical confidentiality prevented doctors from making this kind of warning due to fear of prosecution
  • Lubitz' precarious legal status which would have led to his losing his pilot's license if he had told air authorities that he had relapsed. He also would have lost the right to a medical pension as well given the regulations laid down by his insurance company
  • Personal issues including his being deeply in debt and recently losing a girlfriend over his erratic behaviour

Given his fear that he would never be allowed to fly again and being left destitute by his medical condition, Lubitz may have decided that he had nothing left to lose by crashing the plane.  

In the aftermath of the Germanwings crash, Lufthansa changed its policy to require two crew members in the cockpit at all times. Though other civil aeronautics agencies such as the U.S. Federal Aviation Authority already have this policy in place, Europe had been slow to follow suit. Within months after the crash, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and Germany all passed legislation requiring two authorised crew members in the cockpit at all times during flight. The European Aviation Safety Agency has since recommended that all European airlines follow this rule and most airlines have complied.

As for the thorny question of how to deal with pilots suffering from mental illness, psychological associations across Europe have called for more stringent monitoring of pilots as well as improved help for families of crash victims. There have also been calls to scrap laws protecting doctor-patient confidentiality when airline security is called into question though this is still controversial.

Unfortunately, there are still too many unanswered questions concerning what mental health professionals could or should have done to prevent the Germanwings crash, or whether it will really be possible to prevent future tragedies. How far should laws go to protect society from potentially suicidal people, especially if they hold jobs that could allow them to endanger the public?  For that matter, can doctor-patient confidentiality be set aside just because a suicidal patient might commit a horrific act of violence?  

There is always going to be a trade-off between individual responsibility and security, especially when dealing with suicide and depression.   The case of Andrea Lubitz provides graphic evidence of that.  According to a former flight attendant who had previously flown with Lubitz, he had once said,  "One day, I will do something that will change the system and everybody will learn my name and so will remember it."    

Needless to say, he was right.

References

Soubrier, J.-P. (2016). Self-crash murder–suicide: Psychological autopsy essay and questions about the Germanwings crash. Crisis: The Journal of Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention, 37(6), 399-401.

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