Flight into the Valley of Depression

A statement appeared in a New York Times article about the crash of Germanwings Flight 4U9525 that passengers will not see reprinted in the in-flight magazine stuffed into their seat pocket: “Having a mental illness does not necessarily mean one cannot successfully fly a plane.” Given that depression can often lead to unpredictable behavior, piloting a passenger airliner seems decidedly more risky than, perhaps, driving a car.

This statement was in the same paragraph discussing a certificate issued by the Federal Aviation Office of Germany that allowed First Officer Andreas Lubitz to fly. Lubitz was seen at a clinic in Germany on March 10th, for unspecified reasons. This date was just 14 days before Lubitz locked the captain on a lavatory break out of the cockpit. With the captain frantically banging on the door to be let back in (“For God’s sake, open the door!” the captain pleaded), the isolated first officer programmed the autopilot to fly the airplane so low that a collision with the Alpine mountainside was inevitable. The fact that the captain could not regain access to the cockpit will doubtless be a topic covered by the investigation. In the U.S., pilots have a secret code that they can enter if locked out of the cockpit, a feature evidently absent on the Germanwings A320.

The A320 jet slammed into the rocky slope at a speed in excess of 400 mph. At that speed, the tip of the nose and the tailcone impacted a quarter second less from one another in a violent telescoping collision with unyielding terra firma. Pieces of metal and pieces of the bodies of the 150 persons aboard were strewn over the mountainside. Death was blessedly instantaneous, although some in the passenger cabin were aware of the mortal danger entailed in flying low in the French Alps. Looking out the windows on that clear, sunny day, they would have been horrified to see peaks ascending hundreds of feet above their flight path.

The descent to death was probably deliberate, as Lubitz would have received ample notice of the mortal danger from aircraft systems, particularly the Terrain Avoidance Warning System (TAWS). This system looks out ahead and compares the airplane’s flight path to a digital terrain map stored in the computer. When flying 1,000 ft above any mountains, the terrain map shows the high terrain in green — the airplane is comfortably above any terrain ahead. If the airplane’s flight path takes it below the 1,000 ft clearance, the terrain will change color to yellow, the universal color denoting caution.

If the flight path takes the aircraft to within or below the highest points of terrain ahead, the terrain will be color-coded red on the digital map display in the cockpit. Within approximately 40 seconds of projected ground impact, a computerized voice will sound, “Terrain. Pull up!”

Lubitz sat there, doing nothing. Those on the ground reported that they did not hear the sounds of engines spooling up, which would indicate a last-second attempt to add power and climb as the rocky hillside loomed ever larger in the windscreen. Lubitz rode the airplane right into the boulder-strewn slope.

The terrain warning system was ignored

The terrain warning system was ignored

Now, scores of European airlines belatedly have instituted a “two persons in the cockpit at all times” rule. If one of the pilots has to leave the cockpit for a bathroom break, a flight attendant must come to the cockpit and be present while one pilot is aft in the cabin. This procedure has been standard, as mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), ever since two-pilot aircrews and locked cockpit doors have prevented the unique threat of a one-pilot failure — medical or mental — on the flight deck. It took the deaths of 150 people for European airworthiness authorities and airlines to wake up to prohibit solo cockpit occupancy. One is prompted to ask, were you people willfully ignoring the hazard?

Also, pointed questions apply to carrier Germanwings and its parent, Lufthansa. First Officer Lubitz was a flight attendant before becoming a very junior pilot. Did depression or any mental condition manifest itself in his prior employment as a member of the cabin staff? Was he seeking mental health care during this earlier time and, if so, was this known by his employer?

If strict privacy rules pertain in Europe regarding the doctor-patient relationship, does public safety enter into the equation? If a pilot with a serious heart condition is not allowed to fly, surely mental depression should qualify for grounding. News reports indicate that Lubitz was worried about his eyesight; vision problems would have been revealed during company-mandated physicals.

In searching his apartment, authorities found doctors’ notes in a trash can. The torn and rumpled notes said Lubitz was unfit for work. Prescription medicines were found showing that he was being treated for psychological problems. A girlfriend indicated that he had nightmares about flying and that he had complained about not being treated properly by the airline and co-workers.

Lubitz was an avid jogger, but running was no antidote to mental turmoil

Lubitz was an avid jogger, but running was no antidote to mental turmoil

There is mounting evidence suggesting that Lubitz was in a deeply depressed state of mind.

If he was mentally disturbed to the point of being suicidal, his case mirrors others:


Possible Pilot Suicides In Airliner Crashes
Date Airline Location Deaths
March 24, 2014 Germanwings Flight 4U9525 French Alps 150
March 8, 2014 Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 Indian Ocean 239 Note: investigators are still trying to determine if the crash was caused by a deliberate pilot act
Nov. 29, 2013 Mozambique Airlines Flight 470 Namibia 33
Oct. 31, 1999 EgyptAir Flight 990 Atlantic Ocean 217
Dec. 19, 1997 Silk Air Flight 185 Indonesia 104
Aug. 21, 1994 Royal Air Maroc Flight 630 Morocco 44
Feb. 9, 1982 Japan Airlines Flight 350 Tokyo Bay 24

There is a need for periodic testing of the psychological health of pilots, according to Canadian psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Cappon. After the apparent actions of relief pilot Gamil el Batouti in the crash of EgyptAir Flight 990, Cappon declared in Toronto’s Globe and Mail newspaper, “[T]he mental problems of some pilots may be more widespread than what has been reported.”

For this reason, he argued, “The public must insist on new legislation to enable medical authorities to detect early mental dysfunction in flying personnel and in air traffic controllers.”

He believes psychological testing can identify at-risk pilots. Cappon disagrees with the view of some pilots that psychological screening would not catch problem pilots. “That’s like saying x-rays won’t identify a cancer,” he said in a 2000 telephone interview with this writer. The test he has in mind involves some 300 items of background information, plus 120 additional items of what he calls the “foreground” aspects of a pilot’s mental health. He believes the focus of the periodic checkup ought to be changes, from the focus on finding the absence of health to one of the presence of physical fitness, to include the presence of mental and social fitness.

These vital signs of the “whole person”, Cappon maintains, are too often left to “casual verbal inquiry by physicians”. He believes the depth of psychiatric inquiry should equal the rigor of the physical examination.

The pilot’s lifestyle certainly argues in favor of periodic mental evaluations. There are the demands of the flying schedule, the family separation, the commute to and from work, the nights in a hotel, the disruption of sleep, the enervating routine of checklists and procedures, the stress added by bad flying weather, unruly passengers, and the list goes on…

The flying profession is one of boredom, rote, and routine — hardly the glamorous one often presented in motion pictures.

In his newspaper article, Cappon wrote:

“The vast majority of pilots and aircrews are extremely brave and resourceful people … Their heroism has saved countless lives … But, having dealt with many of these problems, I think that when pilots’ ailments threaten flying safety, better control must be exercised.”

When the captain of Germanwings Flight 4U9525 left the cockpit, he told First Officer Lubitz, “You’re in control.” Implicit in that statement was the assumption that the first officer would maintain the safety of the flight, not mortally endanger it.