Germanwings Co-Pilot Andreas Lubitz Was Treated for Suicidal Tendencies

BERLIN—The Germanwings co-pilot suspected of deliberately crashing an airliner into a mountainside last week had undergone psychotherapy years ago because of suicidal tendencies, a situation experts say is hard for airlines to detect.

In this case, the German prosecutor in charge said treatment had taken place before Andreas Lubitz, 27 years old at the time of the crash, obtained his commercial pilot license. While Mr. Lubitz had been under treatment, the prosecutors said, he hadn’t exhibited suicidal or violent tendencies recently.

“A few years ago, the co-pilot had been in psychotherapeutic treatment with noted suicide risk over a long period before he gained his pilot license,” Düsseldorf prosecutor Ralf Herrenbrück said.

French and German investigators have been combing Mr. Lubitz’s life for clues about motives for what French prosecutors have said was his apparently deliberate decision on March 24 to lock Flight 9525’s more experienced pilot out of the cockpit and fly the airliner into an Alpine ridge at 400 miles an hour.

Aviation attorneys say that Lufthansa and its insurers will likely maintain liability for the Germanwings crash, despite reports that the co-pilot hid his illness from the airline.
Andreas Lubitz taking part in a run on Sept. 13, 2009, in Hamburg, Germany. He underwent psychotherapy because of suicidal thoughts before obtaining his pilot license, German prosecutors said.
In recent years, U.S. airline officials have repeatedly confronted cases of severely depressed or otherwise emotionally unstable pilots killing themselves, though all those suicides occurred when aviators were off duty.

But in an interview, Bill Yantiss, an industry consultant and former head of safety and security at United Airlines, said passengers shouldn’t lull themselves into believing the Germanwings tragedy couldn’t be repeated in the U.S. or elsewhere.

“There probably are [members of] flight crews out there with the same mental state” as Mr. Lubitz, he said, and under certain circumstances they could snap. “The risk is out there,” Mr. Yantiss said. “It could certainly happen again.”

Under rules in Europe, the U.S. and most other places, pilots are largely on their honor to report any problems that arise between medical checks.

The prosecutor’s statement confirms comments from a person close to the investigation last week, who said Mr. Lubitz had been treated for depression and had concealed his condition from his employer.

It could shed light on a perplexing gap in Mr. Lubitz’s biography—a monthslong interruption in his pilot training a year after he enrolled in flight school in 2008.

The prosecutors said their investigation and interviews with witnesses had uncovered no sign that Mr. Lubitz was planning to deliberately crash an airplane. Neither could they establish a motive for such an act, they said.

Prosecutors had searched Mr. Lubitz’s Düsseldorf apartment on Thursday, uncovering doctor notes that excused him from work over a period covering the day of the crash. His employer said it hadn’t been aware of these notes.

The medical documents seized in the course of the investigation didn’t suggest that Mr. Lubitz was suffering from any physical ailments, prosecutors said. A person close to the investigation said at the weekend Mr. Lubitz had consulted doctors in the weeks before the crash about vision problems that could have affected his ability to fly.

Guohua Li, director of Columbia University’s Center for Injury Epidemiology and Prevention, described current medical standards for airline pilots as “outdated, inadequate and inconsistent,” especially regarding mental-health assessment. “These standards need to be updated, strengthened and made internationally compatible.”

As an example of what tighter standards can accomplish, Mr. Li said random alcohol and drug testing of U.S. pilots has virtually eliminated substance-impaired flying nationwide.

Deutsche Lufthansa AG, the parent company of Germanwings, has said it had no indication that Mr. Lubitz was suffering from depression or had any other mental problems. But owing to German privacy protection rules, the airline knows only whether a pilot passed the physical and mental-fitness tests that are a prerequisite for flying.

Mr. Lubitz’s medical certificate, last renewed in July 2014, showed he had an unspecified medical condition requiring regular checks, according to Germany’s Federal Aviation Office.

“The only medical information we get from our pilots is the annual medical check, and it’s a yes or a no,” a Lufthansa spokesman said.

—Shirley S. Wang contributed to this article.


Germanwings plane 4U 9525 crashes in French Alps – no survivors

A Germanwings plane 4U 9525 crashes in French Alps has crashed in the French Alps on its way from Barcelona to Duesseldorf.
The Airbus A320 – flight 4U 9525 – went down between Digne and Barcelonnette. There are no survivors, officials say.
The “black box” flight recorder has been found, France’s interior minister says. The cause of the crash is not known and the plane sent no distress signal during an eight-minute descent.
Among the passengers were 16 German pupils returning from an exchange trip.
Germanwings, a low-cost airline owned by Germany’s main carrier Lufthansa, has an excellent safety record. French, Spanish and German leaders have expressed shock.
A recovery team reached the site, in a remote mountain ravine, earlier on Tuesday. Their work was called off in the evening and will resume at first light on Wednesday, the French interior ministry said.
Bruce Robin, a prosecutor from Marseille, told the Reuters news agency that he had seen the wreckage of the aircraft from a helicopter.
“The body of the plane is in a state of destruction, there is not one intact piece of wing or fuselage,” he said.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier was also flown over the crash site and described it as “a picture of horror”, the Associated Press news agency says.
Officials believe 67 of those aboard the plane were German citizens. Forty-five of the passengers had Spanish names, Spain’s deputy prime minister said.
The passengers included a German school class on its way back from an exchange trip as well as two opera singers, Maria Radner and Oleg Bryjak.
Ms Radner was travelling with her husband and baby.
The flight was also carrying citizens of Australia, Turkey, Denmark, the Netherlands and Belgium. UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said it was “sadly likely” that some British nationals were on board.
Sandrine Boisse, a tourism official from the ski resort of Pra Loup, told the BBC that she believed she had heard a strange noise in the mountains at around 11:00 (10:00 GMT).
“At first we thought it was on the ski slopes, an avalanche, but it wasn’t the same noise,” she said.
Analysis: Richard Westcott, BBC Transport correspondent
We know the aircraft went from a normal cruising height of 38,000 feet to crashing in the mountains in just eight minutes. One pilot told me that is twice the normal descent rate, but he also said that the aircraft is capable of coming down even more quickly and still being okay.
In an emergency, the pilots’ first priority is to fly the plane, but as soon as they have some control they are trained to make an emergency call. That didn’t appear to happen in this case, which suggests the pilots were coping with something so catastrophic they never had time to radio in a mayday, or turn to find the nearest runway.
It’s still too early to know anything for certain, but that might point to both engines failing, a fuel problem or something critical breaking off the aircraft.
The plane began descending one minute after it reached its cruising height and continued to lose altitude for eight minutes, Germanwings managing director Thomas Winkelmann told reporters.
He said the aircraft lost contact with French air traffic controllers at 10:53 at an altitude of about 6,000 feet.
The plane did not send out a distress signal, officials said. Earlier reports of a distress call, quoting the French interior ministry, referred to a message from controllers on the ground.
The White House has said there is no evidence so far of a terror attack. A Lufthansa official said they were assuming for the time being that the crash had been caused by an accident.
The Airbus A320 is a single-aisle passenger jet popular for short- and medium-haul flights.