Germanwings: Crash leaves many unanswered questions

A photo of Andreas Lubitz, from his Facebook profile Andreas Lubitz was accepted as a Lufthansa trainee in 2008

We know that Germanwings Flight 4U 9525 was flown into a mountain by 27-year-old co-pilot Andreas Lubitz, after he locked the plane's pilot out of the cockpit. But several key questions remain unanswered.

Why did Lubitz do this?

We don't know. Investigators ruled out terrorism early on, and their position did not change when it was revealed that they believed Andreas Lubitz had deliberately crashed the aircraft.

No suicide note has been found at Lubitz's home.

The co-pilot did not behave in a peculiar or extreme manner and people who knew him have expressed shock over the event. "He's not the type of guy who would try and kill other people - absolutely not," a neighbour said. Another told The Associated Press news agency that Lubitz did not smoke and took care of himself.

"He was really just a very normal, not very remarkable nice young man," said Klaus Radke, the president of the flying club, near Montabaur in Germany, where Lubitz had learned to fly.

Andreas Lubitz runs the Airportrace half marathon in Hamburg in this September 13, 2009 file photo

Nevertheless, speculation has centred around Lubitz's mental well-being.

Prosecutors in Dusseldorf removed medical documents from Lubitz's home after the crash. They indicate "an existing illness and appropriate medical treatment". They found torn-up sick notes, including for the day of the crash, that "support the current preliminary assessment that the deceased hid his illness from his employer and colleagues".

In April, German prosecutors said Lubitz had researched "ways to commit suicide" on his tablet at home in the week before the crash. Another of his internet searches was for "cockpit doors and their security provisions".

The German tabloid paper Bild said [in German] it had seen documents that said he was suffering from a "personal life crisis", having recently broken up with a girlfriend.

It is known that Lubitz took six months' rest in 2008 while qualifying as a pilot. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung paper quoted a friend [in German] who said that Lubitz had had a "burnout". He reportedly went on to receive treatment for severe depression for a year-and-a-half.

French investigators said that Lufthansa had delayed renewing a medical certificate allowing Lubitz to fly from April 2009 to July 2009 "due to depression and the taking of medication to treat it". From then on his certificate carried a note of "special conditions/restrictions" which required regular medical checkups.

But even when we have a fuller picture of Lubitz's state of mind before the crash, some of his actions may remain a mystery forever. For example, after he had decided to kill himself and everyone else on board the plane, why did he set the aircraft on a controlled, rather than a sudden, descent?

Could depression really explain Lubitz's actions?
Police vans outside Andreas Lubitz's home on 27 March

Depression is a serious illness, and it affects everyone differently. People experiencing depression can reach such a state of alienation that they risk taking their lives - but the vast majority of people with depression would never harm anyone other than themselves.

Writing in the Times, Jennifer Wild, a psychologist at the University of Oxford, has said that the irrational thinking evident from Lubitz's actions in the cockpit may have been triggered by depression, possibly caused by a recent traumatic episode. "Perhaps in his state he did not consider the consequences of his actions, or perhaps he did not care because he was consumed with ending his life," she wrote, adding that drug-taking or a bout of extreme anger may also explain his actions.

The black box recording of Lubitz's calm breathing as he pressed the controls to send the aeroplane hurtling to the ground may lead some to believe he was a psychopath, but Dr Wild notes that psychopaths generally avoid harming themselves.

"Until the facts are established, we should be careful not to rush judgements," said Sir Simon Wessely, President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, adding that millions of people in Britain suffered from depression, which is a treatable illness. He told the BBC that this included pilots who "resume flying, perfectly safely, for maybe tens of years afterwards."

The fact that Lubitz appears to have been signed off as sick raises the question of whether there was - or should have been - contact between his doctors and the airline. Medical practitioners take an oath to maintain patient confidentiality, but some US states have expanded doctors' duty of care to the community at large. This allows them to warn third parties if they think it necessary.

Do aviation authorities need to improve psychological screening?
 Carsten Spohr at a press conference on 25 March

In Germany, trainee pilots are subjected to medical examinations, which include oral psychological assessments. There is some debate as to whether such assessments are thorough enough. One question an examiner might ask a pilot is "Do you have a butterfly collection at home?", the Suddeitsche Zeitung reported [in German].

Lufthansa said that after they hire pilots they do not subject them to regular psychological examinations. This is obligatory in other countries, such as the US and UK.

Airline staff are encouraged to report strange behaviour on the part of their colleagues, but a former pilot told the BBC that peer pressure could act as a brake on this process. And Carsten Spohr, Lufthansa's chief, admitted: "All the safety nets we are all so proud of here have not worked in this case."

But Mr Spohr also said: "No matter your safety regulations, no matter how high you set the bar, and we have incredibly high standards, there is no way to rule out such an event. This is an awful one-off event."

Pilot suicides are rare. A 2014 study by the Federal Aviation Authority identified eight such instances in the US between 2003 and 2012, accounting for 0.29% of all fatal aviation aircraft accidents. All the pilots involved had been medically screened and none had demonstrated mental disorder, depression or suicidal thoughts.

Is it true that the airline could have taken control of the plane from the ground?
Air traffic controllers at Manchester airport, 2013

Some people are asking why there is no system for wresting control of a plane from a control tower. In fact, such a system does exist, reports the Daily Mail, but it is not being used. In 2006, Boeing was awarded a patent for an "uninterrupted autopilot system" with its own power supply that could be activated by those on board a plane or on the ground. However, safety concerns - including the possibility that such a system could be hacked - have prevented its roll-out.

The crash also raises questions about the cockpit door mechanism which Lubitz used to keep the pilot out. The system, which allows a pilot to override the coded entry mechanism on the outside of the door, was designed in the event of a terrorist emergency. Airlines are going to have to balance those concerns against the possibility that individuals like Andreas Lubitz might decide to do harm, says the BBC's transport correspondent Richard Westcott.

Can airlines prevent this from happening again?
A pilot stands inside the cockpit during boarding for the Germanwings flight 4U9441, formerly flight 4U9525

The airline industry is in the process of introducing a small change that may avert an exact repetition of the crash. Lubitz was able to fly the plane into the ground without interruption since he seized the opportunity to lock the cockpit doors while the plane's pilot was going to the toilet.

Some airlines enforce a so-called "rule of two" - that there should never be fewer than two people left in the cockpit. For these airlines, a member of the cabin crew enters the cockpit when appropriate to ensure this rule is followed.

Several airlines, including Lufthansa, have announced they are adopting this rule. The European Aviation Safety Agency has recommended that at least two people be present in the cockpit at all times. China's aviation authority has also introduced the rule, and the UK's Civil Aviation Authority has contacted all UK airlines "to require them to review all relevant procedures".

Where does all this all leave relatives of those on board Flight 4U 9525?
Relatives lay flowers in front of the monument in homage to the victims of Germanwings Flight 4U 9525 in Le Vernet, southeastern France, 27 March 2015.

What relatives of plane crash victims need most are answers, experts say. But the more we learn about Andreas Lubitz, the more heartbreaking the Germanwings crash seems.

Evidence from research suggests that trauma inflicted by other humans on purpose is more difficult to come to terms with than natural disasters, clinical psychologist Roderick Orner told the BBC.

Acts of violence are also harder to process than accidents due to negligence or mechanical failure. "Violence is often experienced as an attack on human integrity," says psychiatrist Lars Weiseth. "This aspect causes increasing anger, loss of trust in companies and people, and sharply increases the risk to mental health."

The fact that Lubitz seemingly had no agenda for his actions does not necessarily make things easier, since the deaths could seem meaningless. If he had been a terrorist, Prof Weiseth says, relatives may be able to see their family members as "involuntary participants in an important struggle for democratic values".

Travelling together to the site of the crash may have at least allowed the relatives to establish a strong network of mutual support that could help them towards recovery.

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