Tragedy in the Alps
Germanwings Pilot's Dream Becomes World's Nightmare
Something darker than depression must have been at work to make Andreas Lubitz take 149 lives along with his own.
In his Facebook profile photo, Andreas Lubitz poses smiling by the Golden Gate Bridge, which happens to be the most popular place on earth to commit suicide.
More than 1,600 people have killed themselves by leaping from this famed San Francisco span since it opened in 1937.
None of these poor souls took anybody else’s life while ending their own.
And if Lubitz had simply wanted to end his life, he could have used a freebie airline worker’s ticket to return there and make a final flight with a four-second, 250-foot leap into eternity.
The 27-year-old aviator also could have chosen any number of handier, closer-to-home ways to end it all without harming others who would very much like to continue living.
He did not.
And a pathology darker than despair must have been at work when this co-pilot flew an Airbus 320 Germanwings jetliner into the side of a mountain in the Alps, ignoring the pilot’s desperate pounding on the locked cockpit door and the panicked screams of the passengers.
Depression alone cannot explain how Lubitz could have been so indifferent to the terror of the others aboard.
As we ponder what could have possibly prompted him to do such a thing, we should not let the deaths of the 149 innocents aboard that plane lead us to stigmatize the millions of other innocents who suffer from depression.
One person who knew Lubitz has told reporters that he experienced a bout of “burn out” and depression some years ago.
By several reports, this “depressive episode” was what interrupted his pilot training for six months in 2009 and may have necessitated him retaking at least part of the course.
Lubitz was sidelined while the world marveled at the preternatural skill and cool of Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger in pulling off the Miracle on the Hudson, landing a stricken U.S. Airways flight in the New York river so perfectly that his passengers suffered nothing worse than wet shoes.
But Lubitz was subsequently declared fit to fly—perhaps in part because American authorities decided in 2010 to end a 70-year ban on pilots who took anti-depressants and to allow those who successfully took specified medications to fly.
As 2012 came around, Lubitz either had his airline pilot’s license or was well on his way, albeit with a second-in-command limitation. He posted a Facebook message wishing everyone everywhere only the best.
“All of you out there in the world a happy and healthy new year 2012!”
Along with his profile picture of the Golden Gate Bridge, his page featured a cover photo of Times Square that was taken at night while facing downtown.
There is no way at the present of determining whether he also ventured to Lower Manhattan for another visitor must-see, Ground Zero.
Yet Lubitz surely knew that this was the city of 9/11. And somebody whose great passion was flying would be more likely than most people to think not just of the towers but of the hijacked planes and in particular those maniacally murderous men who seized the controls and violated all the tenets of pilot-hood as would later be personified by Sullenberger.
Such thoughts may well have visited Lubitz back at the time of the attacks, the year when he turned 14 and made his first flight at the glider club near his home in western Germany. He surely could not have imagined where his great passion would take him.
Once the grown Lubitz finally had his airline pilot’s license, he still had to spend a year as a flight attendant before a pilot’s slot finally opened up at Germanwings.
The day then came when he was in the co-pilot’s seat. A friend tells reporters that Lubitz seemed an altogether happy, albeit quiet guy who was literally living his dream. He was on his way to racking 600 flight hours soon.
“Flying was his life,” another friend would say.
But, in recent months, that other friend began to note a change in Lubitz. The friend would later tell Reuters, "He always used to be a quiet companion, but in the last year that got worse."
Lubitz sought help at the Dusseldorf Hospital in February and again this month. He was reportedly suffering from some sort of chronic mental illness that he did not report to the airline. Authorities will only say that it was not depression.
A subsequent search of his Dusseldorf apartment and of his parents’ home in the town of Montabaur produced a note saying that he was not fit to fly on March 24, the day of the tragedy.
Rather than heed the diagnosis and present the note to the airline, Lubitz tore it up.
"Documents with medical contents were confiscated that point towards an existing illness and corresponding treatment by doctors," the Dusseldorf prosecutor’s office would later report. "The fact there are sick notes saying he was unable to work, among other things, that were found torn up, which were recent and even from the day of the crime, support the assumption based on the preliminary examination that the deceased hid his illness from his employer and his professional colleagues.”
Lubitz went ahead and once again assumed the co-pilot’s seat. The airline apparently had no reason to think he should not have been there.
“100 percent fit to fly,” a Germanwings executive would later say.
In the cockpit recording from the flight, the first indication that something is not right comes when the pilot briefs Lubitz about the upcoming landing in Dusseldorf. Lubitz is said to have turned ”laconic,” perhaps because he resented being SIC, or maybe because he had no intention of landing and was preparing to commit mass murder
As we all now know, Lubitz flipped a switch so the pilot could not regain entry to the cockpit after excusing himself to go the toilet.
A post 9/11 security provision dating back to the year when a teenage Lubitz first flew now enabled him to fly like a jihadi without a cause, or seemingly even a god, bent on murdering 149 people.
The recording is said to show that Lubitz continued to breathe evenly right up to the very last instant despite the pounding on the cockpit door and the screams.
He was seemingly as cool and calm in taking passengers’ lives as Sullenberger was in saving them.
Lubitz might have found some support in his earlier battle with depression if he had chanced to read a blog by Collin Hughes, an American also known as the Prozac Pilot. Hughes was brave enough to inform his employer that he had begun taking anti-depressants back before the ban.
“Depression is something that can take control of someone in a way that is difficult to explain,” the Prozac Pilot wrote in 2009. “It is more than a feeling of deepened sadness that a person will feel when having something tragic happen. Depression is more of a feeling of deep dark despair. Depression is a feeling of hopelessness.”
He went on, “I did have a job that most people could only dream of doing. Yet, here I am with feelings of inadequacy. I remember back before the medications as I would fly having doubts as to my capabilities as a pilot. When I would go to the simulator for training I did not look at things as if I were in control of things. I was always relieved when my training was finished. I was afraid of doing what I loved.”
The Prozac Pilot might also have helped Lubitz face the prospect of not being able to fly, at least for a time. The Prozac Pilot knew that crushing reality all too well before the lifting of the ban enabled him to fly again.
“OK, so why did I go on the medications knowing I would not be allowed to fly?” he wrote. “I guess because I had to be honest. I could no longer lie to myself. I knew that the darkness within me was caused by something. But now that something has a name. And that name is depression. I would love to return to the sky. But I also long to no longer feel the darkness.”
The Prozac Pilot found that being grounded could be a journey of another kind.
“What truly makes the type of person you are is found within. Look deep within yourself and ask yourself what is truly important. My wife told her parents the other day that she feels that it took a real man to step up to the plate and go on the medications even though I knew it would end my career. I was deeply touched by her words. To her I am not a man because I flew a jet. To her I am a man because I faced my demons and I am now fighting them head on.”
If we have a monster in Lubitz, we have a kind of hero not just in Sullenberger, but in in the Prozac Pilot.
Yet, however fierce his demons may have been, the Prozac Pilot was never at a point where he would have deliberately flown an occupied jetliner into a mountainside.
Depression was clearly only the start of Lubtiz’s troubles.
Whatever the exact nature of his illness, it entailed a coldly murderous impulse that was not demonstrated by any of those who pitched themselves off the Golden Gate Bridge where Lubitz once posed smiling.
We should be careful not to add to the troubles of those suffering depression by letting Lubitz mark them as a danger to others besides themselves.
Their troubles are still so great and there are so many of them that authorities in San Francisco are finally installing a net around the suicide span to prevent hundreds more from making that leap.
In the meantime, folks in aviation should be searching for ways to prevent anything like the Germanwings crash from ever happening again.