Co-pilot suspected of deliberately crashing plane once confessed to ‘burnout’

The co-pilot of a Germanwings jet who’s now suspected of deliberately crashing a plane loaded with 150 people into a mountainside in the French Alps may have had a brief, untreated bout of depression while undergoing pilot training, according to German news accounts.

Lufthansa, the operator of the low-cost Germanwings airline, said that the co-pilot, Andreas Guenter Lubitz, had taken a break during his training but had been thoroughly tested and cleared upon his return, completed his training and was considered “100 percent fit and ready to fly.”

But the mother of one of his former classmates told the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine that Lubitz had confessed to her daughter a few years ago that his timeout during training was because of “a burnout, a depression.”

Still, the co-pilot was well thought of, and people who knew him were at a loss to explain what would have caused him to decide to kill all those aboard in a rare deliberate crash of a passenger aircraft.

“People who commit suicide usually do so alone. When you do it with 150 people behind you it’s not suicide,” said the French prosecutor leading the investigation, Brice Robin. “That is why I am not using this word. I don’t call it a suicide.”

The discovery from listening to voice recordings captured in the flight’s final moments that Lubitz voluntarily typed in codes directing the plane to descend, then refused to unlock the cabin door so that the plane’s pilot could enter, turned what had been a crash investigation into a murder probe.

“Today, we now have received news that this tragedy has been given a new, immeasurably incomprehensible dimension,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Robin said that based on the audio recording found in one of the plane’s “black boxes,” investigators believe that as the plane reached cruising altitude, its pilot, Capt. Patrick Sonderheimer, left the cockpit to go to the bathroom. As is standard procedure, the control of the plane was left in the hands of the autopilot and the co-pilot.

As Sonderheimer left the cockpit, Lubitz typed a command in the jet’s computer causing the plane to lose altitude. He then refused to open the locked cockpit door during the following eight minutes, as Flight 9525 steadily neared the mountain.

At a news conference, Robin said Lubitz’s actions during the flight have been “analyzed as willingness to destroy the aircraft.”

“The interpretation that we can give at this time is that the co-pilot through voluntary abstention refused to open the door of the cockpit to the commander and activated the key that activates the loss of altitude,” Robin said.

The key strokes needed to order the plane to descend “must be voluntary” and are not accidental, Robin said.

As the plane glided to Earth, the recording caught the pilot first knocking, then calling over an intercom, then banging and finally trying to break through the locked cockpit door. The recording caught no response from Lubitz, only steady breathing that indicated Lubitz remained alive. It also recorded the screams of the passengers.

The plane was carrying 144 passengers, including two infants, two respected opera singers and a class of German schoolchildren who’d been in Spain to study the language. There were three Americans, 72 Germans and 35 Spaniards.

The plane, an Airbus A320, has an emergency unlocking system built into the cockpit door, in case a pilot is locked out of the cockpit. However, as an anti-terrorism measure, those inside the cockpit can override the unlocking code.

Robin said that Lubitz had no known connection to terrorism and that at this time there is no known motive for his apparent actions.

“There is no reason to suspect a terrorist attack,” he said. As for the notion of being trapped in a situation he couldn’t control, Robin noted that Lubitz was “obviously capable of piloting the plane by himself.”

Lubitz made no emergency calls or calls for help, according to the recording.

Lubitz was said to have 620 hours of flight time, only a tenth of the flight experience of the pilot. Still, while young he was well thought of. A September 2013 article by Aviation Business Gazette noted that “the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is recognizing Andreas Guenter Lubitz with inclusion in the prestigious FAA Airmen Certification Database. The database . . . names Lubitz and other certified pilots who have met or exceeded the high educational, licensing and medical standards established by the FAA.”

After news of the crash first broke, there were reports in the German media that many in or near Lubitz’s village of Montabaur were deeply saddened at the loss, noting that flying had been his lifelong dream. After Thursday’s news broke, however, that sympathy turned to shock at Lubitz, the son of a church organist.

Facebook pages labeling him a monster popped up within minutes of Robin’s news conference and soon after topped 1,000 likes.

But L.S.C. Westerwald, the glider club where Lubitz had first learned to fly, remained loyal. Fellow club member Peter Ruecker told Austrian television that Lubitz “was a very nice young man. I have no explanation for this.”

And the club chairman, Klaus Radke, urged caution.

“All pilots undergo regular evaluations, their physical and mental fitness is tested. I would urge you not to draw conclusions too fast,” he told Austrian television. “Planes have fallen out of the sky before, for no apparent reason.”