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Murder in the skies

A deeply troubled German pilot intentionally downed his plane into the French Alps.

Nicholas Watts
May 21, 2016 · 9 min read

Breaking news of a missing plane elicits a deplorable level of excitement in me. The circumstances around every crash are always slightly different, the pace at which details on the incident are released is fast enough to maintain a constant state of alarm, but slow enough to sustain weeks and months of coverage. The spectre of the terrorists is everywhere, even if they rarely show their faces.

On March 24, a 9am Germanwings (the low cost offshoot of German flag carrier Lufthansa) flight from Barcelona to Düsseldorf was reported missing over the French Alps. Real-time flight monitoring websites showed that Flight 9525 had descended in altitude rapidly, from 12 kilometres to 1,882 metres in ten minutes, after which radar contact was lost. This information was enough to know it had crashed. The region of the Alps it descended into, Prads-Haute-Bléone, rises to 2,961 metres. At 11am, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls confirmed the crash. By 4pm, photographs of wreckage strewn throughout a mountain ravine appeared online. Two days later, at a press conference in Marseilles, information from the flight’s black boxes was revealed.

Thirty minutes into the flight, once the plane reaches its peak cruising altitude, the pilot in command, Captain Patrick Sondenheimer, leaves the cockpit, (it is presumed to use the toilet) saying to his co-pilot Andreas Lubitz, “You have control”. Once the captain has left, Lubitz switches the emergency cockpit access system to locked. This system is operated with a keypad, and is set to lock the door on a fixed timer of between five and 20 minutes. Lubitz hits a button that configures the autopilot to adjust its cruising altitude from 12 kilometres to 30 metres — the lowest possible setting. Sondenheimer knocks on the cockpit door to no answer. He enters an emergency access code, but the emergency access system has been disabled. The captain can be heard loudly banging on the door, demanding via the plane’s intercom to be let into the cockpit. Lubitz remains silent. The captain takes to the door with an axe. Throughout this period, air traffic controllers in Marseille have tried to contact the plane 11 times. Proximity alarms begin ringing, drawing the attention of the plane’s passengers; they begin screaming. The plane hits the side of the mountain at just under 700 kilometres per hour, bounces once and disintegrates into a ravine, killing all 150 passengers and crew.

Who is this Andreas Lubitz?

Lubitz had grown up dreaming to be a pilot, not far from the city of Koblenz in western Germany. He first flew a light aircraft at 14 with his local aviation club. His former acquaintances and friends consistently described him as polite, “if reserved”. Before being accepted into training he worked for a year as a flight attendant. Once admitted, Lufthansa had twice refused to renew the medical certificate authorising him to fly while he was being treated for depression, during which he paused his training, citing his mental illness, which he did not hide from his friends. At the time of the crash, he was an ordinary 27-year-old pilot, who had passed all his physical and psychological checks, with 630 hours of flight time logged.

After the crash, investigators found crumpled notes from Lubitz’s doctor in his bin, all indicating he was unfit for work. German airlines have no authority to access medical records, and German sick notes do not provide any explanation for why they are given. Even before evidence became available that they were issued by mental health professionals, the key narrative of the crash became Lubitz’s history with depression.

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The front pages of Britian’s tabloids from March 27 were widely denounced for stigmatising mental illness.

A large segment of the media, as well as mental health professionals themselves, condemned newspaper coverage that linked Lubitz’s depression with his criminal act — such sensational reporting only increases the stigmatism of those living with mental illness. The idea that those with depressive disorders be banned from piloting commercial planes was vociferously denounced. Why not ban males from flying, some said. They are statistically more likely to kill themselves than women. This concern for the marginalised voices of the mental ill is to be commended. It is also blind to the practices of airlines themselves, which will prevent a mentally ill pilot from flying. Lubitz himself had been refused a pilot’s licence in the US for this exact reason. Is this an objective or structural form of discrimination against those with mental illnesses? Or is it an effective form of risk minimisation?

Lubitz had the most powerful disincentive to report any of his mental health conditions: doing so would cost him his vocation. Shortly before his final flight, he had seen multiple doctors concerning an apparent loss in vision, which Lubitz thought would leave him completely blind. He would face a routine health check with the German aviation authority Luftfahrtbundesamt in June; fearing that his failing eyesight and depressive episodes may soon be revealed to his employer could have contributed to his decision to down the plane, according to German police. Investigators later reported that none of these doctors found any material damage to evidence a loss in eyesight. Some had referred Lubitz to psychiatrists.

Is there an implicit demand upon pilots that they be more surveilled, more scrutinised because they have the capacity to inflict catastrophic damage on large groups of people? If failing eyesight, a physical disability, disqualifies a pilot from flying, should a depressive episode do the same? Many airlines and aviation regulators think so.

Apportioning blame at the low cost airline market quickly succeeded talk of depressed pilots in the cockpit. The “budget” in a budget airline doesn’t stop with its refusal to offer free wine or access to Skynet. You’re also being flown by a budget pilot, who has received budget training.

The low number of flight training hours mandated by European airlines is concerning. According to pilot and writer Adam Shaw, the 1500 training hours demanded of US pilots in training are spent doing small jobs like crop dusting and writing engagement notices in the sky, often in “gritty, shitty, and temperamental” aeroplanes. Unless something goes very wrong, contemporary passenger planes are very easy to fly. Of equal importance, these 1500 hours also “expose [new pilots] to their peers, to repeated medical examinations”. In his characteristic wit, Shaw lambasts Europe’s lax aviation standards, a concession to budget airlines that put new pilots in commercial flights far too early:

These days, the 250-hour button-twiddling geeks can go from pounding the sidewalk to the right seat of a passenger jet in less than two years. That’s two medicals, and practically no peer review, no time for quirks, or worse, to become apparent.

In order for the Germanwings incident to be publicly digestible, there needs to be someone, or something, to blame. Shaw’s answer is simple: cast stones at “Joe-six-pack who wanted a $99 flight from New York to L.A, or Pierre Baguette who wanted a 65E Paris–Casablanca … and the cynical bean counters who make this possible.”

It seemed at first to be an exceptional incident: not the fault of any technology or policy, but of an inexplicable individual who consciously flew a plane into the side of a mountain. But this has happened before. In 1999, a regular EgyptAir flight from New York to Cairo crashed 100 kilometres off the coast of Massachusetts into the Atlantic Ocean. It came down in international waters, and according to civil aviation law, the investigation became the responsibility of the airline’s host nation. At the request of the Egyptian government, whose own aviation regulator was underfunded and inexperienced, the US’s highly regarded and autonomous National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) was tasked with investigating the incident. After recovering flight recording instruments from the ocean floor, a terrifying story emerged.

Shortly after takeoff, the flight’s co-pilot Gameel Al-Batouti had entered the cockpit to relieve the special takeoff co-pilot far sooner than is customary. He waited until the captain had left the cockpit to use the bathroom and then turned the autopilot systems off, took the controls himself and sent the plane into a sharp dive, dropping 4500 metres in just over 30 seconds. The captain raced back to the cockpit, screaming at his co-pilot, “what is happening?” while attempting to right the plane with his own set of controls. The co-pilot never responded to any of his captain’s questions or commands. Onboard voice recorders caught Al-Batouti quietly uttering the phrase “tawkalt ala Allah” 11 times as he dove into the sea. It can be translated into English as “I rely on God” or “I entrust myself unto God”, leading the NTSB to believe he knew his death was imminent. The last sounds of the recording came from the captain, who repeatedly implored Al-Batouti: “pull with me.”

The Egyptian government rejected the NTSB’s suggestion that the crash was the result of a “murder-suicide”. It decided to task its aviation regulator to perform its own investigation anyway, and ultimately concluded that a unique and unprecedented mechanical fault with the 767 was to blame. The Egyptian government and press could not even entertain the idea that Al-Batouti downed the plane himself. Some accused the US of shooting down the flight and of a vast conspiracy to cover it all up. Most took a suspiciously uniform line, that it couldn’t have been Al-Batouti’s fault, that it could be the fault of anything else but the co-pilot himself.

If the NTSB’s investigation reflects the truth — which it does — why would Al-Batouti fly a 767 filled with 217 passengers and crew into the Atlantic Ocean? An Egyptian whistleblower later told the NTSB that Al-Batouti had been demoted only hours before takeoff by an EgyptAir official who would later board the same flight. A series of sexual harassment allegations at a New York hotel often used by flight crew had come to light, and in response Al-Batouti had been told that this flight would be his last.

If taken together as deliberate acts, no one policy or regulation could have prevented both EgyptAir Flight 990 and Germanwings Flight 9525. Al-Batouti was not, as many pilots and commentators suggest of Lubitz, an inexperienced victim of budget airline cost-cutting. He had not locked his captain out of the cockpit like Lubitz had done. Al-Batouti did not have a reported history of mental illness. Both had been given bad, career-ending news in the days before their flights: Al-Batouti that he would be disciplined and no longer permitted to fly to America, Lubitz that his eyesight may have deteriorated.

The fevered demand that “something be done” in the wake of the Germanwings incident, for the ostensible purpose of preventing another tragedy just like it, is an understandable reflexive action for flyers around the globe. What this would actually be is not so clear. A new rule that says pilots must self-report imminent desires of murder-suicide? A sneakier way to test pilots for mental illnesses or depressive episodes without them realising they’re being tested? Since March this year, many airlines, including those based in Australia, have stated that two personnel will be present in the cockpit at all times from now on, a flight attendant must sit in if a pilot is to leave — something which may have prevented Lubitz from crashing into the French Alps, perhaps he could have been overpowered and forcibly removed from the cockpit. Al-Batouti wasn’t alone in the cockpit; in a panicked attempt to save the plane, his captain had no opportunity to wrest his controls away from him.

As German police investigated Lubitz — his girlfriend, his computer, his flight history — they found evidence that he had practiced switching the autopilot to descend to 30 metres on a previous Barcelona–Düsseldorf flight. Ominous, if at the time simply audacious, comments made to his girlfriend emerged: “One day I will do something that will change the whole system, and then all will know my name and remember it.” Troubled teens who go on to commit school massacres say stuff like this, but so does Elon Musk. His internet browser search history was littered with queries on suicide and the mechanics of cockpit doors. Upon release of the formal investigation into the crash of Germanwings Flight 9525 by France’s aviation regulator, its director said, “I can’t speculate on what was happening inside [Lubitz’s] head, all I can say is that he changed this button to the minimum setting of 100 feet [30 metres] and he did it several times”.

In retrospect, his will was clear. An impossible amount of surveillance would have been necessary to take all these disquieting indicators and arrange them into a plot to crash a plane.

When we talk about pilots as instrumental components of a plane, who undergo safety checks for their fitness and health, processes of licensing and certification that qualify them for different kinds of flying, it obfuscates the fact that they are still human beings, who are deeply inexplicable, erratic creatures. This is not to say standards should be ignored, that preventing plane crashes is a sorry date with the too-hard basket. It means understanding that no new safety measure, or even suite of measures, can ever completely account for human will. As long as we have humans flying planes, they will crash in confounding, tragic circumstances.

From Future Perfect Issue 3.

Future Perfect Magazine

A magazine for the socially and culturally enraged.

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