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How Mentally Stable Are Our Pilots?

The news of the Germanwings flight crash en route to Dusseldorf was thought to be another tragic accident. But investigators have announced that the crash was intentional. When the pilot left the cockpit, the co-pilot locked him out and silently flew the plane into the French Alps.

The co-pilot of the Germanwings flight repeatedly suggested that the captain should leave the cockpit. When the pilot left, the co-pilot locked him out and ignored his desperate efforts to return, according to data recorder transcripts.

Germanwings flight 4U9525 Image: The Sydney Morning Herald/G-Plus
Germanwings flight 4U9525, and the grisly search through the wreckage.
(Image: The Sydney Morning Herald/G-Plus)

Flight 4U 9525’s captain, Patrick Sondheimer, screamed: “For God’s sake, open the door!” when he realized co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz, had essentially jammed the cockpit door, according to transcripts obtained by the German newspaper Bild, reported CNN.

Co-pilot Andreas Lubitz – BBC News

French and German investigators say Lubitz, 27, deliberately crashed the Dusseldorf-bound jet into the French Alps less than an hour after departing Barcelona on Tuesday, killing himself and the other 149 people on board.

 "black box" voice recorder of Flight 4U 9525 Image: Screenshot/YouTube
The ‘black box’ voice recorder of Flight 4U 9525. (Screenshot/YouTube)

There were no outward signs that the co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz, was mentally unstable.

The day of the crash, Lubitz seemed of sound mind, and his superiors said he was “100 percent flightworthy without any limitations.” However, an email has surfaced where Lubitz informed the flight training school at the time that he had suffered a “serious depressive episode,” according to the German airline.

Special coverage: Germanwings flight 4U2595 crashes in southern France:

Which makes me think: How do the airlines assess their pilots’ psychological state before they fly?

In the United States, there are no uniform psychological tests for commercial or military pilots, says Thomas Kolditz, a retired brigadier general from the U.S. Military Academy, and now a professor at the Yale School of Management.

Only certain types of military pilots (e.g., special operations) undergo any psychological evaluation, at least in the U.S., “because their role is so stressful and specialized.”

The cockpit voice recorder captures the dramatic descent of Germanwings flight:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mb9h7_1MavM

He went on to say that commercial pilots undergo many hours of specialized training, including “apprenticeships,” where more experienced pilots fly with newer ones and assess their reactions to stressful situations.

Presumably, if they show mental instability or violent behavior during this time, their supervisors take note and possibly bar them from more training. Yet those individuals are likely the exception rather than the rule. “Many commercial pilots come from the military, where they flew B1 bombers. Collectively, this is a really solid group,” said Kolditz.

Kolditz is a supporter of mental health screening and support, but he thinks written psychological assessments are not the way to do it. “Most of the assessment instruments are too easy to game by someone who is disturbed and doesn’t want to let on that they are,” he says.

Aviation expert: Psychological evaluations won’t stop pilots crashing planes:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q0swKyu-u8E

But after that initial training period, pilots do not get any regular psychological evaluation. That’s a potential problem, especially in light of Germanwings Flight 4U 9525, because it can take a very long time for someone to notice that a pilot’s psychological state is deteriorating—and even longer for an airline to bar him from flying.

What’s more, because of the stigma surrounding mental health treatment in the military and beyond, pilots that do notice a problem don’t seek treatment, Kolditz says. “Pilots know that if in fact they seek treatment for mental illness, it’s probably going to be a disqualifier and negatively affect their careers,” wrote Australian Popular Science.

Plane Wreckage of Flight 4U 9525 Image: Screenshot/YouTube
Plane wreckage of Flight 4U 9525 spread across the mountainside. (Screenshot/YouTube)

And he went on to say that as investigators learn more information about the Germanwings incident, it could become a catalyst for a conversation about pilot mental health. Perhaps airlines will instate a psychological screening for pilots. Kolditz suggests the best solution is to give pilots a semi-annual meeting with a therapist to evaluate them psychologically.

That way, they wouldn’t have to worry about the stigma or possible career implications. “We think it’s appropriate for people to go to the eye doctor whether they think they need it or not. You would think then that psychological screening would get at least that much respect,” he says.

The latest news claims there is a cell phone video of the last moments of the Germanwings flight:

Hopefully, their lives weren’t in vain and something will change. But at the end of the day, can they ever really know what state of mind a pilot is in?

Troy Oakes
Troy was born and raised in Australia and has always wanted to know why and how things work, which led him to his love for science. He is a professional photographer and enjoys taking pictures of Australia's beautiful landscapes. He is also a professional storm chaser where he currently lives in Hervey Bay, Australia.

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