Pilot hid health condition that would have banned flying

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 27, 2015 6:20 AM

By Tom Käckenhoff

DUESSELDORF, Germany (Reuters) - The pilot who crashed a plane in the French Alps had received a sick note from doctors showing he suffered a health condition that would have prevented him flying the day of the crash, which he apparently hid from his employer, German prosecutors said.

French prosecutors believe Andreas Lubitz, 27, locked himself alone in the cockpit of the Germanwings Airbus A320 on Tuesday and deliberately steered it into a mountain, killing all 150 people on board.

"Documents with medical contents were confiscated that point towards an existing illness and corresponding treatment by doctors," said the prosecutors' office in Duesseldorf, where the co-pilot lived and where the doomed flight from Barcelona was heading.

"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," the German prosecutors said.

The documents were found in searches of Lubitz's homes in Duesseldorf and in the town of Montabaur in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate.

Reports in German media suggested that Lubitz had suffered from depression in the past, and that his employer would have been aware of his history.

Germany's Bild newspaper reported on Friday that Lubitz had suffered from depression during a period when he broke off his training six years ago. It said he spent over a year in psychiatric treatment.

Lufthansa, parent company of Germanwings, has acknowledged that Lubitz had broken off his training in 2009 but says there was nothing in the pilot's background to suggest he was a risk.

"After he was cleared again, he resumed training. He passed all the subsequent tests and checks with flying colors. His flying abilities were flawless," Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr said on Thursday.

Bild, citing internal documents forwarded by Lufthansa's Aero Medical Center to German authorities, reported that Lubitz had suffered from depression and anxiety, and had been judged to have suffered a "serious depressive episode" around the time he suspended his training.

Lufthansa and German prosecutors declined to comment on the report, which is likely to raise questions about the airline's screening procedures for its pilots and, if confirmed, could expose it to substantial liabilities in the crash.

An international agreement generally limits airline liability to around $157,400 for each passenger who dies in a crash if families do not sue, but if families want to pursue compensation for greater damages, they can file lawsuits.

Lawyers who have represented families in past airline disasters told Reuters that potential lawsuits could focus on whether Germanwings properly screened the co-pilot before and during his employment, and on whether the airline should have had a policy requiring two or more people in its cockpits at all times during a flight.

Several airlines have already changed their cockpit rules in response to the crash, although Spohr said on Thursday that he saw no need for Lufthansa to do so.

"MAD SUICIDAL ACTION"

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls urged patience on Friday but said the German airline had an obligation to share all information on Lubitz with investigators.

"We must wait for the end of the inquiry. I am careful when there is a judicial inquiry, but everything points to a criminal, mad, suicidal action that we cannot comprehend," Valls told iTELE.

"It is up to this company to provide a maximum of information so that we can understand why this pilot committed this dreadful act."

Lubitz was described by acquaintances in his hometown of Montabaur in western Germany as a friendly but quiet man who learned to fly gliders at a local club before advancing to commercial aviation as a co-pilot at Germanwings in 2013.

"I got to know him, or I should say reacquainted with him, as a very nice, fun and polite young man," said Klaus Radke, the head of the local flight club where Lubitz received his first flying license years ago.

But a friend who met Lubitz six years ago and flew with him in gliding school, said he had become increasingly withdrawn over the past year.

Before Lubitz became a co-pilot in late 2013, the friend said the two had gone to movies and clubs together. But he noticed at two birthday parties they attended over the past year that he had retreated into a shell, speaking very little.

"Flying was his life," said the friend, who agreed to speak to Reuters about Lubitz's mental state on condition of anonymity. "He always used to be a quiet companion, but in the last year that got worse."

Randy Knipping, a Toronto-based specialist in aviation medicine, said it was extremely difficult to conduct screening for psychiatric problems among pilots, in part because they can put their careers in jeopardy by admitting to such problems.

"If somebody wants to withhold or conceal, there's no reasonable test," he said, adding that unless a family member comes forward to flag a mental problem, then problem cases can "slip through".

In Montabaur, a small town of 12,000 near the Rhine River, friends who knew Lubitz at the local flying club were stunned and saddened. Some pleaded with reporters who descended on the town not to rush to judge Lubitz until all the facts are known.

"I'm just speechless. I don't have any explanation for this. Knowing Andreas, this is just inconceivable for me," Peter Ruecker, a long-time member of the flight club, told Reuters.

(Additional reporting by Tom Kaeckenhoff in Duesseldorf, Victoria Bryan and Michelle Martin in Berlin, Andy Callus in Paris; Writing by Noah Barkin and Peter Graff; Editing by Janet McBride and Giles Elgood)