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Germanwings tragedy: Did US miss chance to stop suicidal pilot?

US safety regulators had initially refused medical clearance to Andreas Lubitz, who went on to fly an airliner packed with passengers into a French Alps mountainside

world Updated: Mar 16, 2016 11:44 IST
Associated Press
Associated Press
germanwings,andreas lubitz,federal aviation administration
Rescue workers scour the site of the Germanwings air crash for survivors soon after the incident, which occurred on March 24, 2015. (File photo/ AFP)

US safety regulators had initially refused medical clearance to a German pilot who, five years later, deliberately flew an airliner packed with passengers into a mountainside in the French Alps. A lawyer for the victims’ families said they had missed a chance to head off the disaster, which occurred on March 24, 2015.

Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) records and a report by French air crash investigators state that pilot Andreas Lubitz was preparing to come to the US for training at Lufthansa’s flight school in Arizona in June 2010 as he applied to the FAA for a student pilot medical certificate. He initially told the authority that he hadn’t been treated for any mental disorders, and did not list the doctors who had treated him on the application form as required.

However, Lufthansa knew that he was being treated for depression brought on by stress, and had taken leave of absence from his training before returning to work with a doctor’s statement that he had been successfully treated.

Read: Prosecutor says Germanwings co-pilot contacted 7 doctors in one month

After Lubitz filed the erroneous application, a medical examiner working for the FAA in Germany filed one correcting the discrepancy – explaining that he had been found fit to fly.

Brian Alexander, an attorney hired by the families of about 80 passengers killed in the crash, said that because Lubitz had initially “lied” to the FAA about his mental health history, it was within the agency’s power to simply deny him the medical clearance. Instead, the FAA asked Lubitz for a report from his doctor, including a clarification whether his medications for depression had been discontinued. With that in hand, the FAA granted him the medical certificate in late July.

“They had a chance to, maybe, stop this,” Alexander said.

A file photo of Andreas Lubitz, the man behind the Germanwings air crash, participating in a marathon at Hamburg, northern Germany, on September 13, 2009. (AFP Photo)

The FAA confirmed in a statement to The Associated Press that the agency issued the clearance “after conducting an exam and obtaining additional information about his previous treatment for mental health issues”. However, the statement said the agency “has no indication that Mr Lubitz falsified any records or was unfit to be a pilot at the time of that exam”.

Terming the FAA statement “disingenuous”, Alexander said Lubitz’s initial application clearly showed that he had checked the “no” box when the correct answer would have been “yes” – something that would have been enough for FAA officials to refuse granting the certificate.

Read: Will crash plane if you leave me: Pilot’s threat to wife

“They can’t retreat from what happened here,” Alexander said. “He got caught. That’s the only reason he came clean.”

Alexander acknowledged that denial in such circumstances may not have been in keeping with the agency’s normal practice. However, had the agency probed more deeply, it might have learned that the pilot’s depression was far more serious than portrayed, he said.

According to a report released this week by French investigative agency Bureau d’Enquetes et d’Analyses, Lubitz’s mental condition – which began in 2008 – included suicidal thoughts. He used to make pacts with his psychiatrist to refrain from committing suicide, it added.

Read: EU watchdog urges two-in-cockpit policy after Germanwings crash

Lubitz went on to complete his flight training in Arizona and become a pilot for Germanwings, a regional airline owned by Lufthansa. On the day of the air crash, he locked the captain of Germanwings Flight 9525 out of the cockpit before setting the plane on a collision course with the rocky face of a mountain – killing himself and all the 149 others aboard.

The plane was on its way from Barcelona in Spain to Dusseldorf in Germany.

First Published: Mar 16, 2016 11:43 IST