Andreas Lubitz: an identifiable threat before the psychological autopsy?

A popular but dated image of pilots probably derives from war movies showing scenes in which they wrestle with the controls of a damaged aircraft to avoid catastrophe. Modern aviation is far removed from what are now outdated Hollywood depictions of pilots. Wrestling at the controls to save the aircraft is hardly in a day’s work. Planes now fly via computers, following the calm and well-rehearsed inputs from pilots. The recent Germanwings incident, however, highlights that there are a few, albeit rare, pilots who do not wrestle with the flight controls to save their aircraft, but they may wrestle with very powerful and destructive forces within their minds. Robert Bor delves into the issue of the psychological well-being of pilots and considers whether Andreas Lubitz might have been identifiable as a potential threat prior to the loss of 4U9525.

As someone who has provided aviation clinical psychology services to the civilian and military aviation sectors for more than twenty-five years, I have gained some insight into some of the mental health issues that affect pilots (see ‘Aviation Mental Health’ and ‘Anxiety at 35,000 Feet’) as well as airline passengers (see ‘Passenger Behaviour’). I have been involved in pilot selections and mental health assessments, besides being a general psychologist and a systemic psychotherapist. I claim no special expertise in the area of suicidality. In my line of aviation psychology work it hardly ever features, though I am familiar with half a dozen or so cases of pilot suicide on commercial aircraft in the last 25 years. However, I do supervise colleagues who very occasionally encounter patients whose inner turmoil is such that if it remains unexplored and unchecked, it can lead to catastrophic outcomes. Fortunately, it has never been with a pilot.

A question that is on all of our minds is, “Could this horrendous event over the Alps have been prevented?” Theoretically ‘yes’, if every pilot was subjected to an extensive psychological assessment. But of course the real answer is ‘no’, because it is inconceivable that such assessments could ever be undertaken on a mass scale and, in any case, current psychological assessments (or tests) are far from 100% accurate. Indeed, to predict an exceptionally rare event would require a fantastically accurate psychological assessment device.

The only way that we could ever gain clear insight into the events that led up to the suicide of the German pilot, and the homicide of all those on board, would be to interview him in a context and manner that perhaps only clinical and forensic psychologists would be able to create. This will never happen of course. Forensically, we can try to piece together some of what must have been going through his mind, both immediately before he crashed the aircraft, and in the years leading up to this heinous event by carrying out a ‘psychological autopsy’. So what was it about Andreas Lubitz’s state of mind that might have led to mass murder, an act which will have a profound effect on the future of airline operations, in the same way that 9/11 did with regard to safety and security on board an aircraft? At this stage, we know only small snippets about his state of mind.

As psychologists, we know that ‘footprints’ would have been left behind over a period of time reflecting his increasingly disturbed mind, although we have not yet been given definitive clues by the investigating authorities about his psychiatric history. We are beginning to hear evidence pointing to significant personality disturbance, coupled with deep rage and possible fear and despair over his future flying career, profound intrapsychic conflict, increasing feelings of aggression, disrupted personal relationships, depression and narcissism. This all culminated in an overtly aggressive act, reflecting in part perverse and misplaced vanity that he was making a stamp on the world such that his name would never be totally forgotten. The specific motive and trigger for his actions may never be known.