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One Of Our Own Was A Suicide Killer - Lufthansa Pilots Struggle To Cope With Lubitz's Act

That one of their own aircrafts crashed, killing 150 people, is disaster enough. But that a colleague deliberately murdered all those people is inconceivable to pilots and staff of Lufthansa and its low-cost carrier Germanwings.

At Munich airport
At Munich airport
Felicitas Kock and Simon Hurtz

MUNICH — German pilots and cabin crews have been in a state of shock and mourning since Tuesday, having lost six members of their Lufthansa family. After the Germanwings Airbus crashed in the French Alps last week, killing 150 people, multiple employees have reported sick because they were simply too upset to work.

An accident of this scale would be tragic and difficult enough to process, but the realization that a colleague of theirs intentionally crashed the plane into the mountains in an act of suicide and mass murder is almost incomprehensible.

"Anything else I could handle better," says a Lufthansa pilot. A technical failure, human error, an incorrect response to a burst window. But a deliberately guided crash? That's beyond their imagination.

"I sit in the same seat as him. We have the same training," the pilot says. "The idea that he sat there for eight minutes, as the mountains raced towards him, while behind him more than a hundred people, including babies, students and colleagues, sat and even started screaming. That's crazy."

Co-pilot Andreas Lubitz could have changed his mind up until the very end, his colleagues say. Even seconds before the impact, he could have reset the autopilot, dragged the control stick towards his body and given full throttle. Pilots practice that scenario when they learn on simulators. He could have responded to the warnings of air traffic controllers, or the system's alarm signals.

But the long descent, locking the door. Why did he do it? "Within 10 seconds, I can turn the instruments in the cockpit so that the plane is guaranteed to crash," says another Germanwings pilot. "No matter what the captain does to try to save it. But of course, that wouldn't be a gentle descent. It would be a freefall."

In that scenario, even a second person in the cockpit couldn't help. The new "rule of two" Lufthansa instituted after the crash, requiring two crew members in the flight deck at all times, will serve as a constant reminder of Andreas Lubitz — whenever a pilot leaves the cockpit, goes to the toilet or gets a cup of coffee.

Inconceivable danger

No one at Lufthansa expected that their own pilot could be dangerous. In training, budding aviators learn what to do in emergency situations. What to do if technology fails, if the other pilot makes a mistake or has a heart attack. That a pilot would take deliberate steps to crash the plane is never discussed, never even imagined.

Lubitz taking a selfie. Photo: Socialchannel.it

Pilots are selected according to the highest standards and must undergo rigorous psychological tests before they even begin training. "You can't look into a person any more thoroughly," a Germanwings pilot says. Those who make it past the first round are likely to be well-adjusted enough to make it past later screenings, so as not to attract attention. The demand for more psychological tests is therefore misguided, the pilot says.

"I don't think that you can create more security through tougher psychological controls," says a flight attendant. "You can't monitor anyone around-the-clock, and besides, it would be strange if every pilot needed a psychological exam every week. I think we need to work to ensure that colleagues look out for each other."

Red flags

Pilots are trained to recognize when their colleagues are behaving suspiciously and to speak to their supervisor if they have any doubts. It's not seen as snitching, but as a necessary precaution. "After all, you yourself have a vital interest in ensuring that the guy next to you will not suddenly turn at the wheel," says the Germanwings pilot.

In practice, this is not always easy, says another. Co-pilots and captains are reassigned to each other for every flight so that they don't start to develop a routine together. They know each other only in the rarest of cases. If you're meeting a colleague for the first time, how do you know if he's behaving weirdly? "There are so many different characters," this pilot says. "And just because someone isn't like me, it doesn't necessarily mean anything."

It will be different in the future. The news of Germanwings flight 4U9525 hasn't destroyed trust among Germanwings pilots, but it has definitely shaken it. Some are able to keep flying, but others have cancelled their trips for the next few days. The shock from the crash runs deep. Those pilots who talk to the press want to remain anonymous, and most others don't want to say anything. "If only because I lack the words," writes one pilot in response to Sueddeutsche"s request for comment.

Crunched by Stephanie Russell-Kraft

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Photograph of Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Joe Biden walking side by side in the Filoli Estate in the U.S. state of California​

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