The Germanwings tragedy raises vexed questions about vetting air crew and mitigation of risk. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Lubitz and the minds of airline pilots

Just over three years ago, on March 27, 2012, a 49-year-old pilot temporarily lost his mind while flying a JetBlue Airways Airbus A320-200 from New York to Las Vegas.

Captain Clayton Osbon had flown for the budget carrier for 12 years and had previously demonstrated no signs of psychosis. Not one. But on this occasion, Osbon began muttering ominously to the control tower – “things just don’t matter” – before telling his co-pilot they weren’t going to Vegas.

Things escalated quickly. The captain began yelling about bombs, his church and the inevitability of a crash. When Osbon suddenly left and lurched to the rear lavatory, the co-pilot knew what to do: he called an off-duty pilot into the cockpit, then triggered the emergency locking mechanism to prevent Osbon’s return. As Osbon ranted in the aisle, the co-pilot used the intercom to request the stronger passengers restrain him. They obliged. As it was, one of Osbon’s predictions was correct: they never made it to Vegas. The crew made an emergency landing in Amarillo, Texas, and catastrophe was averted. It’s the same place Osbon would later face trial for interfering with a flight crew, but the judge would dismiss the charge on the grounds of insanity.

The story was considered a “teachable moment” by Dr Philip Scarpa, the deputy chief medical officer of NASA and the president of the Aerospace Medical Association. Osbon’s case had followed a similar one in 2008, where a co-pilot of an Air Canada Boeing 767 had to be restrained by his captain after “talking to God” and becoming “belligerent” during flight. In late 2012 Scarpa released a paper on the mental health screening of aviators, and included a number of recommendations. He presented these last year in Bucharest, Romania, at the European Conference in Aerospace Medicine. With last week’s Germanwings tragedy, Scarpa is presented with a much heavier teachable moment.

1 . Aviation safety

Aviation exercises a strong grip on our imagination, especially when things go wrong. Flight still seems to many, including myself, miraculous – an industry wreathed, despite its commonplace, in romance. It’s also an industry that affects, and is affected by, our biggest discussions: globalisation, climate change, terrorism. “It can sometimes frustrate me that the industry attracts an elevated interest that’s disproportionate to the actual safety record,” aviation expert Anthony Green tells me. “It’s because the few accidents are often so spectacular. I don’t mean that in any funny sense. Or to be insensitive. They’re mass transit things, highly flammable, and they leave a large impact if they crash. Literally. A rogue bus driver taking his bus into a river wouldn’t have the same impact.”

It’s a complaint I’ve heard a lot this week from those in the industry. That aviation disaster attracts an outsized interest and incommensurate media coverage, which in turn manifests as an erroneous belief in the high instances of such disasters. Despite a cluster of recent high-profile crashes, Green is correct to emphasise that aviation remains one of our safest forms of transport. Despite the tripling of planes in the sky in the past 30 years, the number of crashes has been steadily falling. Green is right to express frustration at being asked this week on radio “Can we trust pilots now?”

But the suicide-murder plot of Andreas Lubitz remains singularly haunting. The collegial interaction between captain and mate. The soft, opportunistic urging of Lubitz that his pilot take the chance to relieve himself. The pilot’s return to the cabin door. His irritated realisation it is locked. Why isn’t the code working? Why isn’t Lubitz responding? Increased urgency. Tapping on the door becoming pounding. Then kicking. Then battering. A heavy object conscripted to breach the reinforced door. No result. After September 11, those doors are like bank vaults. When did the pilot dismiss technical fiasco, or unconsciousness, or incompetency? When did he realise that what was happening was wilful, and that he was helpless to prevent it?

The murderous descent took eight minutes, which is eight minutes of passengers gradually acknowledging what the pilot had already realised. Eight minutes of putrid surrealism. Eight minutes in which Lubitz breathes calmly in the cockpit as the jet streaks towards the mountain.

And then… nothing.

2 . “You take over”

Pilot suicide, aptitude and accidental death is something I’ve spoken a lot about with my father, who joined the Royal Australian Air Force in 1960. Because of what happened when he was there, he has often said it’s remarkable that I’m even here, alive, sponsoring weird contemplations of existential blankness. Flying was a consumptive passion for my father, undiminished even when he bussed to the Pearce RAAF base in Western Australia as a 15-year-old to watch an aerobatics show and instead saw a Vampire jet, performing a low roll 15 metres above the ground, plough into the tarmac and burst into flames. Less than five years later the air force was flying him to the Victorian base at Point Cook to commence training.

His instructor was called Scutty. My father didn’t consider him suicidal so much as flamboyantly negligent. On this morning my father wasn’t scheduled for a practice flight, but another student had called in sick. “Get your parachute on,” Scutty told Dad. But the problem was that, not scheduled for instruction, my father hadn’t prepared a flight chart. Hadn’t studied the course, measured tracks, determined the safest lowest altitude. Yet they took off.

As they flew over Port Phillip Bay, seated side by side, my father scrambled to complete the flight chart. As he did, Scutty took off his oxygen mask and sniffed the air. They were in a Winjeel, a bulky single prop commissioned by the RAAF as its training plane five years earlier. The Winjeel’s fuel tank – all 265 litres of it –was placed directly beneath the pilot’s seat. Scutty was sniffing to satisfy himself that there were no loose fumes. Because if there were, there’d be a sudden and catastrophic immolation. Satisfied, Scutty lit his cigarette. Then he asked my father if he’d completed the flight chart.

“Everything but the lowest safe alt,” Dad replied.

“Good. You take over.”

The fact my father said nothing astonishes him now. He pegs his reticence to the dumb paralysis that comes with youth and deference. As it is, my father performed an instrument flying lesson with the cowboy instructor – Dad’s visor pulled down so he could only consult his maps and instruments; Scutty nonchalantly drumming his fingers on his knees – before they turned and headed to the Victorian Alps. My father’s blinkers had been removed now, but it mattered little as they entered thick cloud. Visibility was nil. My father desperately consulted his topography maps, and knew that within precious few nautical miles was a peak of 5700 feet (1737 metres). Mountains. Plenty of them. And they were flying perilously low.

“Let’s go down and take a look,” Scutty said and, to my father’s great retrospective pain, he pushed the stick and took the Winjeel down, down, down through cloud into… a valley. They were surrounded by mountains. It was by sheer chance that they had shattered the unestablished safe altitude, and descended, blind, into a harmless trough of geography. Their tiny plane was crowned by tree-spotted inclines and, swearing, Scutty took control and lifted the plane quickly to a safe height. They flew straight to base and landed. Neither of them spoke of the flight again.

Just six months later, now scrubbed from the air force, my father was shown a newspaper article. A Point Cook instructor had been killed, along with his student, in their Winjeel. The names of the people weren’t mentioned, but my father could guess who it was. It was a simulated engine failure exercise, where the student goes up under false pretences only to have the instructor turn the engine off. A witness on the ground, a pilot, testified that the instructor’s response to an “incipient stall” seemed slow, though he eventually recovered the plane to an almost salvageable position. Almost. The Winjeel smashed into the ground in a manner that saved them from life-threatening injury. But the engine was pushed back into the fuel tank, rupturing it, and the two men burnt to death in their mangled canopy. Only the day before Scutty had been assessed by the instructors’ board, and found to be “thorough and capable”. He had been promoted. But my father could only see him suddenly switching off the engine, nonchalantly drumming his fingers on his knees. “Things have changed since then,” my father says. “But even then I think his attitude would be considered weird. It wasn’t normal. But he got promoted the day before he died, and I never considered that we nearly died together until years later.”

Where Scutty might not have been suicidal, my father’s other instructor certainly was. A painful introvert, he inhibited my father’s flying. Eight years later, the instructor took his cat and a shotgun to a rubbish tip near the air base. His death notice appeared in the same edition of a newspaper carrying word of former fighter pilot Neil Armstrong landing on the moon.

3 . Psychologically testing pilots

After Captain Osbon’s psychosis, Philip Scarpa arranged a team to prepare a paper. But what he had to teach wasn’t especially palatable to a public bent on the erasure of all risk. Scarpa found that sudden psychotic episodes were almost impossible to predict among pilots, but also – and crucially – they were rare. His team went on to say that “an extensive psychiatric evaluation as part of the routine pilot aeromedical assessment is neither productive nor cost effective and therefore not warranted. However, more attention should be given to mental health issues during the aeromedical assessment of pilots. There are many other mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety/panic disorders, and substance misuse, which are far more common, show patterns that facilitate early detection, and have proven effective treatment strategies.”

The problem with psychological vetting is that it’s imperfect, and that depression is as ubiquitous as it is easy to conceal. There are high-functioning depressives as there are low, but the possibility of depression transposing itself into nihilistic murder is extraordinarily small. And the idea that you might adopt some vague instrument of modernity and ferret out its most sinister mutations is absurd. Of course, this suggests that it might be only depression that is considered for vetting aviators. As it assumes that it was the singular cause of the Germanwings disaster. Neither is true, or at least, for the latter, is not established. But Scarpa did note the frailty of an industry – as for many others – that relies heavily upon voluntary admission. “Volunteering information about your mental health might be difficult,” Anthony Green tells me. “I know pilots who are scared of losing their licence. There was a time when just having hayfever meant you would be barred. So reporting regimes for mental illness, I think, should have non-punitive peer review.”

4 . Always risks

Anecdotes are not data. Nor is the buzz of our popular imagination. Some industries belch disaster and beg for oversight, but aviation remains one of the most professional and regulated in the world – populated with extraordinarily adept staff. As quickly as our startled minds transfer shock into an armchair detection of structural fault, we apply inhibiting and impossible policies to satisfy our popular opinions. And as much as we might romanticise flight, we irrationally fear it. “There’s no right answer here,” Green says. “And we just can’t have kneejerk reactions. We have to accept that aviation is extremely safe but that, like everything in life, you can’t get rid of risk. Risk will never, ever be zero.”


This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 4, 2015 as "Danger and the minds of pilots".

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Martin McKenzie-Murray is The Saturday Paper’s sports editor.