Germanwings Was Brought Down by the Bomb in Andreas Lubitz’s Brain

After guarding against terrorists, who knew we would need a defense against the pilots themselves?

Stringer / Reuters

Bombs in the brain, it turns out, are far harder to detect than bombs in a suitcase, sneakers, or underpants.

After searching the homes of Andreas Lubitz, the Germanwings pilot who flew an Airbus A320 into a mountain, killing himself and 149 other people, German prosecutors now say that he hid that he was being treated for an illness they did not disclose.

Documents discovered by the prosecutors included certificates that would have permitted him to have taken sick leave, meaning that he was unfit to work, including on the day on which he committed suicide and mass murder — but he disclosed none of this to his airline.

Prosecutors also said that they had not found any suicide note or any other written evidence disclosing his intentions or his state of mind. They said a full evaluation of what was found will take a few days. Meanwhile a German newspaper, Bild, is reporting that six years ago Lubitz suffered a “severe depressive episode” — but the parent airline of Germanwings, Lufthansa, has not responded to that story.

Carsten Spohr, the chief of Lufthansa, has said “No security system in the world can stop something like this.” And I think he is right.

This catastrophe has produced a classic reversal of logic—a step taken to make cockpits safe against terrorists, the reinforced and locked cockpit door, has, albeit unwittingly, turned out to make them safe for a demented pilot.

Who knew that, given all the security risks that inevitably exist in a system as complex and multi-layered as commercial aviation, we needed to have defenses against pilots?

Obviously there are steps to be taken as a result of this disaster. Obviously there should always be two people in the cockpit. Obviously there should be more regular and consistent psychological testing of flight crews. But we need our own heads examined if we think that that will really solve the problem.

If the dark mantle of 9/11 has taught us anything it is to beware of false solutions. For example, a second person in the cockpit—especially a flight attendant—could quite easily be taken out by a rogue pilot who planned for just such an adversary. The two-person rule is certainly a wise step but it’s not an ironclad fix. There probably isn’t one.

It seems that—in spite of what the prosuectors have revealed—nobody in the social circle or professional peer group of Andreas Lubitz saw anything that could have predicted (or explained) why he would suddenly lock out his captain and fly into a mountain at over 400 miles an hour.

It will be a while before the inner torments of Lubitz can be revealed and properly assessed. Naturally, pilots across the world are warning about jumping to a general conclusion about the stresses of their work and the risks of a pilot having such an extreme breakdown, but the fact that Lubitz was able to conceal his medical treatment from his airline is worrying. For sure, it raises sensitive issues about what a person can regard as private and what their obligations are if they have work as critical to the safety of others as flying an airplane. But nobody can now really argue convincingly that for pilots confidentiality overrides responsibility.

Some people have even speculated about whether in the future pilots will be needed at all and that the human factor is more fallible than a computer. The argument goes like this:

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Three pilots, two pilots, one pilot, no pilot. Which would you rather have in a machine that can carry anything from 60 to 600 people—and be destroyed by one unhinged person? As we behold the horror of what Andreas Lubitz visited on the 149 other souls on Germanwings Flight 9525 it is a salutary question to ask.

In the eyes of technical optimists 3-2-1-0 is the evolutionary line of piloting in the jet age. At the beginning, in the 1950s, there were three people in the cockpit: the captain, the first officer, and the flight engineer. The flight engineer sat behind the pilots and to one side, staring at a bank of dials.

These days, looking back on that time, sometimes with derision, we call that the clockwork cockpit. In the analog age the flight instruments were unchanged from the days of Lindbergh, except that there were many more of them. So the flight engineer had to watch them all, flick switches, press buttons.

Then in the 1960s came the first single-aisle airliner capable of carrying more than 150 people designed to fly with just a captain and first officer, the Boeing 737. But not so fast. There was much bleating from aircrews and the unions that took care of flight engineers. You couldn’t possibly be safe with just two guys up front.

The 737’s cockpit was basically the same in dimensions as Boeing’s first jets, the 707 and the 727, which had three guys (always guys then) at the sharp end. But the 737’s instrumentation had been shrunk to dashboard size and, argued Boeing and the airlines, it could be safely monitored with two pilots. The bean counters loved the numbers and, of course, they won.

It seems strange now that there was ever any fuss about that.

That being said, larger twin-aisle airliners often carry more than two pilots on long-haul routes. There can be a third relief pilot in the cabin who takes over, or a checking pilot in a jump seat behind the captain and copilot to assess their performance. In one extremely lucky case there were five pilots (including a checking pilot and relief pilots) aboard a Qantas Airbus A380 that suffered a disastrous engine failure on its way up from Singapore and made it safely back to the earth only because all five were there to nurse its instruments and controls.

But even having three pilots does not necessarily stave off disaster. When Air France Flight 447, an Airbus A330, hit trouble over the south Atlantic in 2009 the captain had left the cockpit, as apparently was the custom, and the airplane was being flown by the least experienced of the two copilots. That pilot, caught unawares by instrument failures, lost control and even though the captain got back into the cockpit it was too late to save the Airbus, which stalled and fell from 36,000 feet into the ocean.

But there are always futurists with Panglossian views of the redundancy of humans and the marvels of robots. Some dreamers have, for example, promoted the idea that with automated flight decks being so wonderful only one pilot would suffice, and he would be reduced to being, basically, a monitor watching over things while the computers did all the flying, from leaving the departure gate to reaching the destination gate.

Then, of course, there are the total tech believers. Remove people entirely, just like we already do in many automated commuter rail systems. Or take driverless cars, which are being touted as ready for trials—in theory the roads are a much more demanding environment than the skies, and roads don’t have air traffic controllers. The computers are much safer say the techies. They don’t make mistakes, only humans do that.

Well, our grandchildren may come to that place. Our grandchildren may live to be 150 years old and have brain replacements, following all the other organ replacements. But I’m damned sure that right now nobody of sober disposition will argue for the cockpit containing no humans at all.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated throughout.