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Germanwings 9525: A Lesson On the Importance of Pilot Mental Health
On March 24, 2015, the world watched as images showed an airplane in pieces on the side of a mountain in the southern region of France. The early details were sketchy and the cause appeared to be a long way from being known. The world was only just being introduced to a tragedy that would change the aviation world forever.
In the departure lounge of Barcelona-El Prat Airport, a group of 16 high school students and two teachers waited to board Germanwings flight 9525 to return home from an exchange with a high school in Catalonia. Along with the group of 18 from the German high school, 132 other passengers and crew boarded the 24 year old Airbus A320 bound for Düsseldorf.
At the controls was Captain Patrick Sondenheimer and First Officer Andreas Lubitz, the two had flown the Airbus into Barcelona from Düsseldorf earlier that morning. The flight departed Barcelona slightly behind schedule and climbed normally over the north Mediterranean towards the south of France. Thirty minutes after takeoff, just as the flight crossed the French coast, the flight began a descent.
From a cruising altitude of 38,000, the flight descended at a rate of 3,400 feet per minute. The descent continued for ten minutes until the flight impacted into the side of Tȇte du Travers, a mountain in the south of France. All 150 people onboard were killed instantly and the aircraft disintegrated. The BEA, the French investigation bureau, descended on the crash site to start their investigation, assisted by their German counterparts.
Most major investigations take at least a year to issue a final report. However, this investigation released a preliminary report in May of 2015, just six weeks after the crash. After analyzing the data from the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) and the flight data recorder (FDR), the investigators concluded that First Officer Andreas Lubitz had intentionally crashed the aircraft into the mountain. This conclusion was a shock to the industry and the world.
During the investigation into Lubitz, investigators had found a note in a waste bin in his apartment, declaring Lubitz unfit for work. They also uncovered that his flight training was put on hold due to treatments for depression and previous treatment for suicidal tendencies. More recently, he was lacking sleep because Lubitz feared that he was losing his sight, thus disqualifying him as a pilot. The discovery that Lubitz had intentionally crashed an airplane stunned the world, however it was not the first time.
In 1997 a SilkAir Boeing 737 was cruising above south Sumatra at 35,000 feet. The flight, SilkAir flight 185, was on a routine hop from Jakarta to Singapore. Suddenly the airplane entered a rapid, vertical dive towards the Earth.
The airplane smashed into the Musi River killing all 104 people onboard. The investigators found that the CVR and FDR had been manually disabled using the circuit breakers in the cockpit. The United States National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), concluded that the Captain, Tsu Way Ming, intentionally crashed the plane. While the Indonesian counterpart failed to find a conclusion, the majority of the evidence pointed towards this conclusion.
Later, the investigators found that Ming had loss $1.2 million. They also discovered he had recently been disciplined by SilkAir and was flying on the 18th anniversary of losing four members of his air force squadron during a training mission.
LAM Mozambique 470
In November 2013, a hauntingly similar incident happened over the skies of Namibia. LAM Mozambique flight 470 suddenly dived towards the ground and smashed into the Bwabwata National Park killing all 33 people on board. The investigation found that the captain of the Embraer 190, Herminio dos Santos Fernandes, had intentionally piloted the airplane into the ground. In the investigation, they found that captain dos Santos Fernandes’ son had recently died and his daughter was in the hospital. He was also stuck in decades long divorce proceedings.
All three pilots suffered from mental problems. While only Lubitz was diagnosed by doctors, Ming and dos Santos Fernandes would need to have strong personal issues along with mental health to willingly commit suicide with an airplane full of people. These crashes highlight a relatively hidden area of aviation: mental health. All pilots, and airline pilots especially, are placed under extreme amounts of stress while flying. They are responsible for the lives of all onboard their aircraft and when something goes wrong.
Pilots also face pressures from the airlines to meet schedules and cut down on flight times to save fuel. The decision with modern airliners to reduce the number of flight crew from three to two has also increased the workload for pilots. In addition to these factors in the air, pilots must face everyday stress in their personal lives. All three pilots faced factors in their lives that led to their decisions to commit horrendous acts.
After the crash of flight 9525, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) in England revealed that 350 pilots had been grounded in the UK between 2010 and 2015 due to mental health issues. The issue are rarely talked about in aviation circles. Fear of losing one’s license, causes mental health issues to be hidden. While pilots are tested each year for physical health, they are not tested for mental health. In light of flight 9525, new regulations were introduced to require at least two crew members in the cockpit at all times. However these regulations do not fix the main problem which is the issue of mental health with pilots. The issue needs to become more open and discussed in aviation in order to help the pilots in need. Simply creating gap stops for the bigger issue will only lead to further incidents and more tragedy.
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