What Are Pilots' Mental Health Screenings Like? The Germanwings Crash Raises Questions

A French prosecutor leading the probe into the Germanwings crash said Thursday that the co-pilot of Flight 4U 9525, Andreas Lubitz, deliberately crashed the plane, a chilling development in the investigation of the aviation tragedy. The possibility of the crash being intentional has raised questions regarding the psychological screenings for pilots to determine their mental health.

To neighbors, the 28-year old German Andreas Lubitz seemed like a "normal guy," but there is clearly a missing puzzle piece. Prosecutor Brice Robin said at a press conference that Lubitz actions were carried out "for a reason we cannot fathom right now but which looks like intent to destroy this aircraft," calling into question his mental state at the time.

Germanwings parent company Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr said its pilots are subject to a thorough physical and mental examination. Spohr confirmed that Lubitz was completely fit to fly a plane, though he did note that the pilot took a brief hiatus years ago for unspecified reasons:

Six years ago there had been an interruption to his training. We checked his skills, his competence and he went back to training school. After that he was successful. He went through all of that with flying colors. He was fit in all areas, 100 percent.
The interruption lasted a few months. This is something that can easily happen in our schools. Unfortunately I cannot give you any further information.
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Lufthansa no doubt regarded Lubitz's physical and mental health sound enough to clear him for flying, but when exactly did the company last assess his health? While its pilots are required to take a medical exam during their training, they do not undergo special psychological assessments beyond the training period.

All pilots go through medical examination and training before they are allowed to fly. In the U.S., commercial passenger pilots are subject to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules requiring those under 40 to renew their medical certificates annually (and those over 40 bi-annually) by undergoing a physical exam. There is, however, no official assessment for mental health beyond forming a general impression of a pilot's emotional and mental state, a potentially dangerous oversight into a pilot's psychological competence. Germanwings, a European airline, is not bound to FAA rules.

Spohr did not elaborate on details of Lufthansa's medical examination. In a time when reports of airplane passengers' frantic behaviors are common, the Germanwings crash — an incident in which the pilot's psychological state most probably had a direct (and grave) consequence — raises concerns about the mental health of those who are trusted with hundreds of lives with every flight they conduct.

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