Why Did The Germanwings Co-Pilot, Andreas Lubitz, Take A Break During His Pilot Training?

At a news conference on Thursday, Marseille prosecutor Brice Robin said that Andreas Lubitz, the 28-year-old Germanwings co-pilot, appeared to have deliberately crashed the plane into the French Alps after the plane’s pilot was locked out of the cockpit. However, years back — when he was still in training — he took a break from pilot training. The reasons Lubitz took an 11-month break are unknown, but some are speculating that the break might have been the first sign that something was amiss.

According to Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr, though Lubitz took a “long break" during training about six years ago, it was not unusual for pilots in training. During that 11-month span, Reuters reports, Lubitz worked as a flight attendant. But according to a school friend of Lubitz, the co-pilot allegedly took that break because of mental health issues. The woman told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung:

Apparently he had burnout, he was in depression.

However, as of last fall, acquaintances report they did not notice any signs of depression in Lubitz. Moreover, after his break was over, Lubitz was required to go through a series of tests and evaluations before being deemed fit to fly. Spohr said that Lubitz passed the “psychological tests with flying colors” and added:

There was never any doubt over his competence or skills.
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Due to German privacy laws regarding medical records, Spohr admitted that he did not know the exact reason for Lubitz’s break, and said that while the reason could be medical, he would not know due to privacy rules. The New York Times reports that the company was also unaware of what the reason for the break might have been. Lubitz joined Germanwings in September 2013, and reports say that he had logged 630 hours at the time of the crash.

If Lubitz’s training break was not due to mental health issues, as his schoolmate is suggesting, what are other reasons for a pilot to take a break in the midst of training? There are quite a few possibilities. People take long-term breaks from work for everything from financial reasons to family reasons to medical reasons. Other big reasons for time off from work include stress and burnout. When going through a particularly grueling time at work or a demanding program, such as flight training, it’s not unusual to feel high amounts of stress that can lead to “emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion,” nonprofit resource Helpguide.org says.

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For an airline pilot, stress that causes a person to take a break from work makes sense. In CareerCast’s list of the most stressful jobs of 2015, airline pilot ranked number 4. As the description points out, piloting takes a high level of skill and extensive training and regularly produces high-pressure situations. Baltic Aviation Academy even put out a news release dedicated to helping pilots cope with stress on a daily basis. The news releases explains how sometimes young pilots are mistaken about exactly what the career will actually be like:

…most youngsters are misled by the overly idealistic image and fail to take into account the psychological challenges that the industry professionals have to overcome on a daily basis. Great responsibility for the safety of many passengers, operating an aircraft overnight, flying in bad weather or in a high density traffic area, temporarily getting off course, equipment malfunction, conflicts with other crew members or air traffic control – these are amongst the most common reasons why pilots have to cope with exceptionally high stress levels in their workplace.
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At this point, it’s unlikely we will ever truly know why Lubitz took that break during his training or why Tuesday’s crash occurred. Although stress might be a plausible explanation for why Lubitz took 11 months off during his pilot training, truly nothing will ever adequately explain why the plane crashed that day.

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