MAR 30, 2015 01:06 PM PDT

Was Germanwings pilot able to psychologically block out the reality of what was happening?

WRITTEN BY: Will Hector
French prosecutors have reported that first officer Andreas Lubitz appeared to want to destroy the aircraft carrying 149 innocent people aboard Germanwings flight 4U9525. Although a detailed motive might never be known, Lubitz's tragic act that day brings with it a desire to screen those responsible for the safety of otherssee into one's brain to be able to predict future behavior.

In a column written for The Guardian, psychiatrist and pilot Michael Bloomfield reports that no neurological or psychological test currently exists that could predict psychopathic behavior. What follows is a portion of Bloomfield's article:

As a qualified pilot and a psychiatrist, I have since repeatedly imagined nightmare scenarios in that cockpit. Although we will never know what was truly going through Lubitz's mind as the aircraft plunged, one of the many alarming aspects of this tragedy is that his depression is being quickly blamed.
Obviously depression cannot be the sole cause of a likely mass murder. Understanding this could yield many important lessons, and for now, the black box flight recorder will continue to yield vital information.

So far, we have been told that after the captain left the flight deck, the cockpit door was closed behind him and then Lubitz entered the command in the flight computer to descend the aircraft. The captain can be heard asking to be let in, then attempting to bang down the door while Lubitz is chillingly silent. Investigators know Lubitz was still alive until the moment of impact because he can be heard breathing.

Clearly we need to wait for investigations to be concluded, but it may be possible to deduce critical clues to Lubitz's state of mind by listening to his breathing, which could reflect his physiological and psychological state in those final moments. Simply put, despite knowing the command to descend the plane would result in his and everyone else's death, despite the pilot attempting to bang the door down, despite the alarms from the computers, despite seeing the mountains become dangerously close, and ultimately despite hearing the screams from those on board - was Lubitz calm or panic-stricken?

Excluding unlikely medical conditions such as rare forms of epilepsy, calm and normal breathing may indicate the cold and calculating nature of a psychopath, a person who does not feel guilt and has a callous disregard for the welfare of others. This might imply a high degree of premeditation necessary to cold-bloodedly kill so many.
Alternatively, was this an impulsive act of ultra-violence?

Although a pilot's noise-cancelling headphones may well have been blocking out some sensory information, was he able to remain calm by psychologically blocking out the reality of what was happening, disconnecting from reality via a process called "dissociation" - akin to entering a trance-like state in the face of overwhelming threat or fear? Otherwise, was Lubitz's breathing quickened and deep? Did he become as terrorized as everyone else on board and freeze in fright? Thinking about these questions, together with evidence from what Lubitz has left behind, will enable a psychological postmortem to be conducted, so that he can be profiled.

Apart from practical steps that airlines can take, such as now making sure that there are always two crew members in the cockpit, will this change how pilots are selected and, perhaps more importantly, how they are supported during their careers? A few years ago I worked as an air ambulance doctor and, knowing how much I loved flying, my crew-mates encouraged me to learn to fly and become a pilot myself. I knew I would have to pass the Civil Aviation Authority's medical requirements. I once asked a doctor who conducted these medicals about depression in pilots and he chuckled: "This needs psychiatric evaluation - no wants a pilot throwing a wobbly in the cockpit!" I took his point but thought, "How dare you imply that, because someone goes through something so awful (and common) as depression, that would make them compromise the safety of others?"

Potential pilots who have had depression will often need to be assessed by two separate psychiatrists in order to be deemed fit to fly. Such a psychiatric evaluation will focus on whether a mental illness is currently present and ask detailed questions to formulate risk. What was someone's childhood like? Their past? Their experience of depression? Did they have violent and impulsive tendencies? Would they seek help appropriately? Thinking about this now, does mental health stigma prevent pilots, like many others, from seeking help early?

Most airlines include some psychological assessment, often using variations of common personality questionnaires such as the widely used "five factor inventory". In simple terms, they are looking for people with well-rounded personalities. Many airlines also put candidate pilots through group exercises to pick out good team-workers and leaders. They will exclude people with a criminal record.

One issue, however, is that pilots are not routinely subjected to psychological or psychiatric assessment. The awful truth is that even this would not be able to predict such a horrific act. If indeed this was the act of a psychopath, despite leaps and bounds in neuroscience, there is no screening tool, blood test or brain scan for psychopathy that is good enough.

Ultimately, all this provides little consolation to the families and friends of the victims of this catastrophe. I struggle to imagine their pain at this dark hour. As I prepare to board a plane to travel to America, my thoughts are with them. However, we must remember that being depressed, "throwing a wobbly" and being a mass murderer are very different entities.

(Source: The Guardian)
About the Author
  • Will Hector practices psychotherapy at Heart in Balance Counseling Center in Oakland, California. He has substantial training in Attachment Theory, Hakomi Body-Centered Psychotherapy, Psycho-Physical Therapy, and Formative Psychology. To learn more about his practice, click here:
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