European flight regs cloudy whether Lubitz fit to fly

by Will Hall |

The European Aviation Safety Agency, the European Union's equivalent to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, governs pilot qualifications for its 32 member nations.

DUSSELDORF, Germany (Christian Examiner) – Investigators have discovered ripped-up medical notes for co-pilot Andreas Lubitz to take off work, including one for the day he deliberately crashed Germanwings 9525 into a mountain in the French Alps.

According to the prosecutor's office in Dusseldorf, Germany, a police search of Lubitz's apartment turned up the multiple sick leave notes, some recent and others more dated. The statement by spokesman Ralf Herrenbrueck said the torn-up scripts "support the current preliminary assessment that the deceased hid his illness from his employer and colleagues."

The press release did not identify the illness.

WHO IS RESPONSIBLE?

Moreover, it is not clear Lubitz's physician shared the information with Lufthansa or the European Aviation Safety Agency – the European Union's equivalent of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration – or that there was even a requirement to do so.

EASA guidelines lack specificity about the suspension of pilot licenses when there is evidence of a "decrease in medical fitness" and seem to place responsibility on the pilot for reporting any condition that might affect his or her ability to fly – at least in between annual certifications of medical fitness. The regulations simply instruct pilots who "have been suffering from any illness involving incapacity to function as a member of the flight crew for a period of at least 21 days" to consult with a qualified aero-medical examiner about advice regarding fitness to fly.

The sick leave notes add intrigue to comments Lufthansa officials shared about Lubitz's training path and also brings into question EASA regulations about how fitness for flight is determined and monitored.

During a press conference March 26, Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr revealed that Lubitz had taken a break during his training in 2008, but said after the "lengthy interruption" Lubitz was cleared to resume training.

The German newspaper Bild is reporting this time off involved Lubitz spending one and a half years in psychiatric treatment for a "serious depressive episode," which may describe psychotic depression. Additionally, the Associated Press reported that Lubitz was required to undergo "specific regular medical examination" but did not specify whether this was for a mental or physical condition.

IS DEPRESSION DISQUALIFYING?

EASA regulations are fairly clear about physical conditions involving vision, color blindness, sinus infections and even require two years of "documented sobriety of freedom from substance abuse" with regard to alcohol and drug abuse.

However, the rules are cloudy on the subject of depression.

EASA states that a "psychotic disorder is disqualifying unless a cause can be unequivocally identified as one which is transient, has ceased and will not recur." Similarly, "an established mood disorder is disqualifying" for commercial pilots; however, "after full recovery" a pilot may be certified to fly "after full consideration of an individual case ... depending on the characteristics and gravity of the mood disorder."

"If a stable maintenance psychotropic medication is confirmed, a fit assessment should require a multi-pilot limitation," the regulation states.

But these requirements are written in the context of an initial application or requalification, which for Lubitz would have been an annual process. Between these mandatory points of examination, EASA regulations leave it up to the pilot to self-report any health condition which might impact his or her ability to fly.

In the case of Lubitz, the honor system failed.

NO RELIGIOUS, TERRORIST TIES

The Dusseldorf prosecutor's statement stopped short of blaming Lubitz's medical condition for the Germanwings Flight 9525 co-pilot's actions. The press release said medical documents at Lubitz's home indicated "an existing illness and appropriate medical treatment."

But the statement also said nothing could be found showing a political or religious motivation for Lubitz's deliberate crashing of the aircraft that took his life and 149 others.

Meanwhile, Bild is reporting Lubitz recently experienced a break-up with his girlfriend with whom he apparently shared a residence.