For a year before embarking on a career as a pilot, Andreas Lubitz worked in his local branch of Burger King, serving up french fries. The restaurant – on a busy A3 junction – is a few kilometres outside the small German city of Montabaur where Lubitz grew up. The branch manager, Detlef Aldolf, described Lubitz on Friday as dependable and inconspicuous. He earned €400 (£290) a month, he said, and quit his part-time job to join Lufthansa.
In 2009, however, Aldolf said Lubitz abruptly reappeared. Lufthansa had sent him on a training course, initially in Bremen and then in Phoenix, Arizona, in the US. “I asked him how it was. He replied: ‘Too much stress. I’m going to take a break’,” Aldolf said. The manager added that Lubitz didn’t formulate this stress as depression. But, he said, the future pilot seemed overwhelmed.
For 24 hours French and German investigators had been at a loss: why would a 27-year-old co-pilot deliberately fly his plane with 150 people on board into the French Alps? This, certainly, is where the black box pointed. By Friday there were uncomfortable answers. Lubitz had a history of psychological problems, which he had apparently been concealing from his colleagues and bosses.
State prosecutors in Düsseldorf said medical documents had been retrieved from his flat there, which suggested that treatment for an unspecified illness was ongoing. Investigators found a torn-up current medical certificate. It was dated the day of the crash. “The assumption is that the deceased hid his illness from his employer and his professional circles,” prosecutors said, without specifying whether the illness was mental or physical. They added that no suicide note had been found. Nor were there indications of a “political or religious background”.
Citing police sources, the German media said that Lubitz had broken off his pilot training several times. At one point the Lufthansa flight school in Phoenix designated the man later left in sole charge of Germanwings flight 4U9525 from Barcelona to Düsseldorf as “not fit to fly”. He spent a year-and-a-half receiving psychiatric treatment. In 2009 he was diagnosed with a “severe depressive episode”, according to the German newspaper Bild.
Throughout this difficult period it appeared Lubitz was getting regular medical help. A special coding “SIC” was entered into his pilot’s licence, which means “Specific Regular Medical Examination”, according to Germany’s Federal Aviation Office. It is unclear, though, if this treatment was for episodes of depressive illness or some other complaint. Mental health professionals have urged caution until all the facts are known.
On Thursday, prosecutors in France gave details of the final moments of flight 4U9525, travelling from Barcelona to Düsseldorf. For eight minutes, during which the cockpit voice recorder revealed Lubitz said nothing but was breathing normally, the 27-year-old ignored captain Patrick Sondheimer hammering on the cockpit door and did not respond to increasingly urgent radio calls from air traffic controllers and nearby aircraft. At approximately 10.40am the aircraft smashed into the side of a mountain near the picturesque mountain village of Seyne-les-Alpes.
“The air disaster was so devastating that we have not found a single body intact. We have found parts of bodies and biological matter that are currently undergoing post mortem examinations,” Colonel Patrick Touron, deputy director of the Institute for Criminal Research at the National Gendarmerie, told a press conference near the crash zone on Friday.
“We have sent out an urgent medical-legal team to start identification and we have a team working on the site to recuperate the bodies, parts of bodies or biological matter, depending on the circumstances, so we can proceed with the identification of the victims,” he added.
While the full picture surrounding Lubitz’s mental state is unclear, these are terrible times for Lufthansa. The airline’s chief executive, Carsten Spohr, insisted this week that Lubitz was fine to fly at the time of the disaster. He was, Spohr said, “100% fit”. Now, this assertion will come to haunt the airline amid further claims – so far unproven – that Lubitz was suffering emotional problems, too, with his girlfriend of seven years. Aldolf said he had chatted with her at Burger King in Heligenroth, where Lubitz worked, and which he listed on his now-deleted Facebook profile.
As of Friday, all German airlines including Lufthansa have introduced a new two-person cockpit rule, seemingly to prevent the horror of flight 4U9525 from ever being repeated. It is an admission that procedures failed to anticipate what a determined and troubled individual might do, when given a small window of opportunity.
Neighbours, though, condemned any rush to judgment. They said it was too early to blame Lubitz or to extrapolate what may happened above the Alps from his apparent secret backstory. “I’m shocked. But it’s not proven yet that he killed 149 people,” Johannes Rossbach said. “The other black box hasn’t been found and evaluated. I won’t believe this until it has been properly investigated.” Of Lubitz, he said: “He seemed friendly and polite. We simply said hello.”
Rossbach lives two doors down from Lubitz’s home in Am Spiessweiher, in the sleepy southern part of Montabaur. The pilot lived with his parents some of the time as well as at his small flat in Düsseldorf. The two-storey house is a model of order. Large, it has a pleasant balcony. The garden is immaculately tended. It has daffodils, ornamental shrubs, and a perfectly trimmed hedge. Someone has stacked the garden gnomes neatly by the back shed.
Lubitz’s father is a banker; his mother an organist who plays at the local evangelical church. He has a younger brother. On Friday the white shutters were drawn, with no one at home. Police had earlier removed papers and a computer. The Lubitzs appear to come from the more prosperous end of the German middle class; unusually for a town this size – it has 13,000 people – Montabaur has a high-speed rail connection to the banking mega-hub of Frankfurt. Many commute.
A short walk from Am Spiessweiher is a grassy field surrounded by pine trees. It is here Lubitz learned to fly. Age 14 he joined the local LSC Westerweld flying club, which boasts a small hangar, a control tower, and a couple of gliders. There are around 100 members, 20 of them teenagers. According to Ernst Müller, novices fly at just 300 metres in a postcard-like rectangle. The view over Montabaur’s yellow-painted baroque castle is terrific, he said. Lubitz last visited at Christmas, Müller said, adding: “The club attracts a wide section of society. We have doctors, dentists and workers.”
Younger residents grumble that there isn’t much to do in Montabaur, which they dub boring. The nearest nightlife is in Koblenz, they add. Sibila Zaccaron said that Lubitz was a regular at her ice-cream bar, La Galleria, on the city’s cobbled main street. She said she saw him frequently with his blonde girlfriend, adding that he came in for the last time a month ago with his mother. She served him a cappuccino; his favourite ice-cream a lurid green.
“He was a sympathetic guy. He didn’t seem depressed. He had a nice girlfriend,” she said. The town was in a state of shock, she said, adding: “Everybody here knows each other. It’s a small place.” Opposite the bar is the city’s town hall. It has a plaque commemorating Jewish residents murdered in the Holocaust as well as a map of Brackley, Montabaur’s English twin town. Officials inside did not want to comment.
Lubitz attended the Mons-Tabor-Gymnasium or grammar school, a 15-minute walk from his home. He graduated with a diploma, the German Arbitur, in 2007. Friends said Lubitz was known for being a “sporting type” who was frequently out jogging and took his exercise pretty seriously. Between 2010 and 2013 he took part in Lufthansa’s half-marathon in Frankfurt, clocking up a time on his last run of 1 hour and 37 minutes. He was a member of the city’s only health club, Fit-Up, in the centre of town, and on the first floor above a budget supermarket.
His Facebook page yields few further clues beyond an interest in flying and electronic music. His social life appears to have taken place largely in Koblenz. His likes include a disco there, the Agostea Nachtarena, a local bowling alley and a climbing wall. His favourite music acts include Paul Kalkbrenner, a German electronic producer, and David Guetta, a French DJ. There are signs too of a sense of humour. Lubitz favourites a website called “When Men Are Alone” or “Wenn Männer Allein Sind”. It isn’t a forum for singles but a light-hearted platform where men can post daft videos of themselves mucking about with chainsaws, or looking after babies badly.
Back at Burger King, Aldolf said the whole tragic story was nothing less than an unfathomable disaster. “I’m totally shocked,” he said. ‘I can’t believe it. Nobody would have expected him to do something this evil.”