The German co-pilot suspected of flying a passenger plane into a mountainside and killing all 150 people on board suffered from vision problems that may have impeded his ability to continue working as a pilot, officials close to the investigation reportedly said Saturday.
The revelation of the vision problems, which could have kept Andreas Lubitz from being able to realzie his dream of piloting long-haul flights and becoming a captain, comes after an earlier media report indicated he suffered from depression and hid the ailments from his employer, as officials race to build up a picture of the co-pilot and any possible motives.
It’s not clear how severe the vision problems were, though one official told the New York Times it may have been a psychosomatic issue. German daily Bild also quoted officials saying Lubitz had vision problems.
German prosecutors believe Lubitz hid an illness from his airline but have not specified the ailment, and said he had apparently been written off sick on Tuesday, the day the Airbus he was flying crashed on its route from Barcelona to Duesseldorf.
The black box voice recorder indicates that Lubitz, 27, locked the captain out of the cockpit of the Germanwings jet and deliberately flew Flight 4U 9525 into a mountainside as the more senior pilot tried desperately to reopen the door during its eight-minute descent, French officials say.
An ex-girlfriend told a German newspaper that Lubitz worried “health problems” would dash his dreams and vowed one day to do something to “change the whole system.”
The 26-year-old woman, identified only as Maria W., recalled in an interview with the mass-circulation Bild daily how Andreas Lubitz told her: “One day I’m going to do something that will change the whole system, and everyone will know my name and remember.”
“I never knew what he meant by that but now it makes sense,” it quoted the “shocked” flight attendant as saying.
Bild, which showed a photo of the ex-girlfriend from behind to conceal her face, said she had flown with Lubitz on European flights for five months last year and that he had had another girlfriend since her.
She said he could be “sweet” and would give her flowers but got agitated talking about work conditions, such as pay or the pressure of the job, and was plagued by nightmares. “At night he woke up and screamed ‘We’re going down!’,” she recalled.
If Lubitz did deliberately crash the plane, it was “because he understood that because of his health problems, his big dream of a job at Lufthansa, of a job as captain and as a long-haul pilot was practically impossible”, she told Bild.
According to the New York Times, Lubitz did not inform the airline about his vision problems.
German police found a number “of medicines for the treatment of psychological illness” during a search at his Duesseldorf home, newspaper Welt am Sonntag weekly said, quoting an unnamed high-ranking investigator as saying he’d been treated by several neurologists and psychiatrists.
Germanwings pilot Frank Woiton was quoted in Saturday’s edition of Bild as saying he had flown with Lubitz who had spoken about his ambitions to become a captain and fly long-distance routes.
He said he handled the plane well and “therefore I also left him alone in the cockpit to go to the toilet,” he told the newspaper.
French police investigator Jean-Pierre Michel, who was in Duesseldorf Saturday, told AFP that Lubitz’s personality was a “serious lead” in the inquiry but not the only one.
The investigation has so far not turned up a “particular element” in the co-pilot’s life which could explain his alleged action in the ill-fated Airbus plane, he said.
German prosecutors revealed Friday that searches of Lubitz’s homes netted “medical documents that suggest an existing illness and appropriate medical treatment”, including “torn-up and current sick leave notes, among them one covering the day of the crash”.
Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr has said that Lubitz had suspended his pilot training, which began in 2008, “for a certain period”, before restarting and qualifying for the Airbus A320 in 2013.
The second-in-command had passed all psychological tests required for training, he told reporters Thursday.
Several German newspapers Saturday questioned whether doctor-patient confidentiality should always apply.
“The case of Andreas Lubitz has already sparked a debate on whether medical confidentiality for professions like pilots must be limited,” said the Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper.
Germany is to hold a national memorial ceremony and service on April 17 for the victims of Tuesday’s disaster, half of whom were German, with Spain accounting for at least 50 and the remainder composed of more than a dozen other nationalities, including one Israeli.
Around 500 people earlier Saturday attended a religious ceremony in the French town of Digne-les-Bains, about 40 kilometres (25 miles) south of the remote Alpine crash zone where searchers are recovering the victims’ remains and evidence.
Candles for each of the victims were placed in front of the cathedral’s altar.
The search of the crash site where teams are recovering bodies and looking for the plane’s second black box recorder was meanwhile called off as night fell, a spokesman for the local gendarmerie said.
Lufthansa and Germanwings — which has offered victims’ families up to 50,000 euros ($54,806) per passenger towards their immediate costs — placed a full-page condolence notice in several European newspapers Saturday.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report