The co-pilot of Germanwings Flight 9525 took control of the airplane and headed straight into a mountain at more than 400 miles per hour as the passengers screamed in terror, a French prosecutor said today.
Evidence gathered from the cockpit voice recorder showed that one of the pilots had left the cockpit when the Airbus A320 reached cruise height, but was then unable to get back to the flight deck because he was locked out.
The pilot made repeated attempts to break through the door, the French official said: “We hear the pilot calling, asking to regain access to the cockpit, through the phone used to communicate between the cabin and the cockpit. There was zero response from the co-pilot.” The pilot failed to gain entry and the recording ends with the blaring of a proximity alarm, indicating that the impact with the Alps was imminent.
The prosecutor said that while the co-pilot was alone “he manipulated the flight management system to manage the descent.” The highly sophisticated computerized system of the A320 would not have detected any anomaly from these actions. Although the system uses a “flight protection envelope” to prevent pilots from what is called “over-corrrecting”-forcing the airplane into a maneuver that could destabilize it-the Germanwings A320 did not breach this safeguard in its descent. When the ground proximity warning is triggered the crew would be required to make an urgent change of course.
Although the pilot made repeated attempts to break through the door, officials said, he failed and the recording ends with the blaring of a proximity alarm.
The co-pilot, identified as Andreas Lubitz, had joined Germanwings directly from flight school in 2013 and had only 630 hours of flight time. The airline said the captain, who has not been named, had 6,000 hours of flight time, fairly low for a captain.
It would be normal for a copilot to be flying the airplane once it reached cruise altitude. But with a copilot as relatively inexperienced as Lubitz, the captain would be unlikely to leave the cockpit for longer than necessary to go to the toilet, which on the A320 is located immediately behind the cockpit on the lefthand side.
For security reasons, the cockpit door is always locked; if a crew member is in the toilet, a flight attendant stands by the cockpit door until the crew member returns to his seat.
The background of both pilots now becomes of high importance. A criminal investigation will begin to search for what could possibly have motivated a suicidal action-a “kamikaze” capture of the controls and deliberate descent killing 150 people.
Experts had been confounded by the airplane’s behavior-the sudden, unexplained departure from cruise altitude and the nearly 10-minute steep descent, undeviating, directly into a mountainside, hitting with such violent force that the whole airplane disintegrated into thousands of pieces. A deliberate act by a pilot would, on the face of it, be consistent with this scenario, including the total absence of a message from the cockpit and also consistent with my earlier analysis that for some reason the flight controls remained locked in one configuration during the descent.
The two most recent examples of “kamikaze” crashes both caused disputes about the pilot’s actions:
In December 1997, a Silk Air Boeing 737 flying from Jakarta, Indonesia, to Singapore suddenly dived vertically for more than 30,000 feet into a river and 97 people were killed. Because it was a U.S.-built airplane, the National Transportation Safety Board was called in to investigate; it determined that the crash resulted from deliberate action by one of the pilots. However, the Indonesian Transportation Safety Committee disagreed, saying the evidence was inconclusive, and a private legal action in California unsuccessfully tried to reverse the NTSB’s ruling claiming that a mechanical flaw, inherent in the 737’s design, had caused the crash.
Even more disputed was the crash of EgyptAir Flight 990 in October 1999. In this case the Boeing 767, on a flight from New York to Cairo, as it neared cruise height suddenly dived vertically into the Atlantic near Nantucket Island, killing 217 people.
The NTSB determined that there had been no mechanical failure and that the Egyptian captain had gone rogue and suddenly and deliberately pointed the nose down and doomed the flight. Once again, though, the NTSB’s verdict was disputed, this time by the Egyptians, who claimed that a design flaw had been responsible. The NTSB remained adamant that it was a case of pilot action. Other analysts agreed, pointing out that the concept of suicide by a captain was repugnant in Egyptian culture.
One point to note about these events is that the airplanes both fell in steep and rapid dives, whereas in the case of the Germanwings A320 the descent, though steeper than a normal approach descent, was not precipitate, and took nearly 10 minutes.
All of which shows that any act as bizarre as a deliberate one by a pilot to destroy himself and everyone on board an airplane will never be easy to explain, and can lead to years of dispute, as well as years of pain and anger for the families of the victims for whom this is the least expected explanation for a catastrophe.