Germanwings Co-Pilot May Have Intentionally Crashed the Plane [Updated]

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Gendarmerie and French mountain rescue teams arrive near the site of the Germanwings plane crash near the French Alps on March 24, 2015. Photo: Patrick Aventurier/Getty Images

The prosecutor examining a Germanwings plane crash that killed 150 people on Tuesday has opened an investigation for voluntary manslaughter, as it increasingly seems that the only co-pilot left in the cockpit at the end of the flight wanted to “destroy the aircraft.” The pilot was a 28-year-old German man named Andreas Lubitz, and he appeared to be conscious until the plane crashed. After Lubitz’s co-pilot left the cockpit, “it was absolute silence in the cockpit,” according to prosecutor Brice Robin. Lubitz’s breathing is heard on the recording, suggesting he was alive and alert at the time of the crash. In the last few moments of audio, Robin added, screaming could be heard.

The German transport minister agreed with Robin in a press conference on Thursday: “The theory of a deliberate crash is plausible.” Lubitz had 630 hours of flight experience, and was a member of the flying club Luftsportclub Westerwald, which said that he “became a member of the association and wanted his dream of flying to be realized.” According to AFP, the deceased captain of the plane’s crew, who has not been identified, had more than 6,000 hours of flight experience.

A senior military official investigating the crash told the New York Times that audio from Flight 9525’s voice recorder reveals one pilot is heard leaving the cockpit, then there’s increasingly frantic banging on the door as the Airbus A320 inexplicably begins to descend into the French Alps. Within ten minutes, the plane dropped from an altitude of 38,000 feet to about 6,000 and crashed into the mountainside — all while one pilot was apparently locked out of the cockpit and the other gave no response. “The guy outside is knocking lightly on the door and there is no answer,” the investigator said. “And then he hits the door stronger and no answer. There is never an answer.” He added, “You can hear he is trying to smash the door down.” 

Robin continued, “At this moment, in light of investigation, the interpretation we can give at this time is that the co-pilot through voluntary abstention refused to open the door of the cockpit to the commander, and activated the button that commands the loss of altitude.”

There have been a number of plane crashes attributed to pilot suicide, and that regarding this case, asking if Lubitz committed suicide “is a legitimate question to ask.” Robin said there was nothing to indicate that the crash was a terrorist attack, but Lufthansa CEO said Carston Spuhr added that “when one person is responsible for 150 lives, it is more than suicide.”

What makes the report even more bizarre is that there’s no indication of any friction between the pilots up to that point. The investigator said their conversation had been “very smooth, very cool” throughout the flight. It’s unclear why one pilot left the cockpit, but “what is sure is that at the very end of the flight, the other pilot is alone and does not open the door,” the official said.

After 9/11, most international airlines implemented procedures to keep cockpit doors locked.  These doors have the ability to prevent anyone outside the cockpit from coming in, although there is an emergency override for other crew members on the plane.  Standard procedure is for a flight attendant to block the door with a food cart when a pilot opens the door to leave, and to take his or her place in the cabin until they return. “Procedurally, something was very wrong,” Glen Winn, an aviation instructor at the University of Southern California, told the Los Angeles Times. “You ask any pilot, they’ll tell you the same thing … They don’t leave a person alone in the cockpit. They don’t do it. Nobody does that.”

According to the Airbus A320 manual, there’s a locking mechanism on the outside of the door that lets crew members enter a keypad code to reenter. However, The Wall Street Journal notes that “the pilots can lock out external access for five minutes or longer using a switch in the cockpit.” This video explains the procedures for locking and unlocking the cockpit door:

Several airlines moved to implement a new rule requiring that two people be in the cockpit at all times after today’s news. In the United States, a "rule of two" is already required by the Federal Aviation Authority.

There’s some confusion about the second black box, which contains information on the condition of most major parts of the plane. Jouty said investigators are still searching for the flight data recorder and he’s “reasonably optimistic” that they’ll be able to find it. However, French president François Hollande, who traveled to the crash site on Wednesday with Germany’s Angela Merkel and Spain’s Mariano Rajoy, said the black box’s casing had been found, but its memory card was missing. Debris from the crash was spread across an area of about five acres, on a remote mountain range.

Lufthansa, Germanwings’ parent company, said the plane was 24 years old and had undergone repairs on Monday.  The last contact with the pilots was at 10:30 a.m. local time, when air-traffic control at Aix-en-Provence gave the crew permission to continue to the next waypoint. The plane showed up on radar until just before impact, and the crew apparently made no attempt to call for help as the plane flew straight into the mountain. “The path is compatible with the plane being controlled by pilots, except it’s hard to imagine that a pilot would send an aircraft into a mountain, and it’s compatible with an autopilot,” Jouty said.

Carsten Spohr, Lufthansa’s CEO, said that no system could have prevented the crash. “What has happened here is a tragic individual event. We are trying to deal with an enigma.” When Spohr was asked if the crash was the result of a suicide, he responded, “I am not a legal expert. But when one person is responsible for 150 lives, it is more than suicide.” Thomas Winkelmann, CEO of Germanwings, added, “This is by far the most terrible event in the company’s history.” 

Lubitz’s motives remain a mystery. Those who knew the 28-year-old aviation enthusiast who lived with his parents in Montabaur, Germany described him as happy and had previously given no indication of being unhappy or suicidal. There was a previous few-month interruption in Lubitz’s pilot training, according to the Times, but no reports have surfaced indicating it was related to a medical issue.

Germanwings Pilot May Have Intentionally Crashed