A German pilot deliberately crashed his plane into the side of a mountain after locking the captain out of the cockpit and ignoring pleas from air traffic controllers to make contact.
Marseille prosecutor Brice Robin said the co-pilot, who he named as Andreas L., took actions that would “deliberately destroy the plane.”
The 28-year old co-pilot, who was from Montabaur, a small town west of the Rhine in Germany, had joined Germanwings in September 2013 and had flown 630 hours. German police officers began searching the co-pilot’s home in Dusseldorf seeking evidence for his motives.
Mr. Robin said that the co-pilot had deliberately locked the door and would not allow the pilot to re-enter the cockpit and put the plane into descent “for a reason we don’t know yet. But we can analyse the intention was to destroy the plane.”
Mr. Robin said the co-pilot did not say a word after the captain left the cockpit. Instead he systematically disabled all communications between the aircraft and other planes in the area, and did not respond to air traffic control or to the captain’s urgent knocking on the door.
The captain, who had initially knocked gently on the door of the cockpit, began to bang louder and more urgently. The voice recorder heard passengers screaming the few moments before impact.
Mr. Brice said “there is no indication that this is a terrorist action,” but said he did not want to refer to it as a suicide case either as other people had died.
Carsten Spohr, the Lufthansa chief executive, looking visibly shaken at a press conference in Cologne a few hours later, said the news was “beyond our worst nightmare.”
He added: “I have absolute and complete trust in our pilots,” and said pilots were recruited not just because of their knowledge and technical expertise but also their psychological make up.
“We can analyse the intention was to destroy the plane.”
The co-pilot Andreas L. appeared to be a capable pilot. Mr. Spohr said he had begun training then, six years ago took a small, as yet unexplained break. After passing the aptitude tests again, he continued his training. “He was 100 percent fit to fly,” he said.
Mr. Spohr said investigators would now look into why he temporarily broke off his training.
The voice recordings indicate the captain, an experienced flyer with 6,000 hours flying time, who had flown for Lufthansa and Condor before joining Germanwings in May 2014, left the cockpit voluntarily.
Mr. Brice said the co-pilot’s breathing appeared calm until the moment of impact, and that passengers screams were heard just before the moment of impact.
U.S. regulations state that if a pilot needs to leave the cockpit, a member of the cabin crew must go in to make sure there are two people in the cockpit at all times. Mr. Spohr said there was no similar rule in Europe and Lufthansa did not insist on it.
In the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks in the United States, when hijackers took control of airplanes to crash them into the World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon, cockpits have doors that lock automatically from the inside: anyone wanting admittance has to knock. The Airbus 320 has an emergency code that pilots and crew memorize that will gain them entry into the cockpit, but this can be overriden from inside for five minutes
Several models of planes have small cameras so the pilot can see whoever is approaching the cockpit door. The cockpit doors now are often armored and bullet proof, and extremely difficult to break through.
Aviation safety expert, Dr Thurai Rahulan, a senior lecturer in aeronautics at the University of Salford, told Handelsblatt Global Edition that it was unusual for the pilots to leave the cockpit during a shorthaul flight.
“This was a short flight through congested airspace and you would normally expect pilots to remain in their seats,” he said. “Pilots do occasionally leave the cockpit one at a time, to use the bathroom or stretch their legs, but they do tend to fly for three or four hours before walking around.”
The flight between Barcelona and Düsseldorf lasts just over two hours. The Germanwings flight left Barcelona at around 10 a.m. The pilot sent a message to air traffic control at 10:30 a.m. when the plane had reached cruising altitude indicating all was well but a few moments later, the plane began to descend without warning. There was no further communication between the pilots and air traffic controllers.
Investigators are still seeking the second black box that should contain a recording of flight data.
Lufthansa runs its own pilot training school in Bremen, and hires many of the graduates for its airlines.
The Airbus A320 is generally considered a safe, reliable aircraft, although there have been some concerns over some of its technical aspects. A Lufthansa flight from Bilbao to Munich on November 5 dived steeply after sensors iced over, confusing the onboard computer. The pilot managed to right the plane by taking manual control, but the European Aviation Safety Agency did ask for changes to be made.
In the fall of 2012 two Germanwings pilots had to make an emergency landing after they were almost overcome by toxic fumes, which were later found to be engine oil vapors.
A total of 75 Germans died on Tuesday’s crashed flight, including 16 students from the same high school on an exchange program. Germanwings said victims also included 49 Spanish citizens, three people from Great Britain and two from the United States. There were also victims from Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Colombia, Denmark, Iran, Israel, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands and Venezuela.
French President Francois Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, traveled on Wednesday to the crash site to pay tribute to the victims.
Meera Selva is an editor with Handelsblatt Global Edition and has covered security issues and terrorism in Britain, Africa and Germany. To contact the author: email@example.com