Airlines change cockpit rules after co-pilot blamed for Germanwings crash


March 27, 2015

Düsseldorf, GERMANY: International airlines are scrambling to introduce rules insisting two crew members are always in a plane cockpit after investigators said a German pilot deliberately plunged an Airbus A320 into a mountain, killing all 150 people on board.

March 27, 2015

Düsseldorf, GERMANY: International airlines are scrambling to introduce rules insisting two crew members are always in a plane cockpit after investigators said a German pilot deliberately plunged an Airbus A320 into a mountain, killing all 150 people on board.

A view of the cockpit of the Germanwings A320 plane at the airport in Düsseldorf

The mystery of flight 4U9525 appeared solved on Thursday when it was revealed that first officer Andreas Lubitz locked the flight commander out of the cockpit and activated the plane’s descent into a rocky ravine in the French Alps.

For eight minutes, during which the cockpit voice recorder revealed Lubitz said nothing but was breathing normally, the 27-year-old ignored captain Patrick Sonderheimer hammering on the cockpit door and did not respond to increasingly urgent radio calls from air traffic controllers and nearby aircraft. Emergency codes allow crew to enter an aircraft cockpit in the event of an incapacitated pilot, but the co-pilot is thought to have intentionally overridden the system, which is a post-9/11 security measure intended to prevent hijack.

 “It could only have been deliberate,” said the French prosecutor Brice Robin, who gave the chilling account of the flight’s final 10 minutes. “He did this for a reason we do not know … but it can be seen as a willingness to destroy the aircraft.”

The only comfort that Robin could offer the grieving families of the 144 passengers on the aircraft was that they appear to have been unaware of their impending deaths until the last few seconds. They and the six crew members, including Lubitz, were killed instantly when the plane hit the ground and exploded.

“I think victims only realized at the last minute, at the very last minute … there were screams at the last moment just before the impact,” Robin said.

As airline companies across the world reviewed their safety procedures in the wake of the tragedy, Carsten Spohr, the head of Lufthansa, whose low-cost subsidiary Germanwings operated the Barcelona to Düsseldorf route, was blunt. “No security system in the world could stop something like this happening,” he said. “It was a tragic, exceptional and isolated case.”

However, several air carriers said they would implement a “rule of two” to avoid a pilot being left alone on the flight deck.

Norwegian Air Shuttle was one of the first to announce the rule. “When one person leaves the cockpit, two people will now have to be there,” said Thomas Hesthammer, flight operations director for the budget operator. “We have been discussing this for a long time, but this development has accelerated things.”

The Canadian charter airline Air Transat also said it would be introducing the rule, while easyJet was the first airline in the UK to announce it would implement the rule from Friday. “The safety and security of its passengers and crew is the airline’s highest priority,” an easyJet spokesperson said.

For 48 hours, aviation experts had struggled to explain why the Airbus A320 crashed in the southern French Alps on Tuesday. The flight had taken off from Barcelona in Spain at 10.01am and was almost halfway along its route to Düsseldorf when, at 10.31am, it began a rapid but controlled descent without decreasing speed or altering trajectory.

In the absence of any distress signal, there was varied speculation: did the plane suffer mechanical failure, were the pilots knocked out by a sudden depressurization or fumes from a battery fire, was the aircraft subject to a terrorist attack?

Hopes of solving the mystery lay in the black boxes. The cockpit voice recorder (CVR) was found on Tuesday afternoon and sent to the French air accident investigation bureau (BEA) near Paris, which said it had been able to extract the recording of exchanges between the flight commander and pilot.

However, the BEA refused to give details or comment, even after reports that the crash had been caused by one of the pilots.

Marseille prosecutor Brice Robin, centre, with Gen David Galtier, right, details the last 10 minutes of Germanwings flight 4U9525. Photograph: AP

On Thursday lunchtime, after spending 40 minutes with the victims’ families, Robin gave a detailed account of the grim sequence of events extracted from the cockpit recording.

“For the first 20 minutes of the flight, the two pilots spoke in a normal way, almost cheerful, and courteous. Like two ordinary pilots during a flight. There was nothing abnormal,” Robin said.

“We then heard the flight commander prepare the briefing for landing at Düsseldorf and the responses of the co-pilot seemed laconic. Then we heard the commander ask the co-pilot to take the controls.

“At the same time there was the sound of a seat being pushed back and the sound of a door closing,” Robin said, adding that it was assumed Sonderheimer needed to use the toilet.

“At that moment, the co-pilot was alone at the controls. It was while he was alone in command of the Airbus A320, that the co-pilot manipulated the button, what we call the flight monitoring system, to activate the descent of the plane. This activating of the altitude selector could only have been done voluntarily. I repeat … this could only have been done voluntarily,” Robin said.

“We heard several calls from the flight commander demanding access to the cockpit. This was done via what we call the cabin call, an interphone with a camera, so he showed himself and identified himself, but there was no response from the co-pilot.

“He [Sonderheimer] tapped on the door demanding that it be opened but there was no response from the co-pilot. At this moment we heard the sound of human breathing in the cabin and we heard this until the final impact, which suggests the co-pilot was alive.” Robin said the breathing was normal.

“The control tower at Marseille, receiving no response from the aircraft, asked for a distress code, and the activation of the transponder for an emergency landing. There was no response. Air traffic control asked other aircraft in the area for a radio relay to try to contact the Airbus. No response came.

“Alarms went off, signaling the aircraft’s proximity to the ground, and we hear the sound of violent blows as if someone is trying to force the door.

“Just before the final impact we hear the sound of an impact on the escarpment. There was no distress signal, no ‘mayday, mayday mayday’ received by air traffic control.”

The plane was travelling at 435mph (700kmh) when it smashed into the mountain. The force of the impact was such that it left only small pieces of debris and bodies scattered over two hectares.

Robin said: “Forty-eight hours after the crash … our interpretation is that the co-pilot deliberately refused to open the door of the cockpit to the flight commander, and pushed the button causing a loss of altitude. This was done for a reason we do not know, but it can be seen as a willingness to destroy the aircraft.

“He had no reason to turn [on] the button making the plane go down, he had no reason to prevent his captain to return to the cockpit, that’s already a lot, he had no reason to refuse to reply to air traffic controllers that alerted him to his drop in altitude, he had no reason to refuse to tap a code to alert other aircraft in the zone … already that’s a lot.”

In the mountain village of Seyne-les-Alpes near the crash zone, residents were shocked by the revelation that the plane’s co-pilot had deliberately downed the plane.

“It’s unthinkable,” one told the Guardian. “Imagine if he’d done this 150 metres before – the plane could have hit the village. It would have been absolute carnage.”

Lubitz’s Facebook page offered few clues as to why the young man who had dreamed of being a pilot since he was a boy would deliberately crash the plane.

Friends and neighbours said he was a happy person who “gave off a good feeling”. Lufthansa said he had passed all of its rigorous tests and training and was “100% fit for flying”. Investigators are looking into Lubitz’s private life to try to uncover clues as to his mental state.

Asked if he would describe Lubitz’s actions as “suicide”, Lufthansa’s chief executive paused and seemed lost for words. “I am not a legal expert … but when someone takes 149 other people to their deaths with him, it’s not what I would call suicide,” Spohr said.

Courtesy: The Guardian