French authorities released much new information about the horrible Germanwings crash in the Alps this morning, but some vital questions remain unanswered. Why is the French prosecutor so firmly convinced that the co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz, deliberately crashed the plane?
Authorities have reported that the co-pilot can be heard breathing on the cockpit voice recorder, with the captain’s increasingly desperate efforts to gain entry audible in the background. A Finnish aviation official on Wednesday evening interpreted this as evidence that the copilot was unconscious, precisely the opposite of the conclusion reached by French prosecutor Brice Robin.
However, the Finnish official claimed that both pilot and co-pilot were unconscious or only intermittently conscious, and this would seem contrary to widely-publicized assertions that the captain had left the cockpit, and was trying to get back in when the plane crashed. For his theory to prove true, the person heard trying to break into the cockpit would have to be someone other than the captain, and to entertain that hypothesis, we would have to know how confident authorities are that they’ve identified the captain’s voice coming through the door on that recording.
A French military official quoted by the New York Times sounded highly confident that the recording has given us a solid account of the captain’s actions, describing a “very smooth, very cool” conversation between the pilots during the early stages of the flight, followed by the captain’s departure from the cockpit. The captain’s request for his co-pilot to take control of the plane can reportedly be heard as he leaves, although the authorities have not yet offered a reason for him to depart, beyond speculation that he needed to use the lavatory.
Later, when the plane begins to descend, the official said the captain can be heard “knocking lightly on the door, and there is no answer… and then he hits the door stronger, and no answer. There is never an answer. You can hear he is trying to smash the door down.” Evidently the door could only be kept locked if the co-pilot overrode the entry code, which would provide further evidence that Lubitz was awake and deliberately maintaining control of the aircraft – unless the panicked captain was entering the code improperly, which seems unlikely.
The BBC adds the unsettling detail that “passengers could be heard screaming just before the crash.”
However, the Times noted that French aviation authorities “have made public very little, officially, about the nature of the information that has been recovered from the audio recording, and it was not clear whether it was complete.”
The flight data recorder’s memory card has not yet been located – it was apparently ejected from the recorder casing due to the immense force of the crash. If it can be located, it will yield valuable information about the flight performance and condition of the aircraft prior to impact. As it stands, the authorities seem very convinced the descent was initiated manually and deliberately, not as the result of mechanical or instrument failure, although there have been a few strange stories over the years of capable flight crews misreading wonky instruments and causing disasters. Flight recordings of these incidents sometimes show the pilot or co-pilot stubbornly refusing to believe he was handling the plane incorrectly until it was too late to make effective corrections.
The relatively long and leisurely descent of the plane into the Alps is puzzling – if the co-pilot was a maniac bent on suicide and mass murder, why take eight solid minutes to descend from cruising altitude? That’s eight minutes for the pilot and passengers to potentially break into the cockpit, an unnecessary gamble when a steeper descent could get the deadly work done faster. If the co-pilot was trying to keep the passengers and crew from becoming alarmed, why not go for a steeper dive after it became clear they knew something was wrong, and the captain was trying to gain re-entry to the cockpit?
The most commonly floated alternative theory to deliberate murder is cabin depressurization. The New York Times describes a famous example from a Cypriot plane crash in 2005: “In that case, Helios Airways Flight 522, a slow loss of pressure rendered both pilots and all the passengers on the Boeing 737 jet unconscious for more than three-quarters of an hour before the aircraft ran out of fuel and slammed into a wooded gorge near Athens, the Greek capital. Investigators eventually determined that the primary cause of that crash was a series of human errors, including deficient maintenance checks on the ground and a failure by the pilots to heed emergency warning signals.”
Naturally, many of the unresolved questions concern co-pilot Andreas Lubitz, and why he might have been motivated to carry out one of the worst mass murders in history. So far, his background appears to contain no indications of murderous intent.
NPR reports that his local flight club described him as follows: “As a youth, Andreas became a member of the club, he wanted to see his dream of flying fulfilled. He started as a gliding student and managed to become a pilot of the Airbus A320. He succeeded in fulfilling his dream, a dream that he paid for with his life.”
A fellow club member said he was “happy he had the job with Germanwings and he was doing well. He was very happy, he gave off a good feeling.” Lubitz has been described as a little on the quiet side, but not anti-social or a loner by nature.
The club chairman, Klaus Radke, rejected the French prosecutor’s conclusion that Lubitz downed the plane intentionally, pending further evidence. “I got to know him, or I should say reacquainted with him, as a very nice, fun, and polite young man,” Radke said of Lubitz’s return visit to the club last fall.
According to CBS News, the Lubitz family is not responding to requests for comment, and his Facebook page was deleted sometime during the past two days. In addition to flying, his Facebook page also demonstrated an interest in marathon running. It is said that Lubitz had a girlfriend, but nothing has been revealed about her yet.
His neighbors say he was friendly and “vigorous” in his pursuit of an aviation career. He trained with Lufthansa, whose CEO said he passed psychological screening with “flying colors” and demonstrated excellent flight skills.
The only potentially ominous detail to emerge thus far is that Lubitz took what the Lufthansa CEO characterized as a “long break” from training, for reasons unknown, although he speculated that it might have been medical in nature. Privacy rules prohibited further disclosure of Lubitz’s record to the media, although the authorities will surely review it carefully.