Prosecutor: Germanwings A320 Crash Was ‘Deliberate’

Germanwings D-AIPX in 2014
(Credit: SEBASTIEN MORTIER/Creative Commons)

Many questions still remain about Tuesday's horrifying crash of Germanwings Flight 9525 into the French Alps, but the lead prosecutor handling the investigation said today new information suggests the A320's copilot locked the captain out of the cockpit and deliberately initiated the fateful descent.

Still unclear, however, is what specific information investigators have uncovered to make the determination that the crash wasn't a tragic accident but a deliberate criminal act by the jetliner's 28-year-old copilot, identified as German-born Andreas Lubitz.

The Marseille prosecutor, Brice Robin, said at a press conference that the copilot "refused to open" the cockpit door after the captain left the flight deck and that he "activated the button that commands the loss of altitude."

Robin later said the copilot "manually" commanded the descent by entering it into the "flight monitoring computer." It wasn't clear whether this information was being based on anything gleaned from the flight data recorder or whether the data recorder's memory has even been recovered. Also unclear is whether the copilot changed the A320's power setting. Preliminary radar data shows the airplane slowed slightly during the descent, and Mode S transponder inerrogations appear to show the flight control computer changing from 38,000 feet to essentially zero feet within seconds of the initiation of the descent.

The prosecutor said the copilot can be heard on the cockpit voice recorder breathing all the way to moment of impact, suggesting that he was "conscious" and that the crash was premeditated. Again, the prosecutor offered no additional information about how investigators reached these conclusions.

According to the CVR data, the captain outside the cockpit began lightly knocking on the door to be let back in. Hearing no response, he knocked louder and finally began trying to break through the door as the jetliner continued descending toward the rugged terrain. Just before impact passengers can be heard screaming, the prosecutor said.

The A320 includes a control panel in the cockpit that allows the flight crew to unlock the door to allow access by another crew member. The pilot must physically move this toggle switch to the unlocked position to unlock the door. In the event of pilot incapacitation, there is an emergency override procedure that involves inputting a code into a keypad in the forward galley. This procedure can be overridden from the cockpit by moving the control panel switch to the locked position.

The prosecutor did not say whether the captain attempted to enter the cockpit using the emergency procedure.

During the first 20 minutes of the flight, he said, the pilots are heard conversing normally. Later in the flight, as the captain briefed the relatively inexperienced first officer for the arrival into Dusseldorf, the younger pilot became "laconic" in his responses, he said.

The prosecutor added that, based on the information received, French officials are moving to open a manslaughter investigation.

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