PARIS (CBSNewYork/AP) — The co-pilot of the doomed Germanwings jet barricaded himself in the cockpit and “intentionally” sent the plane full speed into a mountain in the French Alps, ignoring the pilot’s frantic pounding on the door and the screams of terror from passengers, a prosecutor said Thursday.
Co-pilot Andreas Lubitz’s “intention (was) to destroy this plane,” Marseille prosecutor Brice Robin said, laying out the horrifying conclusions reached by French aviation investigators after listening to the last minutes of Tuesday’s Flight 9525.
The Airbus A320 was flying from Barcelona to Duesseldorf when it began to descend from a cruising altitude of 38,000 feet after losing radio contact with air traffic controllers. All 150 on board died when the plane slammed into the mountain.
Robin said the pilot, who has not been identified, left the cockpit, presumably to go to the lavatory. Then the 28-year-old co-pilot took control of the jet as requested.
“When he was alone, the co-pilot manipulated the buttons of the flight monitoring system to initiate the aircraft’s descent,” Robin said.
Robin said the commander of the plane knocked several times “without response.” He said the door could only be blocked manually.
“The most plausible, the most probably, is that the co-pilot voluntarily refused to open the door of the cockpit for the captain and pressed the button for the descent,” Robin said.
He said the co-pilot’s responses, initially courteous in the first part of the trip, became “curt” when the captain began the mid-flight briefing on the planned landing.
The information was pulled from the black box cockpit voice recorder, but Robin said the co-pilot said nothing from the moment the commanding pilot left.
“It was absolute silence in the cockpit,” he said.
During the final minutes of the flight’s descent, pounding could be heard on the cockpit door as plane alarms sounded but the co-pilot’s breathing was normal the whole time, Robin said.
“You don’t get the impression that there was any particular panic, because the breathing is always the same. The breathing is not panting. It’s a classic, human breathing,” Robin said.
No distress call ever went out from the cockpit and the control tower’s pleas for a response went unanswered.
Air traffic control cleared the area to allow the plane to make an emergency landing if needed, and asked other planes to try to make contact. The French air force scrambled a fighter jet to try to head off the crash.
Robin said just before the plane hit the mountain, the sounds of passengers screaming could be heard on the audio.
“I think the victims realized just at the last moment,” he said.
Neither Robin nor Lufthansa indicated there was anything the pilot could have done to avoid the crash, saying he had acted appropriately.
Robin said Lubitz had never been flagged as a terrorist and would not give details on his religion or ethnic background. German authorities were taking charge of the investigation into the co-pilot.
The A320 is designed with safeguards to allow emergency entry if a pilot inside is unresponsive, but the override code known to the crew does not go into effect and indeed goes into a lockdown if the person inside the cockpit specifically denies entry, according to an Airbus training video and a pilot who has six years of experience with the jets.
Airlines in Europe are not required to have two people in the cockpit at all times, unlike the standard U.S. operating procedure after the 9/11 attacks changed to require a flight attendant to take the spot of a briefly departing pilot.
In the German town of Montabaur, acquaintances said Lubitz showed no signs of depression when they saw him last fall as he renewed his glider pilot’s license.
“He was happy he had the job with Germanwings and he was doing well,” said a member of the glider club, Peter Ruecker, who watched him learn to fly. “He gave off a good feeling.”
Lubitz had obtained his glider pilot’s license as a teenager and was accepted as a Lufthansa pilot trainee after finishing a tough German college preparatory school, Ruecker said. He described Lubitz as a “rather quiet” but friendly young man.
According to the airline, Lubitz trained in Bremen before starting to fly for Germanwings in September 2013. Ruecker said Lubitz also trained in Phoenix, Arizona. He had logged 630 hours’ flight time by the time of the crash, the airline said.
Lubitz’s family could not immediately be reached, but a recently deleted Facebook page bearing Lubitz’s name showed him as a smiling man in a dark brown jacket posing in front of the Golden Gate Bridge in California.
Ruecker confirmed the photo was that of Lubitz.
The page, which was wiped from Facebook sometime in the past two days, said Lubitz was from Montabaur. It also lists him as having several aviation-themed interests, including the A320 the model of plane that crashed Tuesday, Lufthansa, the German aviation company, and Phoenix Goodyear Airport, in Arizona.
The defunct Facebook page also included a link to a result in the 2011 Lufthansa half marathon in Frankfurt, where a runner with the nickname “flying_andy” ran a 1:48:51.
Lufthansa Chief Executive Carsten Spohr said he was “stunned” by the French prosecutor’s conclusion. Spohr told a news conference in Cologne, Germany that “we choose our staff very, very carefully.”
He said the airline had no indication of why the co-pilot would have crashed the plane. He said pilots undergo yearly medical examination but that doesn’t include psychological tests.
Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said German authorities checked intelligence and police databases on the day of the crash and Lufthansa told them that regular security checks also turned up nothing untoward on the co-pilot.
The captain had more than 6,000 hours of flying time and been Germanwings pilot since May 2014, having previously flown for Lufthansa and Condor, Lufthansa said.
Three Americans were among those killed in the crash, including a U.S. government contractor and her daughter, the State Department said Wednesday.
The mother was identified as Yvonne Selke of Nokesville, Virginia, an employee for 23 years at Booz Allen Hamilton Inc. in Washington, and her grown daughter, Emily Selke, a recent graduate of Drexel University in Philadelphia.
Emily Selke’s best friend, Manhattan resident Haley Holmes, said it was a “small comfort to know they were not alone.”
“Two amazing, loving people who left behind friends and family who love and miss them a lot,” she said.
The U.S. government did not identify the third American it said was on the plane.
The circumstances of the crash are likely to revive questions about the possibility of suicidal pilots and the wisdom of sealing off the cockpit.
“From the moment it became apparent that the Germanwings flight had made a controlled descent for 8 minutes with no ‘Mayday,’ one feared that either pilot suicide or hijack was the cause,” said Philip Baum, London-based editor of trade magazine Aviation Security International.
“The kneejerk reaction to the events of 9/11 with the ill-thought reinforced cockpit door has had catastrophic consequences,” he added.
Robin avoided describing the crash as a suicide.
“Usually, when someone commits suicide, he is alone,” he said. “When you are responsible for 150 people at the back, I don’t necessarily call that a suicide.”
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