A young German co-pilot locked himself alone in the cockpit of a Germanwings airliner and flew it into a mountain with what appears to have been the intent to destroy it, a French prosecutor said on Thursday.
Investigators and grieving relatives were left struggling to explain what motivated Andreas Lubitz, 28, to kill all 150 people on board the Airbus A320, including himself, in Wednesday's crash in the French Alps.
French and German officials said there was no indication the crash was a terrorist attack, but gave no alternative explanation for his motives.
Lubitz gained sole control of the aircraft after the captain left the cockpit. He refused to re-open the door and sent plane into its fatal descent, Marseille prosecutor Brice Robin said.
He did this "for a reason we cannot fathom right now but which looks like intent to destroy this aircraft," Robin told a news conference in Marseille broadcast live on national TV.
Describing the final 10 minutes of the passengers on board as the plane hurtled towards a mountain range, Robin said sound recordings from one of its black boxes suggested most of them would not have been aware of their fate until the very end.
"Only towards the end do you hear screams," he said. "And bear in mind that death would have been instantaneous ... the aircraft was literally smashed to bits."The disturbing part was that the pilot can be heard knocking on the door, then attempting to break the cockpit door down to get back into the cockpit. BBC reports:
"We hear the pilot ask the co-pilot to take control of the plane and we hear at the same time the sound of a seat moving backwards and the sound of a door closing," Mr Robin told reporters.
He said the pilot, named in the German media as Patrick S, had probably gone to the toilet.
"At that moment, the co-pilot is controlling the plane by himself. While he is alone, the co-pilot presses the buttons of the flight monitoring system to put into action the descent of the aeroplane.
"He operated this button for a reason we don't know yet, but it appears that the reason was to destroy this plane."
Mr Lubitz was alive until the final impact, the prosecutor said.
Mr Robin said "the most plausible interpretation" was that the co-pilot had deliberately barred the pilot from re-entering the cockpit.Lubitz's religion is currently unknown, but he apparently suffered from severe depression several years ago. That latter article also indicates that the flight cockpit recording indicated that Lubitz was breathing until the crash--he was not unconscious. (See also this article).
The inability of someone to get into the cockpit in the event of an emergency has been a concern for a while. Instapundit linked yesterday to a March 19, 2014, article at Popular Mechanics concerning Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which warned that cockpits could be too secure:
In the days following 9/11, securing the cockpit was the number one priority for the airline industry. Once-flimsy cockpit doors were reinforced with Kevlar so that no one could force their way in with a gun or with sheer brute force. Doors were required to be bolted and locked at all times once the cabin door was shut. Air marshals were posted near the flight deck (to the point where it became a common parlor game to pick out the guard from the rest of the front cabin). Passengers were forbidden to congregate anywhere nearby.
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John Magaw, the first person to head the nascent TSA in 2001, told CNN that an always-locked cockpit was a concern since the outset. He said he told airlines, "Don't lock those doors so that you can't get in from the outside if something happens, and it fell on deaf ears," alluding to a well-publicized case of pilots who "flew past the airport because they were both asleep." However, some pilots scoffed at the idea that a locked cockpit is a serious concern, noting that planes are programmed to fly safely and even land on autopilot in the unlikely event both pilots nod off.
Former Jetblue CEO and founder David Neeleman, whose airline was the first to install the reinforced cockpit doors system-wide after 9/11, tells PopMech that the latest troubling scenario means that "perhaps there needs to be way to get back in that door."
"But nobody ever thought about having to protect the passengers from the pilots," he says.