The co-pilot of Germanwings Flight 9525 appeared to have practised a controlled descent on his flight into Barcelona just two hours before he intentionally crashed the A320 jet into a mountainside on the return flight to Duesseldorf, air accident investigators said.
Authorities are still puzzling over why co-pilot Andreas Lubitz, who had suffered from suicidal tendencies and depression in the past, sent the Barcelona-to-Duesseldorf flight straight into the French Alps on March 24, killing all 150 people on board.
This latest development about an earlier flight appears to support the assumption that the crash was not only deliberate but also premeditated, and raises questions about all of the flights where Lubitz was in the cockpit.
Lubitz seemed to be toying with the plane’s settings on a March 24 flight from Duesseldorf to Barcelona, programming it for sharp descent multiple times in a 4½-minute period while the pilot was out of the cockpit before resetting the controls, France’s BEA investigation agency said in an interim report on the crash.
A new 30-page report said the same crew was aboard both flights — and the pilot appeared to have left the cockpit during the earlier flight as well, for about 4½ minutes.
On the first flight into Barcelona, shortly after the pilot left, the “selected altitude” of the flight changed repeatedly, including several times being set as low as 100 feet (30 metres) above the ground. The report says co-pilot Lubitz also put the engines on idle, which gives the plane the ability to quickly descend.
It would be highly unusual for a pilot to repeatedly set a plane for such a low altitude for no apparent reason. However, the report says that Lubitz did so while he was being asked by air traffic controllers to bring the plane down gradually from 35,000 feet to 21,000 feet for its scheduled descent to Barcelona.
A chart released by the BEA showed the plane didn’t actually descend sharply while Lubitz was repeatedly adjusting the settings, so the passengers and crew might not have noticed any change. The BEA report did not make it clear whether all the steps needed for the repeated descents were taken by Lubitz.
“The captain didn’t realise at all, because the co-pilot’s tests during the outgoing flight took place during a normal, preprogrammed descent and it never had an impact on the plane’s trajectory,” said Remi Jouty, the director of BEA.
Aviation experts said the findings were clearly unusual. “The process of going up and down with the selected altitude is not normal — but I can’t tell you what was going on in his head,” said Antoine Amar, a top official in France’s main pilots union SNPL and an Air France pilot who has flown the A320.
Amar, suggested there was little that air authorities could have done between the two flight legs.
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