“We thought last Tuesday was the darkest day in the history of our company,” the airline said in a statement last night. “But today, Thursday, has been no less devastating. We were stunned to learn today that the airplane we lost in southern France was to all appearances made to crash by deliberate act — presumably by the co-pilot. Before early Thursday morning we could not have conceived of such a possibility even in our worst nightmares.
“We, together with the bereaved families and friends of the victims and many millions of other people, are shocked, grief-stricken, and utterly baffled by what has happened.”
French prosecutor say the co-pilot of the Germanwings jet barricaded himself in the cockpit and “intentionally” sent the plane full-speed into a mountain in the French Alps.
Andreas Lubitz’s “intention [was] to destroy this plane”, Marseille prosecutor Brice Robin said, laying out the conclusions reached by French aviation investigators, after listening to the last minutes of Tuesday’s Flight 9525. Mr Robin said just before the plane hit the mountain, the sounds of passengers screaming could be heard on black box audio: “I think the victims realised just at the last moment.”
The Airbus A320 was flying from Barcelona to Duesseldorf when it began to descend from cruising altitude of 38,000 feet after losing radio contact with air traffic controllers. All 150 people on board died when the plane slammed into the mountain. Mr Robin said the pilot left the cockpit, presumably to go to the lavatory, and then was unable to regain access.
In the meantime, Lubitz, a 27-year-old German, manually set the plane on the descent that drove it into the mountain. He 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,” Mr Robin said.
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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.
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, Mr Robin said. “It’s obvious this co-pilot took advantage of the commander’s absence. Could he have known he would leave? It is too early to say,” he said.
He said Lubitz had never been flagged as a terrorist and would not give details on his religion or ethnic background. German authorities are taking charge of the investigation into the co-pilot.
The A320 is designed to allow emergency entry if a pilot inside is unresponsive, but the crew’s override code does not work – and goes into a lockdown – if the person inside the cockpit specifically denies entry, according to an Airbus training video.
Airlines in Europe are not required to have two people in the cockpit at all times, unlike the standard US operating procedure after the 9/11 attacks which was changed to require a flight attendant to take the spot of a briefly departing pilot.
In the German town of Montabaur, acquaintances said Lubitz appeared normal and happy last autumn 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 Lubitz learn to fly. “He gave off a good feeling.”
Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr said the airline was already “appalled” by what happened before details were revealed. “I could not have imagined that becoming even worse,” he said. “We choose our cockpit staff very, very carefully.”
The families of victims were briefed about the conclusions just ahead of the announcement. “The victims deserve explanations from the prosecutor,” Mr Robin said.
Mr Reucker described Lubitz as a “rather quiet” but friendly young man. His recently deleted Facebook page appeared to show a smiling man in front of the Golden Gate Bridge in California. Lufthansa said Lubitz joined Germanwings in September 2013, directly out of flight school, and had flown 630 hours.
The captain had more than 6,000 hours flying time and was a Germanwings pilot since May 2014, having previously flown for Lufthansa and Condor.
‘Friendly but quiet guy who pursued his dreams with vigour’
Andreas Lubitz never showed any sign he was anything but thrilled to have landed a job with German-wings, according to those who taught him the trade as a teenager in Montabaur, a small town in the woody hills of western Germany.
One reporter however, Matthias Gebauer, tweeted that friends of Lubitz said he had burnout or depression in 2009 and had to take time out from his pilot training.
Yesterday, French prosecutors said Lubitz, the co-pilot of Germanwings Flight 9525, “intentionally” crashed the jet into the side of a mountain.
Members of the hometown flight club in Montabaur, where he renewed his glider licence only last autumn, said the 28-year-old appeared to be happy with the job he had at the airline, a low-cost carrier in the Lufthansa Group.
After starting with Germanwings in September 2013, Lubitz was upbeat when he returned to the LSC Westerwald e.V glider club to renew his glider pilots’ licence with 20 or so takeoffs.
“He was happy he had the job with Germanwings and he was doing well,” said long-time club member Peter Ruecker, who watched him learn to fly. “He was very happy. He gave off a good feeling.”
He appeared to have led an active lifestyle, running a half-marathon in a good time and showing an interest in pop music and nightclubs, according to his Facebook page, which also featured a photo of Lubitz by the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
“I’m just speechless. I don’t have any explanation for this. Knowing Andreas, this is just inconceivable for me,” said Ruecker.
“He had a lot of friends, he wasn’t a loner. He was integrated in the group. Our club is mostly made up of young people who learn how to fly gliders and then get their licence and then perhaps, like was the case with him, to make the jump into commercial aviation.”
Club chairman Klaus Radke said he rejected Marseille prosecutors’ conclusion that Lubitz put the Germanwings flight intentionally into a descent and smashed it into the French Alps when the pilot had left the cockpit. “I don’t see how anyone can draw such conclusions before the investigation is completed,” he said.
At the house believed to belong to his parents, the curtains were drawn and four police cars were parked outside.
Police kept the media away from the door of the single-family two-storey home on the edge of Montabaur, a town about 60km north-west of Frankfurt surrounded by wooded hills.
Lubitz learned to fly in a sleek white ASK-21 two-seat glider, which sits in a small hangar on the side of the club’s grass runway.
Ruecker remembers Lubitz as “rather quiet but friendly” when he first showed up at the club as a 14- or 15-year-old saying he wanted to learn to fly.
After obtaining his glider pilot’s licence as a teenager, he was accepted as a Lufthansa trainee after finishing the tough German abitur college preparatory school, at the town’s Mons-Tabor High School.
He trained in Bremen before starting to fly for German-wings 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.
Ruecker said Lubitz gave no indication during his autumn visit to the club that anything was wrong. “He seemed very enthusiastic” about his career. “I can’t remember anything where something wasn’t right.”
He said Lubitz had a girlfriend but did not have many more details about his life.
A recently deleted Facebook page bearing Lubitz’s name showed him smiling in a dark brown jacket posing in front of the Golden Gate Bridge in California.
The page was wiped from Facebook in the past two days. It lists him as having several aviation-themed interests, including the A320 — the model of plane that crashed on Tuesday; Lufthansa; and Phoenix Good-year Airport in Arizona.
The defunct page also included a link to the 2011 Lufthansa half marathon in Frankfurt, where a runner with the nickname “flying_andy” ran in 1:48:51.
Lubitz was also described by neighbours as being friendly and pursuing his dreams “with vigour”. One told the local newspaper, the Rhein Zeitung, that he had kept fit through running, “How often we saw him jogging past our house.”
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