Silence in the cockpit, then came the screams
TERROR: Co-pilot locked himself in before flying 150 passengers into French Alps
Ignoring the captain's frantic pounding on the door, the co-pilot of the Germanwings jet barricaded himself inside the cockpit and deliberately rammed the plane full speed into the French Alps as passengers screamed in terror, a prosecutor has said.
In a split second, all 150 people aboard were dead.
Andreas Lubitz's "intention (was) to destroy this plane," Marseille prosecutor Brice Robin said, laying out the horrifying conclusions French investigators reached after listening to the final minutes of Tuesday's Flight 9525 from the plane's black box voice data recorder.
As investigators searched his home in Montabaur, Germany - taking away bags of evidence, a computer and a person covered to protect them from photographers - German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the conclusions brought the tragedy to a "new, simply incomprehensible dimension."
The inquiry is focusing on the co-pilot's "personal, family and professional environment" to try to determine why he did it, Robin said.
The Airbus A320 was flying from Barcelona to Duesseldorf when it lost contact with air traffic controllers and began dropping from its cruising altitude of 38,000 feet. The prosecutor said Lubitz did not say a word as he manually set the plane on an eight-minute descent into the craggy French mountainside. He said the German co-pilot's responses, initially courteous, became "curt" when the captain began the mid-flight briefing on the planned landing.
Robin said the pilot, who has not been identified, left the cockpit when the plane reached cruising altitude, 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.
The pilot knocked several times "without response," the prosecutor said, adding that the door can only be blocked manually from the inside. The co-pilot said nothing from the moment the captain left, Robin said.
"It was absolute silence in the cockpit."
The A320 is designed with safeguards to allow emergency entry into the cockpit 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. During the flight's final minutes, pounding could be heard on the cockpit door as the plane's instrument alarms sounded. But the co-pilot's breathing was calm, 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. Just before the plane hit the mountain, passengers' cries of terror could be heard on the voice recorder.
"The victims realised just at the last moment," Robin said. "We can hear them screaming."
The victims' families "are having a hard time believing it," he added.
Many families visited an Alpine clearing where authorities had set up a viewing tent to look toward the site of the crash, so steep and treacherous that it can only be reached by a long journey on foot or rappelling from a helicopter. Lubitz's family was in France but was being kept separate from the other families, Robin said.
Helicopters shuttled back and forth from the crash site, as investigators continued retrieving remains and pieces of the plane.
The prosecutor's account prompted calls for stricter cockpit rules. Airlines in Europe are not required to have two people in the cockpit at all times, unlike the standard US operating procedure, which was changed after the 9/11 attacks to require a flight attendant to take the spot of a briefly departing pilot.
European airlines Norwegian Air Shuttle and EasyJet, as well as Air Canada, announced they were adopting new rules requiring two crew to always be present in the cockpit. Aer Lingus and Ryanair both confirmed they already operate the policy.
Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr said Lubitz started training in 2008 and there was a "several-month" gap in his training six years ago. Spohr said he couldn't say what the reason was, but after the break "he not only passed all medical tests but also his flight training, all flying tests and checks."
Robin avoided describing the crash as a suicide.
"Usually, when someone commits suicide, he is alone. When you are responsible for 150 people at the back, I don't necessarily call that a suicide."