Early on March 24 more than 100 passengers aboard a Germanwings Airbus A320 flying from Dusseldorf to Barcelona were unaware that the copilot was rehearsing how he could fly them into a mountain.
A new report by French investigators has revealed that Andreas Lubitz used the first leg of a round trip flight from Dusseldorf to Barcelona that morning for a final check to see if his his planned mass murder-suicide would work.
As I have previously reported in The Daily Beast the first leg of the flight was a significant but so far not well documented prelude to the catastrophe.
The new details released by the French Bureau of Investigations and Analyses (BEA) reveal just how technically well prepared Lubitz was. The director of the BEA, Remi Jouty, said that the new information demonstrated “a series of steps that, taken together, all point in the same direction.”
Indeed, they confirm the final piece of Lubitz’s calculation—that the Airbus’s flight-control system, even though it is specifically programmed to prevent pilot-induced crashes, could not detect and prevent the potentially fatal maneuver he intended to make.
A primary safety feature of the automated Airbus controls is the “protective envelope.” The system does not allow extreme maneuvers that would destabilize an airplane and put it in jeopardy—many crashes in the past were caused by pilots over-correcting the controls in emergency situations and causing aerodynamic stalls.
Only by disconnecting the computerized flight-management system and flying the airplane manually could a pilot execute the most obvious way of deliberately crashing: a nosedive. (On Boeing airplanes the pilot, not the computer, retains final authority, so a pilot would not be prevented from diving.)
Deliberately disconnecting the Airbus system is difficult, and the telling details now point to the fact that Lubitz had clearly worked out that he could crash the Airbus by activating a steep descent that would, nonetheless, remain within the limits allowed to a pilot. It is a maneuver normally used briefly for more urgent changes of altitude directed by air traffic controllers.
On the flight from Germany to Spain, Lubitz waited for the captain to leave the cockpit—but did not lock the door as he did on the next flight, according to BEA. By this time the Airbus was already beginning its descent to Barcelona—controllers had instructed Lubitz to descend from the cruise height of 37,000 feet to 35,000 feet. Several times he set the airplane’s target altitude to 100 feet, speeding up the descent.
These changes were apparently too brief to be detected either by the air traffic controllers or the captain—or to be felt by the passengers.
While the airplane was at the gate in Barcelona, the captain left the cabin and made a phone call to report a problem with one of the toilets, according to BEA. Lubitz remained on board and had a brief conversation with caterers loading the food and beverages.
Every detail of his plan was now in place in his head—except that he had to wait for his captain, Patrick Sondenheimer, to leave the flight deck once they reached cruise height of 38,000 feet. Once Sondenheimer was out the cockpit, Lubitz locked the door and immediately set the target altitude to 100 feet and began a continuous descent, at a rate of 3,400 feet per minute, about twice as fast as a regular descent.
The flight-management system had no way of knowing that between the airplane and the final altitude of 100 feet was a mountain range. Only when the terrain proximity-warning siren sounded in the cockpit—together with the instruction “pull up, pull up”—was any safeguard triggered, and Lubitz ignored it. The A320 struck the mountain at 6,800 feet with such force that it disintegrated into thousands of pieces.
In view of the new revelations it becomes even more important for investigators to reconstruct Lubitz’s actions (and interactions with his immediate colleagues) in the days leading up to the crash. German investigators discovered from his personal computers that he had been researching different methods of committing suicide—and, simultaneously, mass murder.
He did not fly at all between March 13 and March 22.
On March 23, one day before the crash, he flew as a “reserve” pilot in a jump seat on a very early flight from Dusseldorf to Berlin’s Tagel airport and flew back as a passenger.
On March 24 the Barcelona-bound flight left Dusseldorf at 6:01 a.m. The bomb in Lubitz’s brain was already ticking. Investigators say that all the data from this flight was recovered from the black box, and the last 50 minutes of conversations between Lubitz and Sondenheimer were also recorded. Nothing audible happened that alerted Sondenheimer to his fate or that of the other 149 people on board.