I speculated yesterday on the possible causes for the horrific tragedy of the Germanwings crash. As a throwaway concept, I included the possibility that the plane could have been brought down deliberately, like the EgyptAir 990 crash in 1999. In light of new information released today, it now seems clear that this is, in fact, the case.
At Top of Climb, after what was reported as a normal evolution from start, taxi takeoff and level off, the captain exited the cockpit to use the restroom. The moment he left, the first officer, Andreas Lubitz, started the plane into a steep descent. Judging from the vertical speed of more than 3000 fpm, it was likely Level Change with speed brakes fully deployed. It was a chilling and deliberate act to bring that plane down as quickly as possible without running into the software safety features built into the Airbus Normal Law.
According to Brice Robin, the chief Marseilles prosecutor, the voice recorder picked up the sound of Lubitz’s breathing all the way to impact.
At this point we can confidently conclude that Andreas Lubitz waited for the captain to leave the cockpit before deliberately killing himself and 149 other people. The cockpit door is designed to keep intruders from forcing their way into the flight deck. There is a keypad where a code can be entered to gain access after a 30-second delay, but that can be denied from within the cockpit. During the 10 minute descent the captain tried, with increasing intensity, to regain access to the cockpit. We can infer that Lubitz repeatedly denied the captain’s entry.
Ever since EgyptAir in 1999, US carriers have had a policy that there not be one person left alone in the cockpit. Since 9/11, the policy for opening the cockpit door was made even more restrictive. Generally, a heavy food cart is used to barricade the forward galley while a flight attendant stands behind it, kindly asking the premium passengers to keep their seats until the cockpit door is once again secure. Another flight attendant enters the cockpit while the pilots cycle back to the lav. It is a huge manpower imposition just to answer the call of nature, especially if it strikes before the cabin crew has completed their service. On a 737, with 2 pilots and 4 flight attendants, it takes two thirds of the total crew just to take a leak.
I have flown for my particular airline for nearly 19 years, and there has never once been a pilot who I wouldn’t feel absolutely secure leaving alone in the cockpit, but I understand and respect the regulation. Perhaps having another heartbeat in the cockpit with him that day would have reminded Andreas Lubitz that he wasn’t the only person on that plane.