French authorities, after initially reviewing the cockpit voice recorder of the Germanwings Airbus A320 that crashed in the Alps, have determined that the captain was outside the cockpit for the entire descent from cruise altitude, and was unable to re-enter the flight deck. This immediately casts suspicion on the first officer, who remained in the cockpit, as it should. French prosecutors have released the name of the first officer, Andreas Lubitz, and have opened a criminal investigation into the case, citing his intention to “destroy” the aircraft.

Sabotage, statistically speaking, is a highly unlikely scenario but it has happened in the past, as Paco has explained. In 1999, an EgyptAir Boeing 767 flying from New York’s JFK International to Cairo, was flown into the Atlantic ocean by the relief first officer, resulting in the death of everyone onboard. It was a officially ruled a deliberate act, but the reason behind his action is still unknown.

A more recent and possibly even more closely related incident, the November 2013 crash of a LAM Mozambique Embraer 190, was also the result of a murderous act of suicide by the captain while the first officer was locked outside of the cockpit. In this case, the captain commanded the autopilot to descend to a preselected altitude below that of the surrounding terrain, and the aircraft, fully functional, flew into the ground. There were no survivors. It’s possible that investigators are facing a similar scenario with the Germanwings flight 9525 crash, given the scant of evidence uncovered so far.

One of the "black boxes" from the Germanwings A320 (Photo: The Bureau of Enquiry and Analysis for Civil Aviation Safety)
One of the “black boxes” from the Germanwings A320 (Photo: The Bureau of Enquiry and Analysis for Civil Aviation Safety)

To recap, here’s what we know:

  • One pilot had left the cockpit, presumably to use the lavatory, and was unable to return to the cockpit
  • That pilot remained outside the cockpit for the remainder of the flight
  • There was no distress call or reason given to ATC for the descent
  • The aircraft appeared to be under control throughout the flight. This, combined with the lack of a distress call, suggests a deliberate action.

There’s still a lot we don’t know about what went on inside the ill-fated Airbus, and investigators are being tight-lipped about their findings. Naturally, the public expects answers, but it’s important to keep in mind that airline crash investigations take a long time, sometimes years, and rightfully so. Investigators are faced with the daunting task of going through every available bit of information to piece together what happened.

The maintenance program and logbooks for that particular A320 will be thoroughly inspected. They will pore through records relating to the pilots’ employment, medical history, and what they had for breakfast that morning. Every detail that could possibly relate to them strapping into an Airbus will be scrutinized, with no stone left unturned.

To begin an investigation all options are on the table. As more evidence is uncovered, more and more options are crossed off the list. Terrorism, as Paco mentioned, is unlikely at this point, given that nobody has claimed responsibility, and the White House has also taken the same stance. However, initially no organization claimed the terrorist attacks of September 11 either.

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It’s worth noting that Lufthansa, the parent company of budget airline Germanwings, has been engaged in prolonged contract negotiations with its pilots, represented by the Vereinigung Cockpit union. The company has been seeking concessions from the pilot group to bring their costs more in line with the airline’s competitors, and as a result the pilot group has walked out over a dozen times in the last year.

History has shown that aviation mishaps typically result from a chain of events, as opposed to a single event transpiring to bring an aircraft down. It takes a while for the numerous pieces of the puzzle to be put together. It’s no doubt frustrating for those grieving or demanding answers, but the hope is that the end result will be a safer industry.

(Featured Image: A French gendarme helicopter flies over the moutainside crash site of an Airbus A320, near Seyne-les-Alpes, France, March 25, 2015. REUTERS/Emmanuel Foudrot)