Tuesday morning 10:53 a.m.: Germanwings flight 9595 en route from Barcelona to Dusseldorf crashes in the French Alps, leaving 150 passengers and crew members dead, causing dismay, deep
grief and helplessness among the bereaved.
An incomprehensible tragedy, the worst accident ever in Germany’s long-lasting history of civil aviation.
Was the crash caused by a technical failure of the Airbus A320? Did the flight deck personnel make a fatal mistake? Immediately after the aircraft disappeared in the almost inaccessible
mountainous region, media speculation ran high why this accident might have happened.
Today, 48 paralyzing hours later, the unthinkable becomes real: the Germanwings co-pilot Andreas Lubitz deliberately crashed the A320 jetliner. This was confirmed by both the chief Marseille Prosecutor Brice Robin handling the investigation and the German government. It was also confirmed by a shocked Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr, who himself is a licensed A320 pilot.
The evaluation of the voice recorder had shown that the crash was intentional, stated French prosecutor Robin. He added that he is considering changing his investigation from involuntary manslaughter to voluntary manslaughter.
"At this moment, in light of investigation, the interpretation we can give at this time is that the co-pilot through voluntary abstention refused to open the door of the cockpit to the commander, and activated the button that commands the loss of altitude,” Robin explained.
He went on to say that the intention of the co-pilot had been "to destroy the aircraft." He said that the voice recorder showed that the co-pilot had been breathing until before the moment of impact, suggesting that he was conscious and deliberate in killing all people on board the jetliner.
Marseille’s prosecutor confirmed that the first officer had activated a switch, locking the cockpit door from inside and denying the captain access after handing over command to the co-pilot and leaving the flight deck for a short while.
The Germanwings crash was not the first caused by pilot suicide.
29 November 2013 – 33 fatalities
LAM Flight 470 entered a rapid descent while en route between Maputo and Luanda and crashed in Namibia. Preliminary investigation results indicate that the accident was intentional. The captain made control inputs that directed the plane to the ground, shortly after the first officer had left the flight deck.
31 October 1999 – 217 fatalities
Egypt Air Flight 990, a Boeing 767, entered a rapid descent some 30 minutes after departure from New York-JFK Airport. This happened moments after the captain had left the flight deck. The United States National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the crash had occurred because of the co-pilot's "manipulation of the airplane controls."
19 December 1997 – 104 fatalities
Silk Air Flight 185, a Boeing 737 en route from Jakarta, Indonesia to Singapore, crashed in Indonesia following a rapid descent from cruising altitude. The U.S. NTSB concluded that the captain may have committed suicide by switching off both flight recorders and intentionally putting the Boeing 737 in a dive, possibly when the first officer had left the flight deck.
21 August 1994 – 44 fatalities
A Royal Air Maroc ATR-42 airplane crashed in the Atlas Mountains shortly after takeoff from Agadir, Morocco. The accident was suggested to have been caused by the captain disconnecting the autopilot and directing the aircraft to the ground deliberately. The Moroccan Pilot’s Union challenged these findings.
What lessons can be learned from all this?
Not that many. Pilots determined to commit suicide will always find ways sooner or later to make their plan work, despite being regularly monitored and psychologically tested by their employer.
But the risk can be further minimized by changing the access to the cockpit door. After 9/11 the cockpits were made much safer even to such an extent that it is now extremely difficult to enter the flight deck in case of emergency. The record of intentional accidents clearly proves that control panels had been tempered by one of the pilots for the purpose of crashing the plane when his fellow crew member had left the flight deck for a short while.
So it’s ICAO that has to seriously think about finding a technical solution that ensures security for the pilots but at the same time enables cockpit personnel to get back to their seat after they had left the flight deck for a while.
This all doesn’t help Germanwings flight 9595 anymore, but it could prevent things to happen in a similar and tragic way again.