Germanwings Copilot Set FMS for Fatal Descent

 - March 26, 2015, 10:59 AM
The copilot manually set the A320’s autopilot to descend from 38,000 to 100 feet, according to flightradar24.com. (Photo: Flickr: Creative Commons (BY) by GerardvdSchaaf)

The copilot of the Germanwings Airbus A320 that crashed on Tuesday in the French Alps deliberately caused the crash by changing the flight management system’s altitude setting, French prosecutor Brice Robin revealed Thursday in a press conference at Marseille airport. Andreas Lubitz, 28, had locked the captain out of the cockpit. Criminal investigators have listened to the cockpit voice recorder's content, which the BEA retrieved yesterday.

During the first 20 minutes of the recording, the two pilots had normal exchanges, described as courteous and cheerful. Then, the captain began the landing briefing. At that time, the copilot’s answers became “laconic,” Marseille’s prosecutor said.

The captain then asked the copilot to take the controls. On the recording, the investigators heard a seat moving back and a door closing, likely indicating the captain leaving the cockpit to use the lavatory, Robin asserted.

While on his own, Lubitz selected a new altitude on the FMS, which triggered the descent at about 3,000 feet per minute. Robin insisted that Lubitz’s action could only be intentional. The flightradar24.com website confirmed “Analysis of ADS-B/ModeS data: Autopilot was manually changed from 38,000 to 100 ft” at 10:30:55, local time, about 10 minutes prior to impact.

The captain tried to gain access back to the cockpit. He used the door’s intercom and knocked on the door. From that point, no word was uttered in the cockpit and only “normal” breathing could be heard until the end of the recording, Robin said. There was no sign of the copilot trying to open the door.

Marseille’s ATC was heard trying to make radio contact. Controllers also attempted to have the crew squawk 7700. They received no answer, even after requesting other aircraft in the vicinity to act as a radio relay.

Towards the end of the recording, the “pull up, pull up” alarm of the EGPWS sounded. “We also could hear hits on the door like someone trying to smash in,” Robin said. Shouts emanated from the cabin at the last moment. At first, the CVR recorded the apparent sound of minor impact with the ground. The final impact took place at over 380 knots, he concluded.

A German citizen, Lubitz flew in an air club since a teenager, according to France’s BFM TV. Robin said his name was not associated with terrorist activity or suspicion.

Robin said the French, German and Spanish judicial authorities were formally preparing to collaborate. Officials have so far characterized the case as “unintentional homicide,” but plan to soon categorize it as “intentional homicide.”

Under France’s crash probe system, two investigations will run in parallel--the so-called administrative case, by the BEA, and the criminal one. In accordance with ICAO standards, the BEA holds responsibility for issuing “safety recommendations in order to prevent future accidents and incidents.” Procedures call for it to receive no instruction from either the government or the judicial authorities.

The prosecutor heads the judicial investigation, aimed at determining fault that might result in the establishment of liability and thus on convictions and payments to aggrieved parties. French law defines the sometimes complex relationship between the two processes. For example, flight recorders get placed under seal by the judicial authorities and handed to the BEA for readout under judicial monitoring.