27 Mar 2015

Germanwings: three days that changed the face of flying

At first it seemed a tragic accident, claiming 150 lives – but as the week drew on it emerged as something altogether more sinister. Channel 4 News looks back at how the Alpine crash unfolded.

Three days that changed the face of flying

Tuesday March 24

10:47am GMT Germanwings Flight 4U 9525 bound to Dusseldorf vanishes from radar screens 46 minutes after take-off from Barcelona. Reports of a distress call are denied by the French civil aviation authority who says the alarm was raised from the ground by the air traffic controller.

11.52am The airline says it is aware of reports of “an incident” but has no “confirmed information”. Airbus also issues a statement on Twitter saying it was “aware of the media reports” surrounding a crash.

Later French President Francois Hollande describes the crash as a “tragedy on our soil” and says he does expect any survivors. Germanwings says the plane, which was delivered to Lufthansa in 1991, fell into a steep descent for eight minutes.

Bad weather is ruled out as a cause. There are reports that the crash could be linked to a repair to the nose-wheel landing doors carried out on Monday. That too is later ruled out by Lufthansa.

Several flights are cancelled after crews refuse to fly for “personal reasons”.

10.30pm British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond says the Airbus is likely to have been carrying British nationals. The White House says there is no evidence of a terrorist attack.

Watch Tuesday’s Channel 4 News report below:

Wednesday March 25

It emerges that three UK citizens were among the 150 dead.

Terrorism and, indeed, sabotage are still practically ruled out – but the lack of distress call continues to puzzle.

Attention turns to the computer technology navigating the A320, and a malfunction of its “angle of attack” sensors that are connected to the 31,000 of drop of a Lufthansa flight in 2014.

Other theories included oxygen starvation – as with a Helios Airways accident near Athens in 2005 – or that the crew became suddenly incapacitated, possibly because of a fire or cockpit explosion.

Germanwings later says the plane started descending one minute after reaching a cruising altitude of 38,000 feet and continued to plummet for eight minutes.

It raises more questions: why did the pilots not make a 180-degree turn, taking the aircraft away from the Alps and towards low-lying terrain around Marseille airport? Why did the autopilot not automatically intervene? And again, why, in the eight minute window, was no warning siren raised?

Still there is little suggestion of deliberate sabotage.

Investigators later announce that they have extracted pilots’ voices from the mangled “black box” of the plane.

They say it may take several days – even weeks or months – to discover the cause of the crash.

Watch Wednesday’s Channel 4 News report below:

Thursday March 26

Reports overnight in the New York Times and AFP suggests that Germanwings crashed with its highly experienced captain at the controls.

Citing officials familiar with the voice recordings, it is claimed one of the pilots was locked out of the cockpit as it dived to destruction.

Germanwings initially refuse to name the pilots, responding to requests with the statement: “Please understand that we will not release any of the names not only due to data protection but to honor their privacy.”

11.30am An unscheduled and extraordinary press conference by the French prosecutor Brice Robin names co-pilot Andreas Lubitz as responsible for the crash as leaves no doubt on his version of events: “His intention was to destroy this plane,” he says.

Lufthansa’s Chief Executive Carsten Spohr says he is “speechless”.

Lubitz’s parents, on the way to the crash site, are immediately separated from the rest of the families.

Mr Spohr later says the airline accepts that Flight 9525 was crashed “on purpose, presumably by the co-pilot of the plane”. He also reveals that Lubitz “interrupted his training” in 2009 adding: “I would be interested to know why”.

Those who know Lubitz tell German media of “burn-out” that led to him taking a break in his training.

As the revelations continue to generate global headlines, several airlines impose new rules insuring a pilot is never alone in the cockpit.

EasyJet adopts the “rule of two” followed by Air Canada, Air Transat, a Canadian charter airline, Air Berlin and Norwegian Air Shuttle.

Germanwings removes adverts for flights from London Underground stations as police start searching the homes of Lubitz.

Watch Thursday’s Channel 4 News report below:

Friday 27 March

By morning police in Germany say they have made a “significant” discovery that may provide a clue to what happened.

Just before midday German prosecutors said they had found torn-up documents in Lubitz’s Dusseldorf home – including a doctor’s note consenting for him to be excused from work on the day of the air crash.

By afternoon the European Union’s aviation safety body says airlines always have two people in the cockpit and that the rule should quickly become ubiquitous across the EU.

Outstanding questions

In the days ahead questions still remain. Below are a just a few:

– How will airlines assure passengers of effective psychological profiling of pilots and crew?

– What if any changes should be made to cockpit door technology to ensure such a scenario does not occur again?

– Will the “rule of two” be adopted across the aviation industry, and how will this effect running costs and passenger prices?

– What are the legal ramifications of the air crash and the fact that so many details have been leaked ahead of the investigation?

– What about other unsolved airline mysteries such as Malaysian Airlines flight MH370?