Breaking: Deliberate crash? French investigators say co-pilot seized cockpit, "wanted to destroy the aircraft"

Did the Germanwings air disaster start with a locked door? Both the New York Times and the Associated Press reported last night that the cockpit voice recording strongly suggests that the pilot may have gotten locked outside of the cockpit, and that either the co-pilot either did not or could not let him back onto the flight deck, despite increasingly frantic pounding on the door. ‘There is never an answer,” the source reports:

A senior French military official involved in the investigation described a “very smooth, very cool” conversation between the pilots during the early part of the flight from Barcelona, Spain, to Düsseldorf, Germany. Then the audio indicated that one of the pilots left the cockpit and could not re-enter.

“The guy outside is knocking lightly on the door, and there is no answer,” the investigator said. “And then he hits the door stronger, and no answer. There is never an answer.”

He said, “You can hear he is trying to smash the door down.” …

“We don’t know yet the reason why one of the guys went out,” said the official, who requested anonymity because the investigation was continuing. “But what is sure is that at the very end of the flight, the other pilot is alone and does not open the door.”

One possibility could be that the co-pilot somehow became incapacitated when the pilot left, but that scenario has apparently already been mooted. The Associated Press now reports that investigators believe the co-pilot deliberately pushed the plane into the ground:

CBS News reported a short while ago that US intelligence has confirmed the analysis. That changes this from an accident to something “more sinister”:

As CBS News correspondent Mark Phillips reported, the new information changes completely the nature of the crash from a suspected accident, into something possibly far more sinister.

A video produced by the Airbus, maker of the A320 passenger jet used on Germanwings Flight 9525, shows how the cockpit security system was designed in 2002, after the Sept. 11 terror attacks. It shows that flight crew members in the cabin can access the cockpit with an code to open the door, but it doesn’t deal with what changes might have been made since, and it doesn’t deal with the possibility of what would happen if one of the pilots deliberately tries to lock out the other.

On the Airbus, like virtually every other commercial passenger jet since 9/11, the pilot or whoever has control of the cockpit has the ultimate override power to prevent others from entering from the plane’s cabin.

Martin Riecken, Lufthansa’s director of corporate communications for Europe, told CBS News Thursday, “We have not received any information from the authorities leading the investigation that would support the things stated in the New York Times article. We are working on obtaining more information but will not participate in any kind of speculation. The investigation on what caused the accident falls to the responsible authorities.”

According to this report, the last sound on the CVR was the ground-proximity alarm. There has not yet been any report of the co-pilot making any statement into the CVR about his intentions, which one might expect if the motive was Islamist terrorism. Nevertheless, investigators now clearly believe that “something sinister” was indeed at play in this crash.

Update: More updates from the press conference:

https://twitter.com/AFP/status/581063443077312512

CBS has updated the above link with this:

French prosecutor Brice Robin said in Marseille on Thursday that the co-pilot, who has not yet been officially identified, requested control of the aircraft about 20 minutes into the flight. The pilot then left the cockpit, leaving the co-pilot in full control of the plane.

Then, according to Robin, the co-pilot “starts the descent of the plane.” He said the co-pilot could only have taken the action “voluntarily,” seemingly ruling out dysfunction of the Airbus’ automated flight operations systems.

In other words, the plane didn’t just tumble out of the air. The co-pilot knew what he was doing, and where he wanted to crash. Why not record a valediction on the way down, though?

Update: Identification?

Update: One year ago, Popular Mechanics wondered whether cockpits had become too secure, in response to the disappearance of Malaysia Air 370:

As many security experts have warned, the cockpit is not 100 percent secure —doors are opened during restroom and meal breaks, and some carriers may have less stringent policies than others on visits from outsiders. And few airlines have installed what would be the most effective protection: A set of double doors that would allow pilots to come in and out of the cockpit but keep it sealed off from the cabin. Boeing and Airbus do offer intruder-proof security gates on planes, but the added weight can be an issue, and many carriers have chosen not to install them.

The second scenario is that one or both of the pilots plotted to take over the plane, knowing they’d be able to get away with it since no could enter the cockpit. That far-out prospect seemed to gain some credence with the discovery today that some files were scrubbed from the captain’s homemade flight simulator. This idea has caused some commentators to question whether pilots should be allowed to lock themselves in.

John Magaw, the first person to head the nascent TSA in 2001, told CNN that an always-locked cockpit was a concern since the outset. He said he told airlines, “Don’t lock those doors so that you can’t get in from the outside if something happens, and it fell on deaf ears,” alluding to a well-publicized case of pilots who “flew past the airport because they were both asleep.” However, some pilots scoffed at the idea that a locked cockpit is a serious concern, noting that planes are programmed to fly safely and even land on autopilot in the unlikely event both pilots nod off.

Former Jetblue CEO and founder David Neeleman, whose airline was the first to install the reinforced cockpit doors system-wide after 9/11, tells PopMech that the latest troubling scenario means that “perhaps there needs to be way to get back in that door.”

“But nobody ever thought about having to protect the passengers from the pilots,” he says.

You can bet that conversation will take place now. Instapundit noticed that American Airlines has a specific procedure that would prevent a pilot takeover of the cockpit — or at least make it more difficult. Maybe it’s time to go back to having three members in every flight crew.

Update: The process Instapundit relates is “standard procedure for US airlines,” according to a source within the airline industry. The flight attendant operates the door from inside the cockpit when one of the pilots has to leave while the other pilot flies the airplane.