By NICOLA CLARK and DAN BILEFSKY
Thursday, March 26, 2015
PARIS — The crash of the Germanwings plane in the French Alps that killed 150 people most likely happened because the co-pilot crashed the jet deliberately, the prosecutor in France heading the criminal investigation said on Tuesday.
The co-pilot began the plane’s descent for an unknown reason while he was alone in the cockpit, said the prosecutor, Brice Robin, describing the action as deliberate. Mr. Robin said he had opened an investigation for voluntary manslaughter.
The revelation that one of the pilots of a Germanwings jetliner was locked out of the cockpit before it crashed raised new and troubling questions on Thursday, as search teams continued to scour the rugged terrain of the French Alps for clues that could shed light on what happened.
The flight, an Airbus A320 operated by the budget carrier Germanwings, was traveling to Düsseldorf, Germany, from Barcelona, Spain, on Tuesday morning when it inexplicably descended and slammed into the French Alps, killing the 144 passengers and six crew members on board.
The mystery of what happened on the plane during an unexplained 10-minute descent deepened late Wednesday, when a senior French military official participating in the investigation revealed that evidence from a cockpit voice recorder indicated that one pilot had left the cockpit before the plane began its descent and was unable to get back in.
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Stefan Schaffrath, an Airbus spokesman, said on Thursday that in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, Airbus had upgraded the reinforcements of cockpit doors on its planes in compliance with international regulations.
According to an Airbus video describing the operations of locking the cockpit door, it is locked by default when closed. But when a pilot wants to lock the cockpit door to bar access to someone outside, he or she can move the toggle to a position marked “locked,” which illuminates a red light on a numeric code pad outside. That disables the door, keypad and the door buzzer for five minutes.
While these functions are disabled, the video shows, the only way to make contact with the crew is via the interphone. The doors can then only be opened if someone inside overrides the lock command by moving and holding the toggle switch to the “unlock” position.
In someone outside the cockpit suspects the pilot is incapacitated, that person would normally first attempt to establish contact via the intercom or by activating a buzzer. If those efforts were unsuccessful, the video shows, a crew member outside the cockpit would need to enter an emergency code on the keypad.
The code activates a loud buzzer and flashing light on the cockpit control panel, and it triggers a timer that unlocks the door 30 seconds later. The person outside has five seconds to enter before the door locks again.
As investigators continued to pore over the clues, relatives of the victims were expected to arrive on Thursday near the site of the crash, where a makeshift chapel has been set up, and where psychologists are available to provide support. Lufthansa was to operate two special flights for family members on Thursday from Barcelona and from Düsseldorf.
The victims of the crash included many Germans and Spaniards, including 16 high school students who were returning from an exchange program. Other victims included citizens of Britain, Colombia, Iran, Israel and the United States, among others.
A bus carrying 14 relatives of Spanish victims departed from Barcelona on Wednesday, The Associated Press reported. They apparently did not want to fly.