How premeditated was Andreas Lubitz’s plan to fly his Germanwings Airbus A320 into a mountain, killing himself and 149 passengers in a horrific act of suicide and mass murder in the manner of a kamikaze pilot?
The shocking revelation from the French prosecutor that the cockpit voice recorder confirms that this is what happened did not deal with this question, however. There is one salient feature of Lubitz’s behavior that suggests that he had carefully planned his actions.
The prosecutor said that while the copilot was alone with the captain locked out of the cockpit “he manipulated the flight management system to manage the descent.” The highly sophisticated computerized system of the A320 would not have detected any anomaly from these actions.
And here is the key clue to Lubitz’s preparations. Although the system uses a “flight protection envelope” to prevent pilots from what is called “over-corrrecting”—forcing the airplane into a maneuver that could destabilize it—the Germanwings A320 did not breach this envelope in its descent.
In recent cases of pilot-directed crashes the chosen method was to suddenly make a vertical dive, the quickest route to destruction. Lubitz knew that the Airbus’s flight protection envelope would have prevented that maneuver.
He might still have taken that route by disconnecting the computerized flight management system and taking over the flight manually, but that would have taken time. Instead, he simply input a descent using the same steps as would a pilot who needed to lose altitude for navigational purposes — except that he kept on descending until the proximity warning alarm went off shortly before impact.
It is normal for a copilot to be flying the airplane once it reaches cruise altitude, but with a copilot as relatively inexperienced as Lubitz the captain would be unlikely to leave the cockpit for longer than necessary to go to the toilet, which on the A320 is located immediately behind the cockpit on the left hand side.
Nonetheless, Lubitz could not have pre-selected the Alps as the place to execute his plan – it just happened that his captain chose that moment to go to the toilet, a pretty routine thing for a captain to do. Had the captain left the cockpit ten minutes later, the plan could still have been executed by flying the A320 for another two minutes or so into normal terrain beyond the Alps.
Nothing in what is so far known about 28-year-old Lubitz’s past gives any hint of how he reached the point of planning and executing such a ghastly crime. The French prosecutor said Lubitz was heard breathing normally throughout the entire descent. Even if he had had “a burnout, depression” as has been reported this would hardly explain his drastic calculation. Moreover, this was more than a job to him, he was a flying enthusiast who got his pilot’s license as a teenager. He qualified as a Lufthansa in 2013 and had 630 hours of flight time.
Experts had been confounded by the airplane’s behavior – the sudden, unexplained departure from cruise altitude and the nearly ten-minute long steep descent, undeviating, directly into a mountainside, hitting with such violent force that the whole airplane disintegrated into thousands of pieces.
A pilot to destroy himself and everyone on board an airplane will never be easy to explain, and can lead to years of dispute, as well as years of pain and anger for the families of the victims for whom this is the least expected explanation for a catastrophe.
Germanwings Crash Was A Premeditated Mass Murder.