What Made This Young Pilot Kill 150 People?

The tragic story of Germanwings flight 9525.

On March 24, 2015, a Germanwings flight crashed into the French Alps, leaving all 150 onboard dead. The investigation into the crash revealed a disturbing reality; the co-pilot of flight 4U 9525, Andreas Lubitz, who was only 28 years old, had been left alone in the cockpit when the pilot exited to use the toilet.

Immediately after, Lubitz intentionally decreased the plane’s altitude to dangerous levels making a fatal crash imminent. Despite the passengers and the pilot’s frantic pleading, Lubitz ultimately crashed flight 4U 9525, leading everyone to their demise.

Andreas Lubitz: A victim of severe depression.

Andreas Lubitz was a German native who flew gliders as a teen. From a young age, he had battled crippling depression, most of which went unnoticed. In 2008, Andreas entered the pilot training program at Lufthansa, owners of the budget airline Germanwings. However, just a year later, in 2009, his depression caught up to him, and he had to take time off from the program. He eventually joined back and earned his pilot’s license in 2012 and started working at the airline in 2013.

Pre-meditated Suicide — or Murder?

In the days before the incident, he searched for ways to commit suicide; his search history contained information regarding cockpit door security. What is most jarring about this incident is that a doctor, whom Lubitz visited before the flight for some unknown condition, had deemed him unfit to fly, but he hid this medical report from his superiors.

Eerily, Lubitz had rehearsed this suicide mission before. According to the flight data recorder, during an earlier flight on the same day, Lubitz had repeatedly set the plane’s altitude to 100 feet while his co-pilot was out of the cockpit. However, he quickly fixed the controls and brought the plane up before anyone could notice. His intentions for ending his life along with the innocent civilians were set long before he took control of flight 4U 9525.

Crash Site | Photo Credits: The Conversation

The Morning of the Incident

A year after the crash, French investigators released their final report on the incident. The evidence cited in the report was obtained from the cockpit voice recorder. The following events occurred as per this recording.

Flight 4U 9525 of airline Germanwings took off from Barcelona Airport in Spain at 9:00 am GMT on March 24, 2015. The Airbus 320 began its journey to Dusseldorf, Germany, heading towards France over the sea. It took about 30 minutes for the plane to reach 38,000 feet in altitude. The flight was supposed to be 2 hours long, and over the first 20 minutes of the recording from the cockpit, the pilots and a flight attendant could be heard discussing the stopover at Barcelona.

At 9:30 GMT, the plane made its last contact with air control. A routine check-in, asking for permission to continue on its route, took place — everything seemed normal. A little while later, the captain informed Lubitz about leaving the cockpit, and the door could be heard as he closed it behind him.

Lubitz’s plan sets in motion.

Mere seconds after the captain had exited the cockpit, Lubitz changed the plane’s altitude setting to 100 feet from 38000 feet, and the plane rapidly started descending. At 9:33, the plane’s speed increased, and air traffic control tried getting in contact with the co-pilot, but he never responded.

At 9:34, a buzzer sounded, signifying a request to access the cockpit by the pilot. Along with the buzzer, sounds of knocking and pleas to open the door were also heard in the background. It is clear that the captain and cabin crew had realized that the plane was making an unusual descent and they were trying to get inside to stop this from happening.

There was no way they could access the cockpit.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Lufthansa had installed fortified cockpit doors. These new measures meant that there were three buttons next to the pilot: lock, unlock, and normal. While locked from the inside in the normal mode, the crew could access the cockpit by using an unlock code. If a pilot had to let in a fellow pilot or a cabin crew member, they would use this unlock code.

However, the lock mode would not allow anyone to access the cockpit from outside, not even by entering the code into the touchpad. This change was made to make hijacking less likely and to protect the plane’s control from potential terrorists. Unlike American airliners, there was no requirement for two pilots to be present in the cockpit at all times, which meant that it was nearly impossible to stop the inevitable.

Desperate last attempts are made to open the cockpit.

At 9:39 am, noises that sound like violent blows to the door were heard on five different occasions — an attempt to break down the door. But since cockpit doors are made strong enough to withstand a grenade’s blow, this did not work. Around the same time, another plane tried contacting via radio, but they also received no response from Andreas, who was set on a path to blowing the aircraft in pieces.

Soon after, the co-pilot’s flight controls recorded low altitude inputs. However, since the plane’s movement was too low, the autopilot failed to take control of the situation, and the plane continued on its downward trajectory. At 9:40:41, “Terrain, Terrain, Pull Up, Pull Up,” a last-second safety net to notify that the aircraft is about to crash is heard, and it continues till 9:41:06, the time of impact with the ground.

Screams of passengers echoed in the airplane but failed to reach the deafened ears of Lubitz.

The plane hit the mountain at 430 miles per hour. According to the investigator, “Death was instant.” During the very end of the recording, passengers can be heard screaming as the unsettling reality stares them in the face. Chillingly, however, Lubitz does not seem bothered at all. Throughout the recording, his breathing is entirely stable, and he sits there quietly as he plummets 150 people, including himself, to an unfortunate death.

This suicide mission of a pilot, a man who was supposed to be responsible for the lives of others, led to devastating consequences. The 144 passengers, four cabin crew members, and two pilots were all killed on making an impact with the mountain on the morning of March 24, 2015. The reason behind Lubitz’s actions that morning might not ever become completely clear, but it is evident that giving a license to fly an airplane to a mentally ill individual is always a recipe for disaster.

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