An Airbus operated by Lufthansa’s Germanwings budget airline crashed into a mountainside in the French Alps on Tuesday (24th March), killing all 150 people on board including 16 schoolchildren.
As officials struggled Wednesday to explain why a jet with 150 people (144 passengers and 6 crew which includes 2 pilots) on board crashed in relatively clear skies, an investigator said evidence from a cockpit voice recorder indicated one pilot left the cockpit before the plane’s descent and was unable to get back in.
According to NY Times, a senior military official involved in the investigation described “very smooth, very cool” conversation between the pilots during the early part of the flight from Barcelona to Düsseldorf. Then, the audio indicated that one of the pilots left the cockpit and could not re-enter.
The official, who requested anonymity because the investigation is continuing, said:
The guy outside is knocking lightly on the door and there is no answer. And then he hits the door stronger and no answer. There is never an answer. 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. But what is sure is that at the very end of the flight, the other pilot is alone and does not open the door.
While the audio seemed to give some insight into the circumstances leading up to the crash, it also left many questions unanswered. The data from the voice recorder seems only to deepen the mystery surrounding the crash and provides no indication of the condition or activity of the pilot who remained in the cockpit.
WSJ wrote that the pilot had over 10 years of experience, and had clocked more than 6,000 hours flying Airbus jets.
The descent from 38,000 feet over about 10 minutes was alarming but still gradual enough to indicate that the twin-engine Airbus A320 had not been damaged catastrophically.
But at no point during the descent was there any communication from the cockpit to air traffic controllers or any other signal of an emergency.
When the plane plowed into craggy mountains northeast of Nice, it was traveling with enough speed that it was all but pulverised, killing all on board and leaving behind almost no apparent clues about what caused the crash. This is because the crash left remnants of the plane scattered all over the mountainside. The remote, rugged terrain has posed an enormous challenge for investigators.
French civil aviation coordinator Xavier Roy told NBC News in an interview:
It’s very difficult to see this because there’s a lot of little pieces. We cannot find a cockpit or big pieces, so it’s very difficult to see.
According to a senior official working on the investigation, workers at the crash site found the casing of the plane’s other black box, the flight data recorder, but the memory card containing data on the plane’s altitude, speed, location and condition was not inside, apparently having been thrown loose or destroyed by the impact.
The French aviation authorities have made public very little, officially, about the nature of the information that has been recovered from the audio recording, and it was not clear whether it was partial or complete. France’s Bureau of Investigations and Analyses confirmed only that human voices and other cockpit sounds had been detected and would be subjected to detailed analysis.
Asked about the new evidence revealed in the cockpit recordings, Martine del Bono, a bureau spokeswoman, declined to comment. “Our teams continue to work on analyzing the CVR,” she said, referring to the cockpit voice recorder. “As soon as we have accurate information we intend to hold a press conference.”
The flight’s trajectory ahead of the crash also left many unanswered questions.
The Germanwings crash was the third most deadly involving an A320. In 2007, a TAM Linhas Aereas A320 shot off a runway in Brazil, killing 187 people, while 162 people died when an Indonesia AirAsia jet went down in the Java Sea in December.
Germanwings, a low-fare brand created by Lufthansa in 2002, had an unblemished safety record until Tuesday (24th March).