Prosecutor: Co-pilot activated the descent of the plane on purpose

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(CNN) — Details are slowly emerging Thursday about the 28-year-old German co-pilot who officials believe purposely crashed Germanwings Flight 9525.

Andreas Lubitz was alone at the controls of the Airbus A320 when it plunged into the French Alps Tuesday, officials said, and he died along with all 144 passengers and five fellow crew members.

It seems that Lubitz “wanted to destroy the aircraft,” Marseille prosecutor Brice Robin said, but it’s unclear why.

Information gleaned from the aircraft’s mangled cockpit voice recorder revealed that the captain, who has not been identified, left the cockpit, probably to use the restroom, the prosecutor said.

When the captain returned, he couldn’t get back inside the cockpit. He banged on the door but Lubitz did not open it, Robin said.

The co-pilot “manipulated the buttons of the flight monitoring system to activate the descent of the aircraft,” Robin said. “The action can only be voluntary.”

That Lubitz could have deliberately crashed a plane was dumbfounding to fellow pilots who knew him.

‘A very nice young man’

Pilot Peter Ruecker is one of those pilots.

Ruecker, a longtime member of the flight club in Montabaur where Lubitz also flew, told Reuters that “Andreas was a very nice young man who got his training here and was a member of the club.

“He was a lot of fun, even though he was perhaps sometimes a bit quiet. He was just another boy like so many others here. … I think he had a lot of fun here,” Reuters quoted him as saying.

Hearing about the likelihood that Lubitz intentionally crashed the Germanwings flight, Ruecker said, “I’m just speechless. I cannot give you any explanation for that. Knowing Andreas, this is just inconceivable for me.”

Another pilot, Klaus Radke, told Reuters that he interacted with Lubitz last fall when Lubitz performed flights to maintain his license.

“I got to know him, or I should say reacquainted with him, as a very nice and a lot of fun, and a polite young man,” Radke said.

He said he couldn’t fathom that Lubitz intentionally downed Flight 9525.

“I can’t imagine it, I just can’t imagine it,” he said. “I just think, you know, whatever (happened), they are professional pilots. They have a certain internal control mechanism. They are examined, they have to be healthy and everything.”

“It’s all unimaginable, what’s being suspected here,” he said. “So my request is that people take the time before they jump to any conclusions. That’s what human empathy requires.”

Audio reveals captain banged on door

Robin, the Marseilles prosecutor, said he doesn’t know whether the co-pilot planned his actions in advance, but that Lubitz “took advantage” of the captain leaving the cockpit to begin the aircraft’s descent.

The recorder captured a horrific soundtrack. The captain can be heard banging on the door, Robin said.

At one point, the captain used a video conference system to talk to the co-pilot, the prosecutor said. That system would have allowed the co-pilot to see and hear the captain demanding to get inside the cockpit, aviation experts say.

Passengers were apparently unaware of what was happening until the last few moments, when screams were heard on the recording.

Lubitz said nothing as the plane fell, the prosecutor said, but the sound of Lubitz breathing steadily was captured on the recording.

There’s no indication that the co-pilot became physically ill or suffered a stroke, the prosecutor said, and Lubitz seemed to be alive until the plane crashed into the mountains.

Reporters asked Robin if he viewed the co-pilot’s actions as a suicide.

“When you are responsible for 150 people, I don’t call it a suicide,” he answered.

The biggest question: Why?

There’s no reason to believe, at this time, that Lubitz’s motives were terrorism-related, the prosecutor said. His name wasn’t on any terror list.

Lubitz had been with Germanwings since September 2013 and had completed 630 hours of flight time, the Germanwings media office said.

Lufthansa, the owner of Germanwings, does “not have any clues” about why the co-pilot crashed the plane, Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr said Thursday.

Spohr echoed the French prosecutor’s sentiments regarding the term “suicide.”

“If a person kills himself and also 149 other people, another word should be used — not suicide,” he said.

He gave details about Lufthansa pilot training after mentioning that Lubitz “interrupted” his training, which he began in 2008. That break lasted several months, he said, but such an interruption isn’t uncommon.

Spohr said he couldn’t give any information about why the co-pilot had stopped and then restarted his training, which took place at the Lufthansa flight training center in Bremen, Germany.

If it was for medical reasons, he said, then that information would have been private before the crash, he said, but it will be part of information gathered during the investigation.

Spohr said Lufthansa pilots get medical testing but do not undergo regular or routine psychological testing once they are flying. However, the airline does consider an applicant’s psychological state, along with other factors, when hiring pilots, he said.

Lubitz and the captain passed a psychological test when they were hired, he said.

“We don’t only look at competence but we also give a lot of room to psychological capabilities,” Spohr said.

“He was 100% set to fly without restrictions,” he added. “His flight performance was perfect. There was nothing to worry about.”

CEO: Captain acted properly

As for the captain of the flight, he didn’t leave the cockpit to use the restroom until the plane reached cruising altitude, which suggested he acted properly, Spohr explained.

The captain informed the co-pilot that he was stepping out and that the co-pilot had control of the plane, the CEO said.

He added that the flight crew who were outside the cockpit could not have activated a distress signal. A distress signal can be activated only from the cockpit, he said.

‘Instantaneous’ death

Death was “instantaneous” for the 150 people from 18 countries on board, Robin said.

Spohr said that Lufthansa is providing financial assistance to the families of those who perished.

The co-pilot’s family has arrived in France, Robin said.

It’s likely that German authorities will interview them first, the prosecutor said, and then French authorities will talk to them.

German Transportation Minister Alexander Dobrindt spoke briefly at a news conference after held after that of the French prosecutor.

He said that it is “plausible to us” that the plane was deliberately crashed.

Reports about the co-pilot locking the captain out first emerged early Thursday.

“You can hear he is trying to smash the door down,” a senior French military official involved in the crash investigation told The New York Times.

“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.”

The flight was traveling from Barcelona, Spain, to Dusseldorf, Germany.

Investigators are combing through the debris — scattered across a steep, icy mountainside — for clues.

They also want to find the plane’s second “black box,” the flight data recorder.

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