The pilot who sent 150 people crashing to their deaths in the French Alps, Andreas Lubitz, tested the limits of the airplane’s computer system earlier that day to make sure his plan would work, lowering the altitude five times in four minutes.
“We can never be in his mind, but (Lubitz) made the same inputs as those that led to the catastrophe on the next flight, just more briefly,” Bureau d’Enquêtes et d’Analyses (BEA) Director Rémi Jouty told the Wall Street Journal.
CNN Aviation Analyst Miles O’Brien was more certain about what five separate changes in altitude settings — also while the senior pilot was out of the cockpit — could mean. “It was a dry run, there’s no question.”
“On the Airbus, you have a computer system that tends to overrule what the pilot wants to do if it’s outside the boundaries of acceptability for the aircraft and safety, and so this would be a good way to test where the alarm bells might go off, so you could set the selection for the intent, which of course we all know what happened.”
A BEA investigation recently illuminated the time period in question, parsing information from the plane’s data recorder. To be clear, the airplane didn’t actually descend. What Andreas Lubitz did was take advantage of standard orders from air traffic control to change the plane’s altitude settings while the aircraft was already in a gradual descent.
As the plane made its way south — and the senior pilot left the cockpit — Andreas was ordered to descend to 35,000 feet. But he messed with the altitude settings to reflect a descent of 100ft, then 49,000ft, then 35,000ft, the Independent reported. Lubitz was also told to descend to 21,000ft, and set controls to 100ft a few more times.
Just before the pilot returned, Lubitz stopped; at that point the plane was at 25,000 feet.
Jouty said Lubitz was so swift with these changes that no one even noticed. And no one, therefore, had prior warning when, two hours later, Andreas Lubitz turned his dry run into the real thing, locked his comrade out of the cabin, set the autopilot to 100 feet, boosted the engine’s power, and crashed it into the mountains.
The report containing this disturbing data is preliminary, from the BEA investigation into the crash; it examines both the outbound and return flights of the fateful plane. The final version may be finished next year; investigators will look into systemic issues that may have made it easier for Andreas to unfold his plan. It may also make mental health recommendations for pilots, in light of the revelations about Andreas’ struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts.
[Photos Courtesy Getty Images]