Episode 5: Germanwings Flight 9525

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Summary:

Join Shelly in this episode of Take to the Sky: The Air Disaster Podcast as she tells the tale of an airplane that suddenly disappears over the French Alps. And the truth of the air disaster reveals the horrors within a troubled mind.



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Show Notes:

Themes in this episode my be difficult for some listeners. If you or someone you know is having difficulty dealing with thoughts of suicide or with depression, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline in the US at 1-800-273-8255. And if listening outside the US, please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention to locate a crisis center near you.

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Did the Pilot of Germanwings Flight 9525 Intentionally Crash the Plane?

On March 24, 2015, Germanwings 9525 suddenly and mysteriously descends straight into a mountainside, killing all 144 passengers. The investigation uncovers the chilling events that led to one of France’s worst aviation disasters: pilot suicide and mass murder by airplane. In Episode 5, Take to the Sky: the Air Disaster Podcast explores the complex issues surrounding the crash, including mental illness, privacy laws, and cockpit security measures.

Trigger warning: this episode explores topics like mental illness, suicide, murder, and suicidal ideation – which may be difficult for some. Please use discretion when reading and take care.  If you or someone you know is having difficulty dealing with thoughts of suicide or with depression, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline in the US at 1-800-273-8255. And if outside the US, please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for information on where to seek help.  

Germanwings 9525 Departs Barcelona Headed for Dusseldorf

On March 24, 2015 at Barcelona Airport in Spain, Germanwings Flight 9525, an A320, is about to take off. Germanwings was founded in 2002, part of the Lufthansa group, and is one of the many low-cost carriers serving multiple European routes.

In the cockpit we have Captain Patrick Sondenheimer, with 10 years of flying experience and over 6,000 hours of flight time. Co-pilot Andreas Lubitz has been flying with Germanwings for a little over a year. Lubitz will be the flying pilot.  

144 passengers are onboard, most from Germany and Spain. Maria Radner, a prominent opera singer, is onboard, along with her partner, and their toddler son, Felix. And, we also have sixteen high school students and two teachers from the German town of Haltern, returning from a weeklong exchange program. The students included Lea Drüppel, a gregarious 15-year-old with dreams of being a professional musician and stage actress, and her best friend and next-door neighbor, Caja Westermann, also 15. 

Just after 10 AM the plane is airborne. It breaks through the clouds and climbs out toward the sun. Their route heads them toward the French Alps and finally to their destination in Dusseldorf for a flight that is scheduled to last just 2 hours and 20 minutes. 

At 10:27, the Airbus has reached its cruising altitude of 38,000 feet.

Germanwings Flight 9525 Mysteriously and Suddenly Descends into the Alps

Four minutes later, air traffic control (or ATC) notices the plane is descending – without permission. This is obviously alarming and surprising, and ATC wants to know what is going on. At first ATC assumes the descent is for good reason – maybe the flight is in distress or experiencing a control problem. The point is – they don’t know. All ATC knows for a fact is the plane is dropping steadily, losing 10,000 feet of altitude in just minutes. 

The control center is now in emergency mode. ATC is trying frantically to contact the plane, but there is no response. ATC asks another plane who is flying nearby to contact Flight 9525, but they also get no answer. 

The plane is now below 7,000 feet, and the mountains are coming closer. ATC watches the radar helplessly as the altitude gets lower and lower. And then, ATC loses contact as the plane drops below where radar the plane is detectable. 

It is shortly thereafter that the plane crashes into the side of a mountain in the French Alps at a high rate of speed at 430 miles per hour (mph). 

The Wreckage of Germanwings 9525 is Found

News of the crash spreads quickly since in 2015 social media now exists – and Twitter erupts with people asking lots of questions about what happened to the plane to make it crash. 

After just one hour, searchers spot the wreckage. What they find is an aircraft shattered into tiny bits and pieces, which makes it obvious that no one has survived. They also find the horrifying, charred remains of the plane and its passengers, their burnt shirts and shoes strewn across the terrain among the tatters of the aircraft. And the solemn remains of teddy bears and dolls belonging to the children who perished onboard.

It is the worst air disaster on French soil in over three decades. It is also Germanwings' first fatal crash in the 18-year history of the company.

Immediately, the public wants answers, and everyone is scrambling to figure out what happened. But the shocking and heartbreaking truth soon reveals itself.

The Investigation into What Made Germanwings Flight 9525 Crash into the Alps

As it would, the Bureau of Enquiry and Analysis for Civil Aviation Safety in France (known as the BEA) investigates. 

In France, authorities automatically open a criminal investigation, alongside the BEA investigation whenever there is a plane crash. They work side by side with the BEA. 

Standard BEA procedures are to check if weather is a factor. But on March 24th, flying conditions were nearly perfect, so they quickly rule out weather as the cause. 

This crash comes also on the heels of the Paris terror attacks at the satirical publication Charlie Hebdo, with many wondering if this crash, too, is a terrorist attack. Investigators examine radar data to see if a bomb blast is the possible cause. What they find is a straight, controlled path downward. This reveals the plane was completely under control all the way until it crashed into the mountain. It looks like a normal descent just at the exact wrong time. And there was no evidence of an in-flight break up based on the wreckage. All this suggests a bomb is not the cause. 

Investigators then consult with the ATC to see if they had any information, not as eyewitnesses, but in case they noticed something unusual. Which they did. They tell investigators about the mysterious descent and that they contacted the plane 11 times, and no response was ever received.

Investigators next consider mechanical issues as a factor.  Obviously if something went wrong with the plane, investigators want to know since there are many A320 aircraft in use at that very moment. 

But then finally, they find the cockpit voice recorder (or CVR) – and this is just on the first day of the investigation. And what is on it helps them to understand the plane’s fate. 

The Frightening Murder-Suicide Onboard Flight 9525

On the CVR, they hear the Captain running the checklist, so they know that First Officer Lubitz is the flying pilot. But nothing so far seems amiss. 12 minutes after takeoff, a flight attendant requests access to the cockpit. General conversation ensues about the flight and about food.

Captain Sondenheimer tells Lubitz to begin preparing for landing since it was only a two-hour flight. Lubitz's response is chilling. “Hopefully,” he said. “We'll see.” It's unclear if Captain Sondenheimer notes his co-pilot's odd language, but he said nothing in response. 

Then, Lubitz tells the Captain if you need to go to the bathroom, now would be a good time. And so, at 10:30 AM, the Captain pushes back from his seat and leaves the cockpit. 

This is the exact moment that the plane begins descending. No voices can be heard in the cockpit for 2 minutes.  Then three minutes. Then four. All that can be heard is the sound of the First Officer breathing. This is key because it indicates the plane probably did not suffer a fatal depressurization.

That is when ATC is heard beginning to contact the plane. But it is clear the First Officer is not responding. But why he does not respond remains unclear. 

Then, investigators hear a beep, beep, beep. The Captain is trying to regain access to the cockpit. All the First Officer must do is flip a switch to open the door, but he does not. They can hear more breathing from the First Officer. The Captain tries contacting the cockpit through the intercom, but no answer. Then they can hear the distinct sound of banging on the cockpit door: the Captain is trying desperately to get into the cockpit. He was yelling for Lubitz to let him in and unlock the door. “For the love of God,” he yelled. “Open this door!”

This tells investigators that there was something desperately wrong going on, based on the Captain’s anguished attempts at getting back inside the cockpit. The Captain clearly knows something is wrong. That also meant that the cabin crew and most of passengers, if not all, knew they were in danger and maybe they even knew they were going to die. Flight 9525 crashes into the side of the mountain. It is just 10 minutes after the Captain left the cockpit. 

Investigators are completely baffled and chilled. The possibility of what this all means becomes clear: either the First Officer was incapacitated but still breathing and no one else was impacted by an incapacitation – or he deliberately crashed the plane. 

Investigators start digging into Lubitz’s background. His friends and family refuse to speak with them. So, investigators look at his personnel files. And it is here they find some initial answers. 

Co-Pilot Lubitz Struggled with Mental Illness Before Flight 9525

In 2009, Lubitz spent 9 months in a psychiatrist’s care after suffering a sever depression. Six months into that care, the doctor recommended that Lubitz be allowed to resume his flight training even though the doctor continued to treat Lubitz—and prescribe him powerful drugs—three months after having told aviation officials that he had fully recovered. Eventually, shortly thereafter, his student pilot's license was reinstated and his fit-to-fly medical certificate was amended with the designation SIC, for “specific regular examination.” This notation would stay on Lubitz's record. Any further psychiatric treatment for depression, any more meds, would result in his automatic grounding, something of which Lubitz was surely aware. 

Then, in preparation for Lufthansa flight school in Arizona, he was caught lying on his required student-pilot form when he answered “no” to the question about if he had ever been diagnosed with “mental disorders of any sort, depression, anxiety, etc.” An aviation doctor in Germany who vets documents for the U.S. agency spotted Lubitz's false statement and reported it. Amazingly, the falsehood delayed, but didn't derail, the process. The FAA basically gave him an opportunity to straighten things out: they asked him to submit a current detailed status report from his prescribing physician. And this time, he came clean, admitting his history of depression and complying with the request for a doctor's report. Apparently, this was enough to satisfy the authorities on both sides of the Atlantic. Weeks later, he was on his way to flight school. 

He returned to Germany in the spring of 2011 to continue his training on jets. There were no further documented mental problems, and in the fall of 2013, he joined Germanwings, advancing quickly to first officer.

He received regular check-ups from company doctors. His last checkup was 7 months prior to the crash. All medical examiners that saw him felt that he was fine to fly. And he did fly safely for many years. But in the months leading up to the crash, he took a turn for the worse. He felt he was losing his eyesight but there was no proof of an actual condition even though he saw 41 doctors for the eyesight issue. It is not clear if any of the doctors knew he was seeing so many other doctors, or if they knew he was an airline pilot. 

In Lubitz’s apartment, German investigators make more discoveries that complete the chilling picture of what was happening with Lubitz’s mental state. They find a recent doctor’s note saying that he should not fly dated just days before the crash. It was later found that Lufthansa did not know how serious the situation was. In fact, not a single doctor raised the issue with the airline and that is because it is expected that the pilot will provide those notes to the airline. But Lubitz did not. 

Germanwings Flight 9525 Co-Pilot Lubitz’s Actions Before the Crash Reveal Premeditation

When examining his internet browser history, investigators found that Lubitz searched for the most efficient means of ending his life: “producing carbon monoxide”; “drinking gasoline”; “Which poison kills without pain?” On March 18, just 9 days before the crash, a physician wrote a sick leave note for Lubitz, effective for four days, indicating that Lubitz suffered from “a persistent vision disorder with a thus far unknown origin.” A couple of days later, while at home on March 20, he searched the Internet for information about the locking mechanism on an Airbus A320 cockpit door. 

On March 22, just two days before the crash, the day before returning to work, Lubitz scribbled “Decision Sunday,” along with the flight code BCN, for Barcelona, on a scrap of notebook paper that was later retrieved from the trash in his apartment. Below that heading, Lubitz listed several options: “[find the] inner will to work and continue to live,” “[deal with] stress and sleeplessness,” “let myself go.” 

Then, investigators finally find the flight data recorder (FDR) which provides the final set of details for what happened on 9525.This flight was Lubitz’s second flight of the day. On his first flight, the data reveals he was alone in the cockpit and made some altitude changes (to 100 feet) but he changed it back once the Captain came back. Investigators take this to mean he was rehearsing for the actual crash on the next flight. 

And then, finally, on flight 9525, flight data shows that Lubitz dropped the altitude to its lowest setting and the speed dial to its maximum setting, showing that he was actively controlling the plane and was conscious until the end. 

Germanwings Flight 9525 Brought Down by Co-Pilot Suicide and Murder 

The cause of the crash of Flight 9525 has finally been confirmed. Pilot suicide and murder. 

Experts agree that Lubitz was suffering from a psychotic depression, which is much worse and completely different than someone who suffers from non-psychotic depression. But as we know, depression is a treatable illness and every type of professional suffers from it, and this likely includes pilots who, with treatment could resume flying, perfectly safely. 

But many wonder, when was the moment this disaster could have been prevented? Over 40 doctors knew the situation and none of them raised the flag. But doctors in Germany have a good reason not to – they face prosecution if they break confidentiality. They relied on Lubitz to select himself out of flying but he did not. German privacy laws are generally restrictive, but they do allow psychiatrists to notify relevant parties (including an employer) if they believe a patient could present a danger to the lives of others. But Lubitz's doctor seems to have made no such attempt to contact Lufthansa about Lubitz's relapse. A fatal mistake. 

It is important at this point in the story to acknowledge an important point: people with mental illnesses are not all suicidal or murderers. Most are not a harm to others or even to themselves. Suicide is a tragic and complex loss and results from someone losing their battle with mental illness. And while it is not often acknowledged this way, mental illness it is just as serious and important to treat as a physical disease. But the story of Germanwings 9525 is a tragedy about someone who, in their desperation to make the pain stop, also committed mass murder. 

Changes Made Following the Crash of Germanwings 9525

With the findings of the crash of flight 9525, the BEA calls for clear rules for healthcare providers in these kinds of situations given the privacy laws. They also recommend more stringent mental health evaluations for airline pilots. 

Some people are asking why there is no system for wrestling control of a plane from a control tower. In fact, such a system does exist, reports the Daily Mail, but it is not being used. In 2006, Boeing was awarded a patent for an "uninterrupted autopilot system" with its own power supply that could be activated by those on board a plane or on the ground. However, safety concerns - including the possibility that such a system could be hacked - have prevented its roll-out.

The crash also raised questions about the cockpit door mechanism which Lubitz used to keep the pilot out. The system, which allows a pilot to override the coded entry mechanism on the outside of the door, was designed in the event of a terrorist emergency. And experts posit that Airlines are going to have to balance those concerns against the possibility that individuals like Lubitz might decide to do harm. But this is an extremely rare occurrence. 

Passengers’ Families Challenge Lufthansa

Lufthansa was quick to advance money to the families for funeral and travel expenses—up to 50,000 euros each—and its liaison officers had seemed genuinely grief-stricken and ashamed that one of their own had caused the tragedy. But the company's chief executive projected an image of cluelessness immediately after the crash, telling the public that Lubitz had been “100 percent fit to fly” and insisting that he saw no need to change the airline's screening procedures. Then, a Lufthansa spokesman outraged the families by describing the airline as a “victim,” like the dead passengers.

Sticking to the letter of European laws that sharply limit an airline's liability in crashes, Lufthansa offered each family of the dead an additional 25,000 euros (about $27,500) for the victims' “pain and suffering,” plus the amount previously issued. The families soon banded together to fight back with a civil suit and through that were able to extract an additional 10,000 euros per family member from Lufthansa.

Throughout the entire ordeal, Lubitz’s family staunchly maintain their son’s innocence and claim that turbulence caused an incapacitation, which caused the crash. Lubitz’s ex-girlfriend had a different impression of him. She claimed that the year before the crash he told her: “One day I’m going to do something that will change the whole system, and everyone will know my name and remember.”

Who Were the Victims of Germanwings Flight 9525?

Here are some of the stories about those who were killed onboard flight 9525. 

A group of 16 students, 14 girls and two boys, and two of their teachers, from Joseph-Koenig school in western Germany, were travelling back from a Spanish exchange program.

A family of six from a town near Barcelona also were lost, among them three generations from the same family.

Three Americans died. Among them was Yvonne Selke, who worked as a contractor for the Pentagon's satellite mapping office. She was travelling with her adult daughter Emily. 

And our hero, Captain Sondenheimer, who tried everything possible to save the plane and the lives of all onboard. He was the married father of a 3-year-old son and a 6-year-old daughter, and he switched to flying for Germanwings so he could be closer to his family. He was described by a colleague as “one of the best pilots we had.”

And that is the heartbreaking tragedy of Germanwings Flight 9525.

Credits:

Written and produced by: Shelly Price and Stephanie Hubka
Directed and engineered by: Crosse deStreit, Salmon Pond Studios
Graphic design and website by: Adam Hubka
Sound editing and music by: Mike Dunn
Germanwings Flight 9525

Image Credit: Yves Malenfer, French Interior Ministry

Image Credit: Emmanuel Foudrot/Reuters

Germanwings Flight 9525

Image Credit: Wikipedia

Germanwings Flight 9525

Memorial for the victims of the Germanwings 4U 9525 in Le Vernet, France. Image credit: Wikipedia

Germanwings Flight 9525

The aircraft involved, in May 2014. Image Credit: Sebastien Mortier/Wikipedia