WATCH ABOVE: Marseille prosecutor Brice Robin laid out the horrifying conclusions reached by French aviation investigators after listening to the last minutes of the Tuesday morning flight from Barcelona to Dusseldorf.
A French prosecutor is alleging that the co-pilot of Germanwings Flight 9525 “intentionally” sent the plane into doomed descent.
The co-pilot, 28-year-old Andreas Lubitz, a German national, appeared to have wanted to “destroy the plane,” according to Marseille prosecutor Brice Robin.
Flight 9525 descended midway through its flight from Barcelona to Dusseldorf and crashed into the French Alps on Tuesday. By Wednesday night, reports surfaced that the pilot was locked out of the cockpit – Lubitz was alone at the helm of the aircraft.
In information retrieved from the plane’s black box, Robin said that in the final minutes of the flight, the co-pilot was silent as his captain demanded to be let in to the cockpit.
Lubitz is heard breathing normally on the voice recorder as the sounds of passengers’ screams are heard on the audio. The crash killed all 150 people on board.
“I think the victims realized just at the last moment,” Robin said.
“We could also hear the contacts from the control tower in Marseille for several times but no response from the co-pilot,” he said.
Lufthansa chief executive Carsten Spohr said the company is in shock.
“It leaves us absolutely speechless…I wouldn’t have been able to imagine that situation would have got even worse,” he said at a Thursday press conference.
How are pilots screened for mental health?
“The U.S. and Canada follow very similar protocols. All airlines do a standard medical screening for every new employee, particularly pilots and there’s emphasis on a psychological component,” said Capt. Dave Funk, a former Northwest Airlines captain with Laird & Associates, an aviation security consulting firm.
After that, screening isn’t necessarily done routinely.
“As an industry, we’re good at self-screening,” Funk explained. Self-screening entails being cognizant of your own mental state and paying attention to cues from your colleagues.
Funk says that crewmembers are trained to watch for signs of mental health concerns in themselves and their peers. Because pilots typically specialize in flying a certain model, they tend to work with the same people.
“Even at a large airline, you know all the other captains and pilots. It’s the small group of you, so you pick up the signs. If they’re continually having bad days, word gets around fast,” he said.
Air Canada says that right now, its monitoring developments closely but that any conclusions would be “speculative.”
“With respect to the well-being of pilots, Air Canada adheres to Canadian Aviation Regulations and ICAO recommended standards and practices. Initial pilot hiring includes a behavioural assessment and pilots receive recurrent medical exams everyday year (twice a year after age 60),” a spokesman said in an email.
Transport Canada says that all commercial pilots are seen by a medical practitioner prior to receiving a medical certificate.
“Transport Canada Civil Aviation Medical Examiners assess individual pilots on a regular basis according to the type of licence, age, and health of the pilot. Under strict Transport Canada guidelines, Civil Aviation Medical Examiners review every pilot’s medical history to ensure there are no signs of psychosis or suicidal behaviour,” the federal agency said in an email to Global News.
READ MORE: What we know about the crash victims
Lubitz wasn’t on any terror lists, he passed his mental health assessments and there didn’t appear to be any warning signs at the time, Lufthansa said.
Instances of pilots and crew members acting out have been well documented: in 2012, Flight 191 from New York to Las Vegas made an unscheduled stop in Texas. Capt. Clayton Osbon ran up and down the plane’s cabin, warning passengers to say their prayers, until they subdued him. Psychologists suggested that he had a “brief psychotic disorder” brought on by lack of sleep.
Experts point to a time-strapped, stressful work environment. But Funk says those in the industry understand the work demands they’re committing to.
He suggests that readers shouldn’t be alarmed by this tragedy. Tens of thousands of flights operate daily – in his 40-year tenure, Funk can only think of three pilot suicides.
According to Aviation Flight Network there have been eight commercial airline flights since 1976 believed to be attributed to pilot suicide. In 1999, for example, Egypt Air Flight 990 crashed 30 minutes after taking off in New York. An investigation concluded that the first officer deliberately crashed the plane, killing 217 people on board.
“When you think of the numbers, it’s pretty low risk,” he said.
Keep in mind, American protocol has two crew members on the flight deck at all times. If a pilot or co-pilot needs to leave the cockpit, he or she is swapped out with a flight attendant. One pilot has to be manning the plane – if the door jams, or the door can’t unlock electronically, he or she shouldn’t be leaving their seat to open the door. That’s where the second person comes in.
READ MORE: How can a pilot be locked out of a cockpit?
Spohr was asked about this regulation. He acknowledged the American rule, but said that it doesn’t apply to the German protocol – no flight attendant is required to be in the cockpit when one of the pilots leaves.
Air Canada says that it can’t discuss current flight deck protocols because of security reasons. But it’s now “implementing without delay a policy change to ensure that all flights have two people in the cockpit at all times.”
Spohr says Lufthansa will review its pilot screening procedures, but that the company has full confidence in its training.
Funk’s certain that in the fallout of the tragedy, all airlines will be combing over their processes and procedures. But he doesn’t think policy should change.