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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

German Airbus crashes in French Alps with 150 dead, black box found

Co-pilot suspected of deliberately crashing Germanwings jet Thu, Mar 26 18:07 PM EDT image 1 of 26 By Tim Hepher and Jean-Francois Rosnoblet PARIS/SEYNE-LES-ALPES (Reuters) - A young German co-pilot barricaded himself alone in the cockpit of Germanwings flight 9525 and apparently set it on course to crash into an Alpine mountain, killing all 150 people on board including himself, French prosecutors said on Thursday. They offered no motive for why Andreas Lubitz, 27, would take the controls of the Airbus A320, lock the captain out of the cockpit and deliberately set it veering down from cruising altitude at 3,000 feet per minute. German police searched his home for evidence that might offer some explanation for what was behind Tuesday's crash in the French Alps. The scenario stunned the aviation world. Within hours of the prosecutors' announcement, several airlines responded by immediately changing their rules to require a second crew member to be in the cockpit at all times. That is already compulsory in the United States but not in Europe. Canada said it would now require it of all its airlines. EasyJet, Norwegian Air Shuttle and Air Berlin were among other carriers that swiftly announced such policies. Among those that didn't was Germanwings parent company Lufthansa, whose CEO said he thought it was unnecessary. But the airline came under swift pressure on social media to make such a change and later said it would discuss it with others in the industry. French and German officials said there was no indication Lubitz was a terrorist but offered no rival theories to explain his actions. Acquaintances described him as an affable young man who had given no sign of harmful intent. Lubitz acted "for a reason we cannot fathom right now but which looks like intent to destroy this aircraft", Marseille prosecutor Brice Robin said. Setting the plane's controls for rapid descent was an act that "could only have been voluntary", Robin said. “He had... no reason to stop the pilot-in-command from coming back into the cockpit. He had no reason to refuse to answer to the air controller who was alerting him on the loss of altitude." The captain, who had stepped out of the cockpit, probably to use the toilet, could be heard on flight recordings trying to force his way back in. "You can hear banging to try to smash the door down," Robin said. Most of the passengers would not have been aware of their fate until the very end, he said: "Only toward the end do you hear screams," he said. "And bear in mind that death would have been instantaneous...the aircraft was literally smashed to bits." FlightRadar24, an online air tracking service that uses satellite data, said it had found evidence the autopilot was abruptly switched from cruising altitude to just 100 feet, the lowest possible setting. The plane crashed at about 6,000 feet. "Between 09:30:52 and 09:30:55 you can see that the autopilot was manually changed from 38,000 feet to 100 feet and 9 seconds later the aircraft started to descend, probably with the 'open descent' autopilot setting," Fredrik Lindahl, chief executive of the Swedish tracking service, said. Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr said its air crew were picked carefully and subjected to psychological vetting. "No matter your safety regulations, no matter how high you set the bar, and we have incredibly high standards, there is no way to rule out such an event," Spohr said. Attention was focused on the motivations of Lubitz, a German national who joined the Lufthansa-owned budget carrier in September 2013 and had just 630 hours of flying time - compared with the 6,000 hours of the flight captain. "SUICIDE" THE WRONG WORD "Suicide" was the wrong word to describe actions which killed so many other people, Robin, the French prosecutor, said: "I don't necessarily call it suicide when you have responsibility for 100 or so lives." The family of the co-pilot, whose age was earlier misstated as 28, arrived in France for a tribute alongside other victims. They were being kept apart from the others, Robin said. Police searched the co-pilot's home in Montabaur, Germany, leaving with large blue bags of evidence and a computer. A man was led out of the building, shielded by police holding up jackets. Acquaintances in the town said they were stunned. "I'm just speechless. I don't have any explanation for this. Knowing Andreas, this is just inconceivable for me," said Peter Ruecker, a long-time member of the local flight club where Lubitz received his flying license years ago. "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." A photo on Lubitz's Facebook page, which was later taken down, shows a smiling young man posing in front of San Francisco's Golden Gate bridge. Investigators were still searching for the second of the two black boxes on Thursday in the ravine where the plane crashed, 100 km (65 miles) from Nice. This box would contain data from the plane's instruments. Under German aviation law, pilots may temporarily leave the cockpit at certain times and in certain circumstances, such as while the aircraft is cruising. Cockpit doors can be opened from the outside with a code, in line with regulations introduced after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, but the code can be overridden from inside the cockpit, making the door impenetrable. Germanwings said 72 Germans were killed in the first major air passenger disaster on French soil since the 2000 Concorde accident just outside Paris. Madrid revised down on Thursday the number of Spanish victims to 50 from 51. As well as Germans and Spaniards, victims included three Americans, a Moroccan and citizens of Britain, Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Colombia, Denmark, Israel, Japan, Mexico, Iran and the Netherlands, officials said. However, DNA checks to identify them could take weeks, the French government said. The families of victims were being flown to Marseille on Thursday before being taken up to the zone close to the crash site. Chapels had been prepared for them with a view of the mountain where their relatives died. (Additional reporting by bureaus in Paris, Berlin, Frankfurt and Madrid; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Mark Trevelyan) ===== German Airbus crashes in French Alps with 150 dead, black box found Tue, Mar 24 17:30 PM EDT image 1 of 17 By Jean-Francois Rosnoblet SEYNE-LES-ALPES, France (Reuters) - An Airbus operated by Lufthansa's Germanwings budget airline crashed into a mountainside in the French Alps on Tuesday, killing all 150 people on board including 16 schoolchildren. Germanwings confirmed its flight 4U 9525 from Barcelona to Duesseldorf went down with 144 passengers and six crew on board. One of the plane's black box recorders has been found at the crash site, about 100 km (65 miles) north of the Riviera city of Nice, and will be examined immediately, France's interior minister said. In Washington, the White House said the crash did not appear to have been caused by a terrorist attack, while Lufthansa said it was working on the assumption that the tragedy had been an accident, adding that any other theory would be speculation. Aerial photographs showed smoldering wreckage and a piece of the fuselage with six windows strewn across the steep mountainside cut by ravines. "We saw an aircraft that had literally been ripped apart, the bodies are in a state of destruction, there is not one intact piece of wing or fuselage," Brice Robin, prosecutor for the city of Marseille, told Reuters after flying over the wreckage in a helicopter. Germanwings believed 67 Germans had been on the flight. Spain's deputy prime minister said 45 passengers had Spanish names. One Belgian was also aboard. Also among the victims were 16 children and two teachers from the Joseph-Koenig-Gymnasium high school in the town of Haltern am See in northwest Germany, a spokeswoman said. Barcelona's Liceu opera house said on Twitter that two singers, Kazakhstan-born Oleg Bryjak and German Maria Radner, had died while returning to Duesseldorf after they had performed in Wagner's Siegfried at the theater. French police at the crash site about 2,000 meters (6,000 feet) above sea level said no one had survived and it would take days to recover the bodies due to difficult terrain, snow and incoming storms. Police said search teams would stay overnight at altitude. "We are still searching. It's unlikely any bodies will be airlifted until Wednesday," regional police chief David Galtier told Reuters. In Paris, Prime Minister Manuel Valls told parliament: "A helicopter managed to land (by the crash site) and has confirmed that unfortunately there were no survivors." It was the first crash of a large passenger jet on French soil since the Concorde disaster just outside Paris nearly 15 years ago. The A320 is a workhorse of aviation fleets and one of the world’s most used passenger jets. It has a good safety record. However, according to data from the Aviation Safety Network, Tuesday's 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. SHARP DESCENT Germanwings said the plane started descending one minute after reaching its cruising height and continued losing altitude for eight minutes. "The aircraft's contact with French radar, French air traffic controllers, ended at 10.53 am at an altitude of about 6,000 feet. The plane then crashed," Germanwings' Managing Director Thomas Winkelmann told a news conference. Winkelmann also said that routine maintenance of the aircraft was performed by Lufthansa on Monday. Experts said that while the Airbus had descended rapidly, its rate of descent did not suggest it had simply fallen out of the sky. France's DGAC aviation authority said air traffic controllers initiated distress procedures after they lost contact with the Airbus. "The aircraft did not itself make a distress call but it was the combination of the loss of radio contact and the aircraft's descent which led the controller to implement the distress phase," a DGAC spokesman said. In emergencies, pilots are trained to try to fly the aircraft as their first priority, then pay attention to navigation and only then communicate with the ground. The aircraft came down in an alpine region known for skiing, hiking and rafting, but which is hard for rescue services to reach. The search and recovery effort based itself in a gymnasium in the village of Seyne-les-Alpes, which has a small private aerodrome nearby. STORMS, SNOW, CLOUD As helicopters and emergency vehicles assembled, the weather was reported to be closing in. “There will be a lot of cloud cover this afternoon, with local storms, snow above 1,800 meters and relatively low clouds. That will not help the helicopters in their work,” an official from the local weather center told Reuters. Lufthansa Chief Executive Carsten Spohr, who planned to go to the crash site, spoke of a "dark day for Lufthansa". "My deepest sympathy goes to the families and friends of our passengers and crew," Lufthansa said on Twitter, citing Spohr. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she would travel to the site on Wednesday. Germanwings and the Catalan regional government were preparing to take Spanish relatives there. Family members arrived at Barcelona’s El Prat airport, many crying and with arms around each others’ shoulders, accompanied by police and airport staff. In Llinars del Valles, the Spanish village that hosted the German schoolchildren, Mayor Marti Pujol said the whole village was distraught. "The families knew each other," he told Reuters. "The parents had been to see them off at 6 this morning." King Felipe and Queen Letizia of Spain called off a state visit to France in a sign of mourning for the victims. They had arrived in Paris minutes after the crash happened. In Washington, President Barack Obama said his thoughts and prayers were with Germany and Spain after what he called the "awful tragedy". Airbus confirmed that the plane was 24 years old, having first been delivered to Lufthansa in 1991. It was powered by engines made by CFM International, a joint venture between General Electric and France's Safran. (Additional reporting by Robert Hetz, John Irish, Nicolas Bertin, Gregory Blachier, Tim Hepher, Alwyn Scott, Elena Gyldenkerne, Robert-Jan Bartunek, Matthias Inverardi and Sabine Siebold; writing by Giles Elgood and David Stamp; editing by Mark John and Peter Millership)

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