Pilot Suicide Disputed by Family: Germanwings 9525

7 Apr 17 7 Comments

The tragedy of Germanwings 9525 happened two years ago and I reported on the final report from the Bureau d’Enquêtes et d’Analyses (BEA) when it was released in March of last year.

The BEA concluded that the crash was caused by the deliberate and planned action of the first officer who decided to commit suicide while alone in the cockpit. The report emphasised the need to focus on the current methods of medical evaluations and reporting for commercial pilots, both for the safety of the public but also to mitigate the consequences to pilots who are at risk of losing their licence. The original report in French, English and German can be downloaded here.

Photograph from the French Interior Ministry

However, the reason this crash is getting a lot of attention at the moment is because the first officer’s father held a press conference on the second anniversary of the crash, casting doubt on the BEA conclusions.

Probably, there would not be much interest in the claims of a grieving father whose son has been labelled a mass murderer. However, Simon Hradecky of the Aviation Herald has taken up the cause of the first officer’s father, who claims that his son did not intentionally crash the passenger plane.

The Aviation Herald has changed the title of the post about the accident which shows Hradecky’s doubt on the causal factor. It now reads Crash: Germanwings A320 near Barcelonnette on Mar 24th 2015, first officer alone in cockpit, initiated rapid descent, aircraft impacted terrain.

Simon Hradecky’s latest addition to the article explains the issues brought up by the first officer’s father and details the list of 25 questions which he has sent to the BEA in respect to the claims of the family.

Let me back up a moment and clarify the father’s claims.

The first officer’s father claims that the French investigation and the French and German prosecutors were biased against his son from the start, blaming him within two days of the crash.

His plea is that the case be reviewed, specifically looking at information which he feels the investigation disregarded but which cast doubt onto their conclusion and which he believes might exonerate his son.

First of all, he says that his son had fully recovered from a single depressive episode that he had suffered from and did not have an issue with ongoing depression.

The BEA report stays that in December of 2014, a year after starting work at Germanwings, the pilot began to show symptoms of a psychotic depressive episode. He consulted several doctors and a psychiatrist and was prescribed anti-depressant medication. In February 2015, the pilot was diagnosed with a psychosomatic disorder and an anxiety disorder. On the 10th of March, a fortnight before the crash, the same physician diagnosed a possible psychosis and referred his patient for psychiatric hospital treatment. At the same time, a psychiatrist prescribed anti-depressant and sleeping aid medication. Neither the physician nor the psychiatrist informed any aviation authority although both issued several sick leave certificates. The crash took place on the 24th of March of that year.

His father agrees that the first officer had been visiting doctors, including a psychiatrist, however he says that this was because he was suffering from an undiagnosed issue with his eyesight. Apparently, his vision seemed to be discoloured and sometimes blurred, however his doctor had been unable to discover the reason, which could have been physical or psychological. Worried about his eyesight, he saw a number of specialists in hopes of understanding what was causing the issue.

At the same time, he says that his son’s general practitioner meant to note in his files that he had possibly been in hospital care for depression but mis-typed the details, making it appear that this had definitely happened. The father says that the first officer had in fact only ever been in hospital once in his life: when he’d had his tonsils removed at age 4.

The general practitioner, he says, recommended SSRI medication for the vision issue, not for depression, based on her suspicion that his issue was psychological. The two sick notes were simply a precaution, in case the first officer needed to stay on the medication for a longer time.

Hradecky says that there is no evidence of the first officer suffering from “psychic issues”[sic] other than the notes from the general practitioner, who had not diagnosed him but was acting on a suspicion. The first officer, he says, had stopped taking the medication before reporting for duty on the 23rd of March and thus did not need the longer sick note, which he tore up. His point is that there was no attempt to cover up an illness which could make him medically unable to fly.

Going back to the flight, the first officer’s father agrees that his son was alone in the cockpit at the time of the crash and that he adjusted the altitude controls. However, he brings up two factors to cast doubt on the idea that the crash was deliberate.

The first is the so-called test run of the descent which appeared on flight data recorder of an earlier flight that day.

07:19:59 The aircraft was cruising at FL370 (37,000 feet). The cockpit door opened and then closed as the captain left the cockpit.

07:20:29 Air traffic control asked the flight to descend to FL350 (35,000 feet). The co-pilot correctly read back the instruction.

07:20:32 The altitude was set to FL350 and the aircraft was put into a descent.

07:20:50 The selected altitude was decreased to 100 feet. It was then increased to 49,000 feet and then decreased again to 35,000 feet.

07:21:10 Air traffic control instructed the crew to continue the descent to FL210 (21,000 feet).

07:21:16 The selected altitude was set to 21,000 feet.

07:22:27 The selected altitude was set to 100 feet.

07:24:13 The selected altitude was changed several times but then set back to 21,000 feet.

07:24:15 The buzzer sounded to request access to the cockpit.

07:24:29 The cockpit door was unlocked and opened, corresponding to the return of the captain.

07:25:32 The flight crew was instructed to descend to FL170 (17,000 feet).

07:26:16 The altitude was selected and the aircraft began its descent. The flight continued normally.

Because the autopilot was engaged, the changes in selected altitudes did not influence the aircraft’s descent path. The report concluded this was a practice run, which makes sense to me. However, the pilot’s father claims that this simply shows that he often played with the controls without any ill effects.

Further, Hradecky argues that it is impossible to know what was in the mind of the first officer and that the changes to the altitude in both instances could be simply innocent pilot activity. Note that in this case, he seems happy that the FDR data was the result of inputs by the pilot whereas on the accident flight, he queries whether the pilot input the information at all (more on this below).

The first officer used to be a glider pilot (who needed to exactly time his approaches into an airfield to arrive on the runway, not before and not beyond). It is quite possible that by selecting the aerodrome level (elevation 14 feet, closest possible setting 100 feet on the altitude target) he just checked, where the current rate of descent and speed would take them in order to plan the rate of descent, power setting etc. to perform a continuous descent until reaching the IAF. There are other explanations as well without the need of assuming malicious attempt. Fact is that this target altitude never had influence on the aircraft’s flight path, and any claim he was testing his suicide can only and only remain speculation by the states attorney of Marseille and the German accredited BFU representative as stated in his letter published in the Annex of the BEA final report (they don’t know what was on the first officers mind and can’t prove therefore whether there was any malicious intent associated with it or whether it was some very innocent pilot practise to check out, instead of computing manually, where the aircraft would reach that altitude).

This habit of playing with the controls when alone in the cockpit is relevant to the accident flight because although it is clear that the first officer was alone and in the cockpit at the time of the descent, his father says that there is no proof that he was conscious. His father argues that the sound of the breathing on the cockpit voice recorder only shows that he was alive.

Hradecky goes one step further in his Aviation Herald piece, pointing out that the Flight Data Recorder shows that the selected speed changed but that this does not prove that a human in the cockpit changed the selected speed, as the FDR records changes to parameters but not the input mechanism used to make them. Similarly, the FDR recorded side stick changes but this data does not come directly from the side stick but is analysed by a further computer. The exact sources and the exact logic, he says, can only be come from Airbus, however the BEA did not asked them for an examination and explanation of the FDR data. Additionally, apparently the FDR shows two conflicting modes for the autopilot pitch channel which Airbus has confirmed is not possible to have active at the same time. Hradecky says that no further investigation was made into this and he believes it could mean that either the FDR was receiving invalid data or the autopilot had suffered a malfunction, in which case no human intervention at all was needed to initiate the descent and crash. He does not explain how the “test run” on the previous flight fits into this theory.

The conclusion seems to be that the first officer may have innocently manipulated the controls, having safely done so previously without affecting the flight. Then he was incapacitated in some way, which is why he did not reset the altitude and he did not open the cockpit door for the captain, as he had on the previous flight.

Hradecky says that there’s no evidence that the door switch was flipped to the LOCK position and that this is simply an assumption on the part of investigators.

In this case, the captain should be able to use the emergency code to gain entrance. However, Hradecky cites earlier maintenance as a possible issue, causing the emergency code to fail.

Could it be related to an alleged incident some time earlier, where with the aircraft being electrically powered a crew on the ground managed to lock themselves out of the cockpit due to a failed digit key on the door-keypad and needed maintenance to get into the cockpit again? BEA and BFU were informed about that alleged occurrence on D-AIPX some time prior to the accident, however, there is no evidence in the files that this was investigated. Would it not have been mandatory according to MEL that at any time there are two persons in the cockpit?

It is noteworthy that the function of emergency entry code is tested only by maintenance every 12,000 flight hours. No check is performed routinely before flight or when conducting the first flight of the day.

So according to the Aviation Herald analysis, we have a number of alternative explanations:

  • The first officer did not suffer from depression or a mental disorder but had been seeking treatment for a vision issue, which he felt could be a physical or a psychological issue.

  • The references to the hospital stay for depression was a mistake by the first officer’s general practitioner and the BEA references to hospital visits in 2008 or 2009 were incorrect and did not happen.

  • The first officer was routinely changing the selected altitude and did not expect it to have any effect.

  • Some unknown issue caused the first officer to be incapacitated in the process of changing the selected altitude.

  • The FDR data showing continual inputs up to the final seconds of the flight, was invalid, corrupted, or caused by a faulty autopilot rather than any human at the controls

  • The emergency code on the door was malfunctioning and thus the captain could not regain access to the cockpit.

My problem is this: in order for me to believe that the aircraft crashed in a tragic accident instead of a deliberate action by the first officer, all of the above needs to be true. It’s possible that this chain of events, starting with a simple clerical error by the doctor, could have led an unconscious man to lie in the cockpit of a descending aircraft with a broken lock on the door. However, I have to say that it doesn’t seem very likely.

The principle of Occam’s razor seems to apply: the simplest answer is most often correct and this version of events is anything but simple.

You can see the full list of questions that Hradecky has put to the BEA towards the end of his article on the Aviation Herald. This post has gone on long enough and I am disinclined to repeat them.

In any event, the BEA has decided not to deal with them individually. This is the response that the BEA sent last weekend.

I am well aware that the recent press conference has renewed the interest in this event but as far as the BEA is concerned, we have published the final report and have nothing else to add or to comment.

Regarding the recent press conference and any questions related to what was said or suggested, our position is as follows:

What was presented or suggested is incompatible with the factual and recorded data contained in the final report of the BEA.

In particular, the co-pilot’s breathing has remained normal and constant and remains active at the aircraft’s command until a few seconds before the impact.

Conversely, it is observed that the co-pilot did not at any time seek:

– to use the on-board telephone

– to contact air traffic control

– to open the cockpit door

– to solicit the assistance of the pilot-in-command

Furthermore, generally the BEA does not take part in speculations.

Thanks in advance for your understanding

Hradecky has posted this along with his belief that a further investigation is needed to clarify the points that he and the first officer’s father have raised and that the Aviation Herald will continue to monitor the developments.

Memorial at Düsseldorf Airport by Hans135797531

Maybe I’m a cynic but I remain unconvinced that this is in the best interests of the relatives of the victims of the crash.

7 Comments

  • De Nile. It’s not just a river in Egypt.

    As you say, Sylvia, that’s a big string of things that all have to happen. I agree that it isn’t worth assigning percentages to each one and seeing what the compounded possibility is – I would think it has much less than one percent chance of happening. Probably MUCH less.

    Rest in peace, innocent ones.

  • Sylvia is right, but on the other hand: some of the at the time more sophisticated aircraft like the ATR 42 that I have flown already had features that enabled the autopilot to be programmed so that it would commence descent at a certain point and continue to be at a predetermined flight level at a predetermined checkpoint, or it could be set to start descending with a pre-programmed rate of descent. So I am sure that in a much more automated aircraft like the A320 a continuous descent ending at a selected waypoint can be even more easily programmed into the flight management system.
    Playing with the selected altitude “just to see if it will work”makes no sense whatsoever and is extremely dangerous. If the pilot is distracted, and that is not impossible especially when alone in the cockpit, it can lead to a serious situation where the aircraft may well descend through the cleared level. And why did he do this when the captain was out of his seat and why did he lock the captain out of the cockpit?
    If he was doing this just to have the leeway to try out some things that he shouldn’t then he was definitely mentally unfit to be a flight crew member. It is extremely strange that nothing had been picked up or if so, why he had not been grounded.
    A sad story and I feel sympathy for the father but his actions only open wounds and will solve nothing.

  • Sylvia is correct.
    There is another telling fact which can be found in the report.
    The crash pilot changed the speed multiple times during the descent and was therefore not incapacitated after selecting the 100ft target altitude.
    A very sad story indeed.

  • One thing that always bugged me was why the captain needed permission from the first officer to enter the cockpit. The idea that one pilot can leave the cockpit and the other have a heart attack or stroke and he can’t get back in, worries me.

    So with the idea of an emergency entry code, can someone explain how this works? Is it a random code assigned for each flight/aircraft known only to the 2 pilots? Any chance the captain in this case forgot the code due to stress and was entering a code from another flight? I assume not as I would also assume it would show up on the FDR. I guess the question is how is the emergency code disseminated and to whom?

    • When he left the cockpit, the door automatically locked behind him. This would not normally be an issue: the easy way to return to the cockpit is for the person on the inside to let you in. If they do not respond, then the pilot can use the code on the keypad. The process varies by airline but there will be a code assigned to various aircraft for a specific amount of time, then changed. The crew definitely don’t need to memorise a new code for every flight.

      It’s quite clear that the captain attempted to use the keypad. There’s no way to prove whether he did or did not enter the right code but the senior cabin crew member should also have known it and could have corrected him in that case. The keypad is not connected to the FDR.

      • As I understand it, the only reason the door could not be opened from the outside is that it was relocked from the inside. The pilot at the controls would need to have relocked the door at regular intervals in order to prevent entry via the keypad.

  • Here’s an angle SSRIs have been known to cause people to be suicidal who would not other was. It’s possible that the FO did get them for an off label use re the sight issue.

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