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Co-Pilot's Actions In French Alps Crash Raise Questions About Cockpit Doors


We're also tracking the developments in the investigation of the Germanwings crash in the French Alps Tuesday. A prosecutor in France said today that evidence from the plane's voice recorder reveals that the co-pilot was alone in the cockpit and deliberately caused the crash. The prosecutor said the pilot can be heard trying to get back to the controls in the minutes leading up to the impact.


The CEO of Lufthansa, which owns Germanwings, said he was horrified that something of this nature could have taken place. Here's Carsten Spohr speaking through an interpreter.


CARSTEN SPOHR: (Through interpreter) If one person takes 149 persons with him into the deaths, it's another word and not suicide.

SIEGEL: There isn't much known yet about the co-pilot. His name is Andreas Lubitz. He was a 27-year-old German man who had been flying with Germanwings since September of 2013. He had about 600 hours of flying time.

CORNISH: Elsewhere in the program we heard from Associated Press reporter David McHugh who was in Lubitz's hometown. There he spoke with people at the gliding club where he learned to fly.

DAVID MCHUGH: He had only recently been back at the club to renew his glider pilot's license, and he did not give any indication that anything was wrong in his life.

SIEGEL: We've learned that Lubitz took a break from his training six years ago, but it isn't clear yet why. Today's revelations have focused much attention on cockpit access, and that's something that NPR's Brian Naylor has been looking into. Here's what he's learned.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: After 9/11, when terrorists forcibly took control of four U.S. jets, one of the first responses was to install reinforced bulletproof cockpit doors on commercial airliners. On the Airbus A320, the type of aircraft that crashed in France, opening the cockpit door from the passenger cabin requires entering a code on a keypad. As demonstrated on this Airbus video, there are safety mechanisms to override the lock if the pilots are incapacitated.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The buzzer sounds for three seconds in the cockpit, but still no reaction from the cockpit crew's side, so the person tries another call on the interphone.

SALLY: Captain, Captain, do you read me? It's Sally (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Obtaining no response, she decides to use the emergency access procedure.

NAYLOR: But that emergency access can blocked by the pilot, which is what appears to have happened on the Germanwings flight, says former National Transportation Safety Board member John Goglia.

JOHN GOGLIA: At that point in that few seconds, if the pilot reaches down and hits the switch it'll deny the access. If the pilot is incapacitated then the door will automatically unlock after that time period. So it's obvious that the person in the cockpit was denying access more than once.

NAYLOR: Officials in France describe hearing the pilot, who had stepped out of the cockpit for a rest break, banging on the door to no avail. Patrick Smith is a commercial pilot and author of the book "Cockpit Confidential." Smith says what caught his attention was that when the Germanwings pilot left for his rest break, the co-pilot was the only person remaining in the cockpit. FAA regulations for U.S. flights require two people in the cockpit at all times.

PATRICK SMITH: Anytime one of the pilots comes out for whatever reason another pilot or flight attendant will go into the cockpit so there are always at least two people up there. I was kind of surprised when I first learned that only one person was in this cockpit, so that's a bit unusual to me.

NAYLOR: Just today, Air Canada and Norwegian announced plans to change their policy so that two crew members are always in the cockpit. The Germanwings crash has also raised questions about the mental state of the jet's co-pilot. Patrick Smith says it's a difficult issue for flight crews to have to deal with.

SMITH: We're trained for so many different contingencies. And, you know, are we supposed to now evaluate the mental health of our coworkers every time we come to work? You know, psychoanalyze the guy sitting next to us - no.

NAYLOR: U.S. pilots undergo medical evaluations every six or 12 month depending on their age, although not psychological examinations. But Smith says pilots can be grounded for depression and anxiety. He says the idea of a colleague intentionally crashing is horrific and extremely embarrassing and reflects poorly on the entire profession. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.
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