Germanwings crash: Radio silence then a plunge to certain death in the Alps
No Mayday signal was sent during that eight-minute fall to earth, no message was relayed to French air traffic control to say the aircraft was in trouble
The passengers who boarded Germanwings flight 4U 9525 at Barcelona’s El Prat airport on Tuesday morning were the usual midweek mixture of tourists, business travellers and families, each with a busy and in some cases dramatic morning already behind them by the time they settled into their seats.
There were schoolchildren returning home from a Spanish exchange trip who had mislaid their passports and had to rush to catch the flight; parents negotiating the tricky task of travelling with babies, and frequent flyers, including the opera singers Oleg Bryjak and Maria Radner, returning home after a performance at the Gran Teatre del Liceu.
The ground crew responsible for the Airbus A320 were also having a busy morning. The aircraft had landed at 7.57GMT, with 122 passengers on board, and with a scheduled take-off time for Dusseldorf of 8.35GMT, it had to be cleaned, refuelled, restocked and checked over in less than 40 minutes.
It had been grounded in Dusseldorf earlier in the day for an hour because of a problem with the nose wheel door – which Germanwings said had been resolved – then took off more than 25 minutes late from Barcelona for reasons which are not yet clear. By 9.01 the Airbus was back in the air, heading north for what should have been a 90-minute flight.
All was normal for the next 40 minutes. The Airbus, with an experienced crew at the controls, slowly climbed to its cruising altitude of 38,000ft, which it reached at 9.45 in the skies over southern France. But then something went catastrophically wrong.
Less than a minute after reaching 38,000ft, the aircraft went into a steep and terminal descent. The pilots made no request to air traffic control to begin an unscheduled descent, and for the next eight minutes the aircraft plunged back down to earth at a rate of 4,000ft per minute.
Sébastien Giroud, who owns a local sawmill, looked up and saw it. “The plane was flying very low, maybe 1,500 or 2,000 metres,” he said. “It was impressive, it seemed it was going down. I said to myself: ‘It won’t pass the mountains’.”
No Mayday signal was sent during that eight-minute fall to earth, no message was relayed to French air traffic control to say the aircraft was in trouble. The aircraft remained intact, automatically relaying its altitude, airspeed and heading to air traffic control, and at 9.47 air traffic controllers implemented an aircraft distress alert, based on its rapid loss of height. At 9.53, all contact was lost.
It had dived to an altitude of 6,000ft when its last signal was sent, and “the plane then crashed,” to quote the unvarnished words of Germanwings’ Managing Director Thomas Winkelmann.
Without any apparent attempt by the pilot and co-pilot to correct the dive, the aircraft had flown into a mountain in the Alps called Les Trois Eveches, between Digne-les-Bains and Barcelonnette, north-west of Monaco, where it had “disintegrated”, in the words of one local official.
“It was a deafening noise. I thought it was an avalanche, although it sounded slightly different,” said Sandrine Boisse, president of the Pra Loup tourism office. “It was short noise and lasted just a few seconds.”
Pierre Polizzi, the owner of a local campsite, said the aircraft was making unusual noises before it crashed.
“There are often fighter jets flying over, so I thought it sounded just like that,” he said. “I looked outside but I couldn’t see any fighter planes. The noise I heard was long – like eight seconds – as if the plane was going more slowly than a military plane speed. There was another long noise about 30 seconds later.”
In Haltern am See, 50 miles from Dusseldorf, parents waiting for their 15-year-old children to return from the exchange trip began to hear media reports that there had been a plane crash.
Bodo Klimpel, the mayor of the town, said students began searching online for news of the aircraft, “and then when the plane didn’t land and they were unable to make contact with their friends and classmates by cell phone, that’s when they assumed the worst had happened”.
Parents who were not already at the airport expecting to collect their children made their way there or to the school, desperately hoping there might, somehow, be good news.
On the ground in France, however, hope had died almost as soon as the mountainous location of the crash was known.
Two helicopters from the gendarmerie were sent up to fly over the crash site, and all they could see was wreckage. Pieces of fuselage with rows of windows still intact were among the only pieces of aircraft recognisable from the air.
President Francois Hollande quickly took the decision that it would be wrong to give false hope, and announced that he did not expect any survivors among the 150 passengers and crew. “It is a tragedy on our soil,” he said.
His assessment was confirmed hours later when the first helicopter managed to land near the crash site. The crew found only human remains, and lumps of wreckage the size of cars.
By early evening, the first of the Black Box flight recorders had been recovered, holding vital information that will hopefully answer the question of why a well-maintained aircraft suddenly dropped out of the sky in one of the safest air corridors in the world, during the safest part of its journey.
The pilot, as yet unnamed, had 10 years’ experience and 6,000 hours flying Airbuses for Lufthansa and Germanwings. The aircraft, called Mannheim, was 25 years old, with 46,700 flights in its logbook, but had always been owned by Lufthansa and went through routine maintenance on Monday as well as a major overhaul in 2013.
Suspicion has fallen on the computer technology used the fly the A320, and in particular its “angle of attack” sensors that tell it whether it is pointing up, down, or is level.
Last year an Airbus A321 owned by Lufthansa went into a sudden descent at 31,000ft, falling at the same rate – 4,000ft per minute – before the crew managed to regain control.
The European Air Safety Directive said in that incident the aircraft’s angle of attack sensors had become blocked and tricked the computer into thinking the aircraft was about to stall.
The EASA said that in that situation: “The flight control laws order a continuous nose down pitch rate that, in a worst case scenario, cannot be stopped with backward sidestick inputs, even in the full backward position.
“This condition, if not corrected, could result in loss of control of the aeroplane.”
Another possibility was that the crew had been suddenly incapacitated, possibly by a fire or explosion in the cockpit, but terrorism and sabotage has been all but ruled out already.
Dr Stephen Wright, a lecturer in air transport at Leeds University, said: “It just doesn’t make sense – the ground crew would naturally look for somewhere to land, and it is very unusual for the crew not to be able to communicate with the ground.
“Even in the case of rapid decompression, they are trained to deal with that and rehearse these scenarios every six months on a simulator.”
At the crash site, mountain rescue teams on the ground will spend the next days helping helicopter crews to airlift bodies off the slopes, though the process of recovering all the wreckage is likely to take much longer.
In the nearby town of Seyne a gym is being transformed into a temporary morgue, where DNA samples will be taken from bodies to be matched with samples taken from toothbrushes or other personal effects provided by relatives.
Lieutenant-colonel Jean-Paul Bloy said: “It will take several days to recover the victims.
“The crash zone is very steep and rugged mountain. The debris is scattered over an area of about one hectare and it is very difficult to access.
“There are a dozen large areas of debris, the rest is very fragmented. It will be extremely complicated to identify the sites. The victims will be evacuated first and then the debris.”