Andreas Lubitz

A320: Controlled Flight Into Terrain?

Off the keyboard of John Ward

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Published on The Slog on Mar 27-28, 2015

Plane-Crash

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A320 LUBITZ CRASH EXCLUSIVE: The A320’s history of unexplained descents into terrain.

a320PTThe tabloidisation of the A320 Lubitz crash should at least be questioned more closely. Either through media incompetence or other motives, Andreas Lubitz is being misrepresented…and so is the Airbus family history.

This is not The Slog suddenly going wacky: it seems to me very likely that Andreas Lubitz flew his plane into a mountain by locking the pilot out of the cockpit. From the outset, this tragedy looked odd, but these days I have learned to let the dust settle before asking pertinent questions. Perhaps now is the time, however, to question just how open and shut the case is:

1. The A320 itself is billed as ‘an exceptionally safe aeroplane’. But the family of A319/320 does in fact have 60 crashes behind it. And some of them bear similarities:

* On 3 May 2006, Armavia Flight 967, using an Airbus A320-211, crashed into the Black Sea while attempting to conduct a go-around following its first approach to Sochi Airport, Russia. All 113 passengers and crew on board lost their lives.

*On 28 July 2010, Airblue Flight 202, an Airbus A321 flying from Karachi to Islamabad, crashed in Margalla Hills in Islamabad, Pakistan. The weather was poor with low visibility. During a non-standard self-created approach procedure below Minimum Descent Altitude the aircraft collided with terrain after the captain ignored a total of 21 cockpit warnings to pull-up. 146 passengers and six crew were on board the aircraft. There were no survivors.[26] The commander, Pervez Iqbal Chaudry, was one of Airblue’s most senior pilots with more than 35 years’ experience.

* On 5 November 2014, Lufthansa Flight 1829, an Airbus A321 was flying from Bilbao to Munich when the aircraft, on autopilot, unexpectedly lowered the nose and entered a descent reaching 4000 fpm rate of descent. The loss of altitude had been caused by two angle of attack sensors having frozen in their positions during climb at an angle, causing the fly by wire protection to assume the aircraft entered a stall while it climbed through FL310.

* On 28 December 2014, Indonesia AirAsia Flight 8501 crashed into the Java Sea between the islands of Belitung and Borneo, killing all 162 on board. The cause is under investigation…but I’m sure we all remember that one.

* On 24 March 2015, Germanwings Flight 9525, using an Airbus A320-211, flying between Barcelona and Düsseldorf crashed near Digne in the Southern French Alps, killing all 150 on board.

All these incidents involved what Boeing first coined as Controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) in the late 1970s. CFIT describes an accident in which an airworthy aircraft, under pilot control, is unintentionally flown into the ground, a mountain, water, or an obstacle. The pilots are generally unaware of the danger until it is too late. The term was coined by engineers at Boeing.

2. If Lubitz was really that depressed, why was he allowed to fly? The truth is, he wasn’t. “He flew into a mountain because he was depressed/had split up with his partner” simply doesn’t hold water: follow the timeline back, and you will see that Lubitz had made a full recovery from his depression. He took a break from training six years ago because he was responsible enough to realise he needed to get his head straight.

3. When I retreated to bed at 10.30 pm CET last night, several news sites were claiming that he was ‘a recent convert to Islam’. Those reports have abruptly disappeared. Who raised that allegation? Again, it isn’t true. Germany’s Christian press claimed yesterday ‘All evidence indicates that the copilot of the Airbus 320, in his six-months break during training as a pilot with Germanwings, converted to Islam and subsequently of his own accord decided to carry out this mass murder. A radical mosque in Bremen is in the center of the investigation, in which the convert often stayed…’. Really? Lubitz took a six-month break to get treated for depression some time ago during his training. All Germanwings pilots are trained in Bremen. As far as I can ascertain, the Mosque there is not at the centre of the A320 investigation, and Lubitz never went there.

4. Yahoo, CNN and the Independent are now stating as a fact that ‘Lubitz deliberately crashed the plane’. The evidence looks strong, but why prejudice the enquiry? Most extreme in this reporting, of course, is Bild, the German tabloid which acts as a sort of German Sun written by failed cryogenic monkey experiments. This morning it labels the co-pilot a mass-murderer: another monster created, tomorrow’s Saturday, lets find a stock shot of a fat Greek.

bildThis is very much the German way at a tabloid level: write off anyone German who seems to have done something awful as an abhorrent exception. Herr A. Hitler from Linz has been similarly written out of history in the two-dimensional manner, with the added “And anyway, he was Austrian”.

The day before yesterday, CNN treated us to an hour of Merkel, Rajoy and Hollande united in photo-op sorry, grief. The big-hair anchor-lady noted with counterfeit sincerity that it was “truly good of these three leaders to come personally to the scene”. It takes a special kind of cynicism or naivety to come up with a line like that.

*  *  *  *  *

My point here is not to kick off yet another conspiracy theory. It is rather to log once more that the mass media obsession with reporting without interpretation has in recent years crossed two lines:

First, their irresponsible rush to judgement condemns and demonises people about they know almost nothing, acting as a kangaroo Court of Opinion before the legal process has even started. Jimmy Savile was the worst example of that to date.

Second, by so doing they also create healthy suspicion about ulterior motives for blaming the corpse. Dead men, as they say, tell no tales. But Newscorp had a clear motive for starting the All DJs are Perverts mania of 2013/14: who we wonder, might have a motive for trying to wrap this one up in four days flat?

Media superficiality in assessing the psychographics of Andreas Lubitz simply muddies the waters further:

“He was one of the best,” the report quotes a retired Lufthansa pilot identified only as Dieter, “He was someone very reliable, he was one of the best pilots we had. I am 100 per cent sure they did the best they could. That’s what I think because I knew him very well, he was one of the best, he had a lot of experience, he had more than 6,000 flight hours behind him.”

However: only 350 of those hours were as a pilot…the rest he was just cabin crewing. And almost without exception, odd brainstorms and mass shootings are accompanied by lots of neighbours saying how quiet, polite and normal the killer was.

I’m just concerned (as an occasional depressive myself) that an attempt has been made by both the media and Lufthansa to make his depression seem contemporaneous with the A320 crash: it clearly wasn’t.

Now overnight, the ‘clue’ found at the Lubitz apartment has morphed into a significant clue. The Dusseldorf Polizei confirmed this morning that they had found “something which will now be taken for tests. We cannot say what it is at the moment but it may be very significant clue to what has happened. We hope it may give some explanations.”

The cops actually took away three large removal packs of material. I understand a line of enquiry unrelated to terrorism is now being followed up. But perhaps fearing a pc backlash, the media seem to be ignoring the likelihood that Andreas was gay: a number of German sources are suggesting this today. He had worked his way up to co-pilot from having been a cabin steward – and he had a housemate, who left the Lubitz flat with police last night, and has not as yet been identified:

lubitzhome It was the French prosecutor Brice Robin who has right from the off described Lubitz as having been “on a suicide mission”. The evidence for this is indeed strong: an analysis of transponder data by air tracker Flightradar24 showed that the plane’s autopilot had been manually reset from 38,000 to below 100 feet, immediately following which Lubitz began a steady descent at high speed.

But the A320 family history makes that less compelling than it at first looked. In order to dramatise the ‘pilot lockout’. the media latched on quickly to ‘the fact’ that the pilot, on trying to get back into the cockpit, resorted to an axe. The only evidence offered for this is that “there was an axe on the plane”.

*  *  *  *  *

This is just another incident in the long history of newspaper journalism in which conclusions are multivariately jumped upon, but no conclusions can then be reached because the conclusions are too disfigured to be identified. Also, nobody seems to be pursuing the issue of who was on the flight. After a suitable time for condolence and funerals, I think the media should have a look in detail at the passenger list. Germanwings is a budget airline and therefore this is unlikely to reveal much in the way of powerful folks flying incognito. But the time has long gone when a Sovereign prosecutor’s word can be taken as read – either between the lines, or otherwise.

On balance, I think Andreas Lubitz had a coup de foudre. But for me, the jury’s out until others more technical than I can say yea or nay to the A320 family’s history of Controlled Flight Into Terrain.

AIRBUS CONTRARIAN VIEW: DID ANDREAS LUBITZ HAVE DOUBTS ABOUT THE A320’S AIRWORTHINESS?

LUBITZa320As the Lubitz thing sounds increasingly conclusive, the evidence behind the conclusion looks increasingly flakey.

His girlfriend says he was planning something massive by which he’d be remembered. But she isn’t identified, her name ‘Maria’ is a not her real one….and the story’s in Bild. “It didn’t make much sense at the time, but now it does” she claims. Her boyfriend was a pilot and planning something horrific…but it didn’t make sense? Well, right then. But hold this thought: she told Bild, “He would wake in the night screaming ‘we’re going down, we’re going down’”.

The sick note looks odder and odder. While the German prosecutor followed his French colleague by mouthing off to the media yesterday about Lubitz “hiding his depression from his employer and colleagues”, the Dusseldorf Polizei contradicted their employer by refusing to say what the sick notes were about (or why Andreas had been to a hospital) but that they were “nothing to do with the decision [Lubitz] took”. Well if they aren’t germaine to the case, then why not tell us what they were for?

The Wall Street Journal takes a leap and asserts that the sick notes were from a psychiatrist; but the source is ‘a person familiar with the investigation’, which means it could be the A320’s designer, or Leutnant Schmidt from the Bremen vice squad. In the same piece, the Journal says ‘another person familiar with the investigation’ thinks Andreas didn’t have a terminal illness, while the Daily Mail says the notes were from doctors not psychiatrists, and although he was teased about being a gay former-steward, he shared his flat with the girlfriend who two days ago was a boyfriend, and if it was the girlfriend with whom he’d split up, why was she still at the flat?

A senior Lufthansa Director meanwhile says Lubitz had “slipped through the net with devastating consequences” – an odd thing to say for two reasons. First, all his co-workers said he was “happy and enjoying his career”; and second, the Director just landed Lufhansa squarely in the Dock to face 149 suits for causing the death of loved ones by negligence.

I’m trying to retain a balance here, but the sheer weight of contradictory information makes it almost a full-time job. This sort of thing often surrounds “media management” these days when very fat men in large boardrooms have things to hide. I still believe that by far the most likely solution is that Lubitz had lost his mental balance (it now seems he was taking medication, but we don’t know what for) and had made up his mind that the minute his colleague slipped out for a pee, he’d do the deed. But exactly why? And what deed?

I suspect what’s required here, for the time being, is to examine some of the motives behind the announcements:

1. Airbus is primarily a Franco-German-Spanish co-production. This might help explain the early appearance of the French, German and Spanish leaders at the scene. Its exports make a massive contribution to the eurozone economy, and it employs some 58,000 people. Significantly, Airbus pioneered fly-by-wire on its A320, and the A380 is the largest fbw aircraft in the world. Fbw basically means replacing the conventional manual flight controls of an aircraft with an electronic interface. In the light of this week’s disaster – and the 320 family’s history of controlled flight into terrain (see yesterday’s Slogpost) – this might explain why aircraft manufacturers – and airlines who bought large fleets off them – would rather face 149 lawsuits than doubts about the fbw auto systems that are now wired into Airbus planes’ DNA.

2. The rush to blame Lubitz is equalled only by the unwillingness to take into account the obvious motives for blaming pilot error. In December 1997, a Silk Air Boeing 737 flying from Jakarta, Indonesia, to Singapore suddenly dived vertically for more than 30,000 feet into a river and 97 people were killed. America’ National Transportation Safety Board investigated, concluding that the crash resulted from deliberate action by one of the pilots. The Indonesian Transportation Safety Committee said the evidence was inconclusive, and a private legal action in California tried to reverse the NTSB’s ruling – claiming that a mechanical flaw, inherent in the 737’s design, had caused the crash.

The crash of EgyptAir Flight 990 in October 1999 on a flight from New York to Cairo neared its desired cruise level, but then inexplicably dived vertically into the Atlantic near Nantucket Island, killing 217 people. The NTSB determined that the Egyptian captain had deliberately pointed the nose down and killed everyone on board. The NTSB’s verdict was disputed by the Egyptians, who also blamed a design flaw had been responsible.

In perhaps the most infamous case of all, the 1958 Munich air disaster that killed nine Manchester United players was persistently blamed on Captain Thain, a man later proven posthumously to be entirely innocent. The owners of Munich Airport had been clearly negligent in sweeping ice from the runway, but lied throughout five enquiries until eventually the evidence came to light.

3. Why would Andreas Lubitz – a man for whom flying had been everything since the age of seven – have nightmares about “going down”…unless he thought there was something wrong with the 320 series fbw system? And why – if his sole intent was the world’s most selfish suicide – would the radar track show he tried to level out towards the end of the dive? Far from trying to kill himself, was he trying to demonstrate something?

Without repeating myself too much, I think he meant to do what he did, but the why part remains a puzzle. The police, Luthansa and the Sovereign authorities have made strenuous efforts to be judge, jury and executioner in this case, laying the blame on depression and deceit by Andreas Lubitz. But they do seem somewhat vague when the questions get more probing. The greater likelihood is that the co-pilot coup de foudre verdict will emerge as the most likely: but the evidence is far from conclusive. Were I a young newshound on this one, I’d be asking whether Herr Lubitz had raised any doubt about the A320 fbw systems. On the outside possibility that he might have been a whistleblower, not a murderous suicide.

Knarf plays the Doomer Blues

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