The boss of the airline involved in the French Alps disaster said today he was “stunned” that the plane might have been deliberately crashed by its co-pilot. The dramatic revelation came as tearful tributes were being paid by the family of a Yorkshireman named among the 150 victims.
Lufthansa chief executive Carsten Spohr said the crash, which killed 150 people, including co-pilot Andreas Lubitz, was “beyond our worst nightmare”.
He was speaking in Cologne after French prosecutors released evidence from the recovered cockpit voice recorder of the plane operated by Lufthansa’s budget airline, Germanwings.
It showed that Mr Lubitz appeared to have sent the jet crashing into the mountains, killing everyone on board, including at least three Britons.
German Mr Lubitz put the plane into a descent after locking the captain out of the cockpit, Marseille prosecutor Brice Robin said.
Evidence from the black box flight recorder suggests he then refused to open the cockpit door to the captain, who can be heard pounding on the door in a desperate attempt to break in.
Mr Spohr said: “Not in our worst nightmare would we imagine this happening. This is by far the most terrible event for our company.”
He said Mr Lubitz was fit to fly and his previous performance has “without any criticism”.
The evidence appears to show that, although the locked-out captain punched the emergency number into the cockpit door to gain entry, the co-pilot inside then relocked the door.
Mr Spohr said that, irrespective of all the sophisticated safety devices, “you can never exclude such an individual event”, adding “no system in the world could manage to do that”.
He added: “We can only speculate what might have been the motivation of the co-pilot. In a company that prides itself on its safety record, this is a shock. We select cockpit personnel carefully.”
Earlier, in Marseille, Mr Robin said: “The most probable interpretation is that the co-pilot refused to open the cockpit door to the pilot and actioned the button which started the descent procedure.
“We can only deduce that it destroyed this plane.”
The recording also suggests the passengers were unaware of what was happening until the final moments, when their screams can be heard.
Mr Robin said the cockpit voice recorder gave information from the first 30 minutes of the flight.
For the first 20 minutes the two pilots talked in a normal fashion and were as courteous as two pilots would be.
He said the co-pilot’s responses, initially courteous, became “curt” when the captain began the mid-flight briefing on the planned landing.
The captain is then heard asking the co-pilot to take over and the sound of a chair being pushed back and a door being closed is heard.
Moments later the captain can be heard knocking on the door and asking to be let in but there is no answer from the co-pilot.
Asked about Mr Lubitz’s ethnicity, Mr Robin said: “He was a German national and I don’t know his ethnic background.
“He is not listed as a terrorist, if that is what you are insinuating.”
Pressed on the co-pilot’s religion, he said: “I don’t think this is where this lies. I don’t think we will get any answers there.”
He said German authorities were taking charge of the investigation of Mr Lubitz.
Mr Robin said black box recordings showed that Mr Lubitz “was breathing normally, it wasn’t the breathing of someone who was struggling”.
Speaking about whether the passengers realised what was happening, Mr Robin said: “I think the victims only realised at the last moment because on the recording we only hear the screams on the last moments of the recording.”
He added: “I believe that we owe the families the transparency of what the investigation is pointing to and what is going on, we owe it to them to tell them what happened.
“The families have been informed of everything I just told you.”
It was assumed that the captain had gone to the toilet, leaving the co-pilot in charge of the plane, the prosecutor said.
Mr Robin went on: “The co-pilot uses the flight monitoring system to start the descent of the plane. This can only be done voluntarily, not automatically.
“We hear several cries from the captain asking to get in. Through the intercom system he identifies himself - but there is no answer. He knocks on the door and asks for it to be opened - but there is no answer.”
Mr Robin said that after entry to the cockpit was denied, the sound of breathing from inside the cockpit was heard and this sound carried on until the moment of impact.
“The co-pilot was still alive at this point,” Mr Robin said.
He said there was no distress signal, no Mayday and no answer despite numerous calls to the plane from ground controllers.
The cockpit voice recorder also shows that there were alarm signals going off, indicating the proximity of the ground.
Noises of someone trying to break down the cockpit door are heard, then finally the sound of an impact. Mr Robin said the plane may have glided before the moment of impact.
Acquaintances in Mr Lubitz’s home town of Montabaur in western Germany said he was happy and had showed no signs of depression when they last saw him.
One described him as quiet but friendly.
Jim McAuslan, general secretary of British airline pilots’ association Balpa, said: “All pilots will be shocked at what has happened and will be thinking of the captain who was trying to gain access to the flight deck to save the passengers.
“When this detailed investigation is concluded and all the facts are available, pilots want airlines, safety regulators and manufacturers to work with us to ensure lessons are learned from this tragedy and steps are taken so that it does not happen again.”
Paul Bramley, from Hull, was one of at least three Britons to have died on the flight.
The 28-year-old was studying hotel management in Lucerne, Switzerland, and had been on holiday with friends in Barcelona. He was flying back to the UK via Germany to meet his family.
In Hull, Mr Bramley’s father Philip gave an emotional tribute to his son at his home in Hull yesterday.
“He was a lovely lad and he achieved many things in his life, and he is going to be greatly missed,” he said. “Our hearts go out to all the other families.
“I’d like to thank David Cameron and the Foreign Office, they couldn’t have done any more for us, and the French authorities. It must be a terrible job for all concerned.
“We just want to go through the process of grieving now. It’s too soon.”
Mr Bramley’s mother Carol lives in Majorca and is currently in the UK, having flown over to meet him. She said: “Paul was a kind, caring and loving son. He was the best son, he was my world.”
Those who perished on the doomed Airbus A320 also included seven-month-old Julian Pracz-Bandres, from Manchester, his Spanish mother Marina Bandres Lopez Belio, 37, and Martyn Matthews, a senior quality manager from Wolverhampton. Ms Bandres Lopez Belio had been visiting her family in Spain for her uncle’s funeral and had bought flight tickets at the last minute, while Mr Matthews, a father-of-two, worked for German automotive manufacturer Huf and is thought to have been travelling to a business meeting.
Through Foreign Office statements, both families said they were “devastated”.
Announcing that three Britons were among the dead, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said: “We cannot rule out the possibility that there are further British people involved.
“The level of information on the flight manifest doesn’t allow us to rule out that possibility until we’ve completed some further checks.”