The plane, an Airbus A320 operated by the budget carrier Germanwings, was en route to Düsseldorf, Germany, from Barcelona, Spain, on Tuesday morning when it lost altitude rapidly and slammed into the French Alps, killing all 144 passengers and six crew members on board.
Footage of the site showed a remote and craggy landscape dominated by imposing mountains. The French newspaper Le Monde noted that the impact of the crash was so severe that the plane had been reduced to “confetti,” creating a serious challenge for search teams and investigators.
- What We Know
- The pilots did not issue a distress call or initiate any communication with air traffic controllers as the plane began its eight-minute descent.
- Investigators have so far been unable to retrieve data from one black box, and the other was badly damaged and its memory card was missing.
- The aircraft, an Airbus A320, was 24 years old but had no history of serious maintenance problems.
What We Don’t Know
- Whether the plane was flying on autopilot or under the manual control of crew members.
- Why the plane descended after reaching its cruising altitude.
- Whether the plane suffered any kind of technical failure.
Lufthansa, the parent company of Germanwings, has characterized the crash as an accident. But as investigators reviewed one of the plane’s so-called black boxes, questions remained, including why the aircraft had descended for eight minutes before crashing, and why an aircraft with a good safety record had crashed in largely clear weather.
Speaking on the French radio station RTL, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said on Wednesday that terrorism was “not a privileged hypothesis at the moment,” but that no theories had been definitively excluded. Mr. Cazeneuve said the size of the area over which debris was scattered suggested that the aircraft had not exploded in the air but rather had disintegrated on impact.
He said that the plane’s cockpit voice recorder, the first black box that was recovered, was damaged, but that investigators expected to be able to recover the conversations stored on its memory chip.
The official said that workers on the scene had found the casing of the second black box, the flight data recorder, which investigators had hoped would provide significant information about the flight, including its speed, altitude and direction. But he said that the crash had severely damaged the box, and that the vital memory chip inside it had been dislodged.
One of the main questions outstanding is why the pilots did not communicate with air traffic controllers as the plane began its unusual descent, suggesting that either the pilots or the plane’s automated systems may have been trying to maintain control of the aircraft as it lost altitude.
Among the theories that have been put forward by air safety analysts not involved in the investigation is the possibility that the pilots could have been incapacitated by a sudden event such as a fire or a drop in cabin pressure.
The senior French official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigation was continuing, said that the lack of communication from the pilots during the plane’s descent was disturbing, and that the possibility that their silence was deliberate could not be ruled out.
France’s air accident investigation bureau was expected to hold a briefing at its offices in Le Bourget, near Paris, on Wednesday afternoon. The agency, which is leading the technical inquiry into the crash, sent seven investigators to the crash site on Tuesday. They have been joined by their counterparts from Germany, as well as by technical advisers from Airbus and CFM International, the manufacturer of the plane’s engines.
“Nonetheless,” he added, “just having these recordings is not going to be sufficient” to make any definitive conclusions about the cause of the crash — a process that could take weeks, if not months.
Mr. Troadec said the voice recordings would need to be synchronized with the contents of the second black box, the flight data recorder, which tracks roughly 1,300 statistics, including the plane’s position, speed, altitude and direction. Locating that recorder had remained a priority for search teams.
“We need to ensure that all the evidence is well preserved,” Mr. Troadec said, referring both to the pieces of the plane littered across the steep slopes as well as to the remains of the victims. The identification of the victims will most likely require matching DNA from the remains with samples from relatives.
The recovery effort will be a laborious task, given the state of the wreckage, the difficult terrain and the fact that the crash site is so remote that it could be reached only by helicopter.
Éric Sapet, a member of a mountain firefighters’ unit who had been at the crash site, was quoted by Le Monde as saying that the plane had been “pulverized” and that it was no longer possible to even tell that the scattered debris had once been an aircraft.
President François Hollande of France and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany arrived on Wednesday afternoon by air force helicopter in Seyne-les-Alpes, a village near the crash site, to pay their respects and meet rescue workers and other officials. They were joined by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of Spain.
Martin Riecken, a spokesman for Lufthansa in Frankfurt, said late Tuesday that a small number of pilots and flight attendants had given notice that they would not fly on Wednesday.
There are now three "mysterious" airliner crashes within the last year. This is highly unusual. “Our employees are very distressed,” he said, adding that Lufthansa crew members would be brought in to replace Germanwings employees as necessary. “People are in a state of shock.”
While there were many questions about the crash, investigators said they found the silence from the cockpit deeply disturbing.
This official said that the lack of communication suggested that the pilots might have been incapacitated as a result of an onboard failure such as a loss of cabin pressure, which could have deprived the crew members of oxygen.
While all pilots are equipped with emergency oxygen masks, the pilots would first have to be aware that a depressurization had occurred, the official said.
“If for any reason they don’t detect the problem in time, they would black out,” the official said.
Such a scenario has occurred before, perhaps most famously in the crash of a Cypriot passenger plane in 2005 that killed all 121 people on board as it approached Athens. In that case, Helios Airways Flight 522, a slow loss of pressure rendered both pilots and all the passengers on the Boeing 737 jet unconscious for more than three-quarters of an hour before the aircraft ran out of fuel and slammed into a wooded gorge near the Greek capital.
Investigators eventually determined that the primary cause of that crash was a series of human errors, including deficient maintenance checks on the ground and a failure by the pilots to heed emergency warning signals.
Apart from pilot incapacitation, the French official also raised the uncomfortable possibility that the lack of communication could have been intentional.
“So far, we don’t have any evidence that points clearly to a technical explanation,” the official said. “So we have to consider the possibility of deliberate human responsibility.”
If that were the case, this person said, then the cockpit voice recordings might not yield many useful clues.
“I hope that we get some good information,” the official said. “But my fear is that we are going to find nothing, or very little. That there was nothing to record.”