Crash investigation isn't finished.

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Are We Sure the Co-Pilot Was a Killer?

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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News reports on accusations that Andreas Lubitz, the Germanwings co-pilot, purposely brought down Flight 9525 over the French Alps have rushed to convict him. 

"Andreas Lubitz (27), the Amok Pilot," ran today's banner headline in Bild, Germany's most popular tabloid. "Killer in the Cockpit," screamed London's Daily Mail. But The Independent went it one better: "Mass Murder from the Cockpit." Other tabloids offered more in that vein: "madman," "jilted pilot," "why on earth was he allowed to fly?"

All because Marseilles prosecutor Brice Robin saw fit to announce that the co-pilot "wanted to destroy the aircraft." The evidence that led him to that conclusion came from the plane's cockpit audio recorder. The story it told, however, is a matter of interpretation. It seems clear that the captain went to the toilet, leaving the co-pilot alone in the cockpit. Then, Robin said, the co-pilot prevented his colleague from re-entering and sent the plane into a fast descent. The captain apparently banged on the door, but to no avail -- Lubitz remained silent; the recorder caught his even breathing over the banging and the screams.

This evidence is insufficient for the momentous conclusions Robin has drawn. This Airbus video, describing the procedures for opening and closing the reinforced cockpit door, leaves room for alternative interpretations of the Flight 9525 audio. The normal re-entry procedure involves talking to the pilot inside the cockpit on an internal phone, then pushing the hash button on a keypad, after which the pilot inside hears a tone and hits a switch to let in his colleague. If that doesn't happen, the person on the outside must enter a code and then has 30 seconds to open the door.

Consider the possibility that Lubitz lost consciousness while Captain Patrick Sondenheimer was out, but the captain and crew somehow had the wrong re-entry code.

Or imagine that Sondenheimer banged on the door instead of going through the required motions, as the purser does in the Airbus video. The procedure in that case calls for the pilot inside the cockpit to hit the switch to lock the door. If that's what happened, might Lubitz have panicked, thinking there was a hijacking attempt, and tried to land the plane?

All these versions sound implausible, of course, but so does the suggestion that Lubitz intentionally killed 150 people he did not know because he was depressed or had problems with his girlfriend. At the Robin news conference, a reporter even asked about the co-pilot's religion. Robin immediately got the hint, saying, "He's not listed as a terrorist, if that's what you're implying."

The truth is, there's no way to build a coherent theory of what happened on Flight 9525 without technical information from the flight data recorder. When -- or if -- it is recovered, we can find out how the plane came to change altitude. As Vanity Fair correspondent William Langewiesche, himself a pilot who has covered plane crash investigations, said off the prosecutor's allegations,

That’s a little premature. The professional investigators, at this stage, are not unaware of these things and the possibility of these things, but they’re not just going to be pursuing that. They’re going to look at the full range of options. How were the systems operating? As far as I know, the data recorder has not been found, and may not have survived the accident. 

That's also what Vereinigung Cockpit, the German pilots' union, says:

The reason for this descent as well as the answer to the question why the First Officer did not react later on, remain unknown at this time. The question why the Captain was unable to return to the flight deck remains unanswered as well. To answer all these questions, it is vital to quickly locate and carefully examine the flight data recorder. 

The pilots union could simply be in denial, of course, and, yes, it's possible that Lubitz did bring down the plane intentionally, as the co-pilot of EgyptAir Flight 990 probably did in 1999. Until that is established with a higher degree of certainty, however, the hail of harsh accusations is unwarranted.

It hurts Lubitz's family, it inflicts stress on people who knew him as a normal young man, and it doesn't make things easier for the crash victims' families. Anger doesn't mix well with grief. In 2004, a Russian man, Vitaly Kaloev, traveled to Switzerland to stab an air traffic controller accused of bringing about a plane crash that killed the man's family. He went to jail unrepentant.

Apart from everything else, the relentless news media coverage following Robin's premature conclusions stigmatizes people who suffer from depression, as tabloids report Lubitz did at some point. 

Just one day after urging restraint until the investigators finish their work, German Chancellor Angela Merkel should not have come out and called what happened "a crime against all the victims and families involved." Investigating airline crashes is not a business that lends itself to rash conclusions. With so much still unknown, there's nothing that I, for one, want to know at this point about the private life of the late Andreas Lubitz. Why Flight 9525 lost altitude over those mountains is far more relevant.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Mary Duenwald at mduenwald@bloomberg.net