On this day in 2015, the co-pilot of a German airliner deliberately flies the plane into the French Alps, killing himself and the other 149 people onboard. When it crashed, Germanwings flight 9525 had been traveling from Barcelona, Spain, to Dusseldorf, Germany.
The plane took off from Barcelona around 10 a.m. local time and reached its cruising altitude of 38,000 feet at 10:27 a.m. Shortly afterward, the captain, 34-year-old Patrick Sondenheimer, requested that the co-pilot, 27-year-old Andreas Lubitz, take over the controls while he left the cockpit, probably to use the bathroom. At 10:31 a.m. the plane began a rapid descent and 10 minutes later crashed in mountainous terrain near the town of Prads-Haute-Bleone in southern France. There were no survivors. Besides the two pilots, the doomed Airbus A320 was carrying four cabin crew members and 144 passengers from 18 different countries, including three Americans.
Following the crash, investigators determined once the captain had stepped out of the cockpit Lubitz locked the door and wouldn’t let him back in. Sondenheimer could be heard on the plane’s black box voice recorder frantically yelling at his co-pilot and trying to break down the cockpit door. (In the aftermath of 9/11, Lufthansa installed fortified cockpit doors; however, when the Germanwings flight crashed the airline wasn’t required to have two crew members in the cockpit at all times, as U.S. carriers do.) Additionally, the flight data recorder showed Lubitz seemed to have rehearsed his suicide mission during an earlier flight that same day, when he repeatedly set the plane’s altitude dial to just 100 feet while the captain was briefly out of the cockpit. (Because Lubitz quickly reset the controls, his actions went unnoticed during the flight.)
Crash investigators also learned Lubitz had a history of severe depression and in the days before the disaster had searched the Internet for ways to commit suicide as well as for information about cockpit-door security. In 2008, Lubitz, a German native who flew gliders as a teen, entered the pilot-training program for Lufthansa, which owns budget-airliner Germanwings. He took time off from the program in 2009 to undergo treatment for psychological problems but later was readmitted and obtained his commercial pilot’s license in 2012. He started working for Germanwings in 2013. Investigators turned up evidence that in the months leading up to the crash Lubitz had visited a series of doctors for an unknown condition. He reportedly had notes declaring him unfit to work but kept this information from Lufthansa.
Instances of pilots using planes to commit suicide are rare. According to The New York Times, a U.S. Federal Aviation Administration study found that out of 2,758 aviation accidents documented by the FAA from 2003 to 2012, only eight were ruled suicides.