7 May 2015

Co-pilot practised rapid descent - investigators

9:52 am on 7 May 2015

The co-pilot of the Germanwings plane that crashed in the French Alps in March appears to have practised a rapid descent on a previous flight, a report by French investigators says.

Andreas Lubitz in 2009

Andreas Lubitz - pictured in 2009 Photo: AFP

The report said Andreas Lubitz, 27, repeatedly set the same plane for an unauthorised descent earlier that day.

Lubitz is suspected of deliberately crashing the Airbus 320, killing all 150 people on board.

He had locked the flight captain out of the cockpit.

Lubitz appears to have practised programming a rapid descent on the outbound leg of the flight - from Duesseldorf to Barcelona on 24 March - the preliminary report by accident investigation agency BEA said.

It added that on several occasions - again with the captain out of the cockpit - the altitude dial was set to 100ft (30m), the lowest possible reading, despite instructions by air traffic control in Bordeaux to set it to 35,000ft and then 21,000ft.

It was also reset on one occasion to 49,000ft, the maximum altitude.

A handout picture made available by Thomas Koehler on 24 March 2015 shows wreckage and small debris lying on the mountainside after the crash of an Airbus A320.

Wreckage and small debris lying on the mountainside after the crash in the French Alps. Photo: AFP

The changes apparently happened over a five-minute period at about 7.30am starting 30 seconds after the captain left the cockpit.

"I can't speculate on what was happening inside his head - all I can say is that he changed this button to the minimum setting of 100ft and he did it several times," BEA director Remi Jouty told Reuters.

It was on the return leg on the same day - from Barcelona to Duesseldorf - that the fatal crash occurred.

Depression

The co-pilot is known to have suffered depression in the past. Last month, German prosecutors revealed that Lubitz had researched suicide methods and the security of cockpit doors.

Lufthansa, Germanwings' parent company, twice refused to renew his medical certificate in 2009 due to depression, the BEA's preliminary report says.

When it was revalidated, a note was attached requiring aeromedical doctors to contact the pilot licensing authority before renewal.

The BEA report also discloses more detail of what happened on board in the minutes before the crash.

The flight data recorder appears to show Lubitz increasing the aircraft's speed from 273 knots (505km/h) to 345 knots on its descent.

On 14 occasions, air traffic control and French air defence tried to contact the plane.

The cabin intercom, knocking on the cockpit door and then "noises similar to violent blows" are heard on the voice recorder as the captain tries to re-enter the cockpit.

BEA is expected to release its final report in a year, with the focus on "systemic failings" and cockpit security.

-BBC

Get the new RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs