France plane crash: Pilot locked out of cockpit could spell ‘sinister’ act

Updated 9:06 PM EDT, Thu March 26, 2015
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A stele and flowers laid in memory of the victims are placed in the area where the Germanwings jetliner crashed in the French Alps, in  Le Vernet, France, Friday, March 27, 2015. The crash of Germanwings Flight 9525 into an Alpine mountain, which killed all 150 people aboard, has raised questions about the mental state of the co-pilot. Authorities believe the 27-year-old German deliberately sought to destroy the Airbus A320 as it flew Tuesday from Barcelona to Duesseldorf. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)
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SEYNE, FRANCE - MARCH 25: (Alternate crop of #467495310) In this handout image supplied by the Ministere de l'Interieur (French Interior Ministry), search and rescue teams attend to the crash site of the Germanwings Airbus in the French Alps on March 25, 2015 near Seyne, France. Germanwings flight 4U9525 from Barcelona to Duesseldorf has crashed in Southern French Alps. All 150 passengers and crew are thought to have died. (Photo by F. Balsamo/Gendarmerie nationale/Ministere de l'Interieur via Getty Images)
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Story highlights

Report: One of the pilots was locked out of the cockpit and couldn't get in

The idea that the door was locked carries a "very sinister overtone," an aviation analyst says

It's possible the pilot in the cockpit had a medical emergency and was incapacitated

(CNN) —  

Why would a pilot get locked out of a cockpit, unable to get inside as a plane descended and crashed into the French Alps?

That’s the latest mystery stemming from the crash of Germanwings Flight 9525. Audio from the plane’s cockpit voice recorder reveals one of the pilots trying to smash down the cockpit door in the minutes before impact, The New York Times reported, citing an official involved in the investigation.

“If indeed all this is true, it sounds like he was deliberately locked out, and this is frightening,” CNN aviation analyst Les Abend said.

Another aviation expert said the news carries a “very sinister overtone.”

Geoffrey Thomas, editor-in-chief and managing director of airlineratings.com, said the cockpit door has three positions – locked, normal and unlocked. Locking the door prevents a pilot from using a keypad and emergency code to get in.

He said the odds of this happening accidentally while the other pilot becomes incapacitated and moves a control stick to a dive seems to be “beyond the realms of mathematical possibility.”

Nonetheless, a variety of theories remain on what may have caused the crash, which almost certainly killed all 150 people on board.

Medical emergency

It’s unclear which of two pilots may have left the cockpit, and why. Perhaps he needed to use the restroom. Perhaps he wanted a beverage. Perhaps he went to chat with passengers.

Regardless, when he tried to come back, the other pilot didn’t let him into the cockpit, the official told the Times.

Did the pilot in the cockpit suffer a medical emergency?

Why it’s possible: If the pilot in the cockpit slumped forward, he could have knocked over a control stick that would begin the plane’s gradual descent, CNN aviation correspondent Richard Quest said.

Why it might be unlikely: The pilot would have had to hit the control stick, called a sidestick, in a precise manner. “Many people have questioned that, and said that’s not likely because you’d have to knock it directly forward – not to the side,” Quest said.

Suicide mission

Then there’s speculation that one of the pilots wanted to crash the plane.

“It’s not unheard of that pilots occasionally do irrational things,” CNN aviation analyst Peter Goelz said.

Investigators “will check and see if they had any financial difficulties, any psychological challenges that had revealed themselves prior to the accident,” he said. “They’re going to look at every option.”

Why it’s possible: No one from the plane made a distress call, even though the plane dropped from 38,000 feet to 6,000 feet in eight minutes.

“If it’s a nefarious option, then it really is a case of whoever’s inside pushes it (the side stick) forward or turns the autopilot into a gradual descent and just sits back,” Quest said.

Why it might be unlikely: Earlier in the flight, the pilots were talking in a “very smooth, very cool” conversation, the official told The Times.

And authorities have given no indication that either of the pilots wanted to harm himself.

Terrorism or criminal act

Why it’s possible: While there’s no evidence that the crash was related to terrorism, authorities said they can’t discount the notion yet.

And not all of the details from the cockpit voice recorder have been released.

Why it might be unlikely: French government officials have said terrorism is not likely, and the White House said it didn’t see any connection to terrorism. And that can be telling.

Since 9/11, intelligence services have “worked hard to develop the communication systems around the world on terrorists, the chatter that’s picked up, and also to be very quick to share that among agencies so they can pick up anything,” said Mary Schiavo, former inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

“And so what that is telling us is they don’t have chatter from their intelligence sources that an attack was coming on that airline.”

CNN’s Laura Smith-Spark contributed to this report.