The story behind the horrific crash of the Lufthansa’s Germanwings airbus that claimed the lives of 150 people onboard could take some more time to unravel.
French investigators cracked open a mangled black box and extracted audio from its cockpit voice recorder on Wednesday, but got no answer for why the German plane dropped unexpectedly and smashed into a rugged Alpine mountain.
The orange cockpit voice recorder -- dented, twisted and scarred by the impact -- is considered key to knowing why the pilots of Germanwings Flight 9525 lost radio contact with air traffic controllers over the French Alps and then crashed during a routine flight from Barcelona to Duesseldorf.
At the crash site, a senior official working on the investigation told New York Times that workers found the casing of the plane’s other black box, the flight data recorder, but the memory card containing data on the plane’s altitude, speed, location and condition was not inside, apparently having been thrown loose or destroyed by the impact.
Remi Jouty, the director of the French aviation investigative agency, said there were sounds and voices on the cockpit voice recorder but that it was too early to draw any conclusions.
The voice recorder takes audio feeds from four microphones within the cockpit and records all the conversations between the pilots and air traffic controllers as well as any noises in the cockpit.
The critical question now is were the pilots speaking during those lost eight minutes when the aircraft dropped from 38,000ft to the ground?
If they were quiet, investigators will know they were unconscious, and that suggests a major decompression took place on board.
That's when a hole in the fuselage lets all the air out. It's not necessarily fatal, if the pilots can get their oxygen masks on in time, something they train for, but if they were knocked out, it would explain the lack of a mayday call or any obvious attempt to steer the stricken aircraft to the nearest runway.
It often takes months or even years to determine the causes of plane crashes.
Thomas Winkelmann, chief executive of Germanwings, told a press conference: “At 10.35am local time the plane had reached 38,000 feet, but after 10 minutes it was in downfall and was losing altitude. That lasted eight minutes. The contact with the aircraft with French radar was lost at 10.53am at which point the plane was around 6,000ft. The plane then crashed.”
Afterwards, there was conflicting information over the timings. The flight tracking website FlightRadar24 claimed the plane started dropping at 10.31am, fell 31,000ft in nine minutes and vanished off the radar at 10.40am.
Aviation experts questioned Winkelmann’s suggestion the plane had stalled, saying that, while its descent was rapid, the crew appeared to have some control until shortly before the crash.
The loss of the Germanwings flight from Barcelona to Düsseldorf is shaping up to be particularly perplexing to investigators.