As reports emerge that co-pilot Andreas Lubitz deliberately crashed the Germanwings flight from Barcelona to Dusseldorf, attention has shifted away from the flight’s more experienced captain. Details are now emerging regarding the man who shared the A320 controls with Lubitz, and who left the cockpit shortly before the crash. Widely referred to as “Patrick S,” the Independent now reports that the flight captain was Patrick Sondenheimer, a husband and father of two.
Audio recovered from one of the plane’s Black Boxes has revealed that co-pilot Lubitz remained in the cockpit while Sondenheimer left — apparently to go to the bathroom. Prosecutor Brice Robin, who is in charge of the investigation, said, “It is when he is alone that the co-pilot manipulates the flight monitoring system to activate the descent of the plane.” Earlier today, The New York Times reported that “the identity of the captain and why he had left the cockpit” were unclear. Now, those details, and the legitimacy of the captain’s actions, are coming to light.
Sondenheimer, according to the Independent, was an experienced pilot — having completed over 6,000 flying hours on the A320 aircraft model. He had flown with Lufthansa for ten years, German sources said, moving to Germanwings in 2014. He had also previously flown for Condor. A colleague, identified as “Dieter” told europe1 that Sondenheimer “was someone very reliable, he was one of the best pilots we had.”
Captain Sondenheimer left the cockpit to go to the toilet, the Independent reports. Carsten Spohr, chief executive of Lufthansa (the parent company of Germanwings), said, “He waited for the aircraft to reach a certain flight level.” According to Spohr, the airline allows pilots to take bathroom breaks, typically at times of low stress; Sondenheimer was following standard protocol with his decision to step out of the cockpit.
On his return, Sondenheimer found the cockpit door locked. At that stage, according to an analysis of the audio published in the Times, he knocked on the door several times. Lubitz ignored him and remained silent, breathing audibly, as the plane descended.
During a news conference called by Germanwings and Lufthansa, Times representative asked whether the captain did anything wrong by leaving the cockpit. Spohr confirmed that Sondenheimer had not done anything wrong.
Spohr said that unlike in the U.S. code, no flight attendant was required to be in the control cabin if one of the pilots leaves it — moreover, he was unaware of any competitor airline that implements such a rule. He referred to this one-off event as an “enigma.”
It's clear that Sondenheimer made a valiant effort to gain entry into the locked cabin, having no doubt figured out something was amiss. Spohr said the captain punched in the emergency code to open the door, but at that time Lubitz deployed the five-minute over-ride. Having failed to open the door, Sondenheimer kept trying to avert disaster. A senior French military official involved in the investigation told the Times that on the Black Box audio, “You can hear he is trying to smash the door down.”
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