In Wake of Germanwings Crash: Here's How the Cockpit Door on Airbus Locks

‘The front door, near the cockpit, is a locked door that can be opened only if the pilots in the cockpit wish to do so,’ says former El Al pilot.

Reuters

After a German co-pilot locked himself alone in the cockpit of Germanwings flight 9525 and set it on course to crash into an Alpine mountain, killing all 150 people on board, experts are trying to explain how such a scenario would be possible.

On all major commercial flights, there is a door separating the cockpit and the airplane cabin, but in recent years, particularly since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, security arrangements have been tightened to prevent hijackers from entering the cockpit.

Various operation systems and technical features were added to control admittance to the cockpit and stricter procedures instituted regarding communication between the pilots and the cabin crew.

An Airbus video describes the security features on the cockpit door of the Airbus 320, the model of the Germanwings plane that crashed in the Alps. The video shows that the door can be placed in three different settings. Most of the time, it is set to “normal” status.

Anyone who needs to enter the cockpit must first enter a code on a pad outside the cockpit, after which the pilots can open the door. Usually the cabin crew would first call the pilots to advise them that they wish to enter the cockpit. If someone was to knock on the cockpit door without following procedure, the pilots have the option of switching the door to “locked” position.

At that point, no one can enter the cockpit, even using the secret entry code. Entry to the cockpit would be possible only after pilots return the door to the “normal” position. At that point, if there is concern over the well-being of the pilots in the cockpit, airline flight crew or security personnel can enter the cockpit after entering a code and waiting 30 seconds. The cockpit door features four locks and a peephole. The cockpit also has a small escape hatch that can only be opened from inside.

Former El Al Israel Airlines pilot Eran Ramot, who now is in charge of aviation research at the Fisher Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies in Herzliya, told Haaretz: “As international law requires, doors separating the airplane cabin and the cockpit cannot allow admittance by people who the pilots don’t know. There is at least one door. The front door, near the cockpit, is a locked door that can be opened only if the pilots in the cockpit wish to do so.”

Although the door is locked and can be opened only from inside, there are authorized people on the flight who can open it from the outside using a complicated procedure. “We don’t know the circumstances of this week’s crash, and it’s not clear why the pilot didn’t manage to get in, whether the pilot inside didn’t open it for him or whether the door was locked and could not be opened due to a technical problem,” Ramot said Thursday morning.

German and French officials were quick to rule out terrorism as the cause of the crash. Ramot urged caution on the matter.

"I don’t think there are sufficient means to decide that this was not an act of terror,” Ramot stated, but noted a number of things could have happened to the pilot.  

"It’s possible that he had a heart attack and was totally incapacitated. It could be that gas entered the cockpit and poisoned him. It’s possible that he was dealing with a technical problem and was very busy. In any event, it involves a strange set of circumstances with one of the pilots locked out, not being allow in [by the pilot in the cockpit] for reasons that are not clear, and ultimately the plane gradually descends toward the ground. In addition, no emergency was declared [by the pilots]. It’s possible that the plane was totally on automatic pilot.”

And Ramot added this personal note: “In my time as a pilot, I would leave the door open, purely for safety reasons, for a very short time. I would prefer that the door stayed open so the copilot could get in on his way back after a short break.”