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Prosecutor: Co-Pilot Deliberately Crashed Plane; Airline CEO: Pilot Showed No Sign of Being Unstable; Third American Crash Victim Identified; Saudis Lead Massive Strikes on Yemen Rebels. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired March 26, 2015 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, deliberate crash. Tonight the unthinkable explanation for the air disaster in the Alps. A prosecutor says the co-pilot locked the pilot out of the cockpit and purposefully flew the airliner into a mountain. We have new details on the investigation and why that co-pilot was training in the United States.

Locked out. You'll learn how and why the co-pilot was able to keep everyone else out of the cockpit. Is your airline changing its policy on cabin security?

And decisive storm. After one U.S. ally is toppled by rebels, another major ally launching a sudden and massive airstrike. Is a ground offensive next? I'll speak live this hour with the Saudi ambassador to the United States.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Our breaking news, a cruel and stunning new twist to a horrific catastrophe. The airliner crash that killed 150 people in the French Alps is now being called deliberate. The French prosecutor says the co-pilot wanted to destroy the aircraft.

Based on chilling cockpit audio, officials now say the co-pilot locked the captain out and, ignoring the pounding at the door and the screaming that was going on, put the plane into a descent that took it into a mountainside.

The FBI has been called into the crash investigation, and a U.S. official says intelligence agencies are still looking for a possible -- repeat, possible -- terror link.

Our correspondents, analysts and guests are all standing by with the latest developments. But let's begin with our senior international correspondent, Nic Robertson. He's near the crash scene and has the latest -- Nic.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, this was a day where the families -- family members of the victims of that crash got a chance to get close to that site. They couldn't get all the way there. The German authorities from Lufthansa organized flights to bring them to France. The French authorities organized a memorial service in a field. This field just a couple of Miles from the crash site itself.


ROBERTSON (voice-over): An emotional day for more than 100 family members who made the journey to southern France so they could spend time near the place where their loved ones perished. The grieving relatives arrived at the site just hours after French investigators described in chilling detail the final moments of Germanwings Flight 9525.

Marseille prosecutor Bryce Robin says it seems co-pilot Andreas Lubitz wanted to destroy the aircraft, but it's unclear why. The audio from the aircraft's mangled cockpit voice recorder reveals the 28-year-old German co-pilot was alone at the controls when the Airbus 320 crashed, killing all 150 people on board.

CARSTEN SPOHR, LUFTHANSA CEO (through translator): We from Lufthansa are speechless that the aircraft was deliberately crashed by the co- pilot.

ROBERTSON: The recording reveals the co-pilot didn't let the captain back in the cockpit after he stepped out, presumably to use the restroom after the plane had reached cruising altitude. Once alone, Lubitz activated the steady descent of the plane, and he didn't respond to multiple efforts by air-traffic controllers to reach him.

BRYCE ROBIN, MARSEILLE PROSECUTOR (through translator): He used a button to lose altitude for reasons totally unknown, but they could be interpreted as a deliberate attempt to destroy the aircraft.

ROBERTSON: The pilot can be heard knocking and eventually banging on the door, but it remained locked from the inside. From the audio, investigators say Lubitz's breathing was steady until the plane crashed into the mountains. And there was no indication he was experiencing a medical emergency. But he didn't utter a word.

Officials say there was no way for the flight crew to activate any sort of distress signal from outside of the cockpit. The prosecutor says he believes the passengers were apparently unaware of what was happening until the final moments, when screams could be heard on the recording.

At this time, Marseille's prosecutor says he doesn't believe the motive was terrorism-related.


ROBERTSON: The families have also went to a church service today in the village behind me. This also, the hope of the French authorities, to help give them some solace but still such a long way from closure. So near to their loved ones but so many questions unanswered.

Those questions remain in the mountains, principally that data recorder that could help investigators solve more of the questions about why this happened, precisely what took place. But for the family members who have also learned from the prosecutor today they won't be very likely to be releasing any of those bodies that are beginning to be removed from the mountainside, unlikely to release them for a number of days, possibly several weeks. A lot of DNA testing to be done, Wolf.

[17:05:13] BLITZER: Very gruesome work, indeed. All right. Thanks very much. Nic Robertson on the scene for us.

In a CNN exclusive, the CEO of Lufthansa now says the co-pilot passed all his medical tests and gave no indication that he was unstable. He spoke with our senior international correspondent, Fred Pleitgen, who's joining us now live from Germany in Cologne.

Now what else did he say, Fred?

FRED PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the big question that I posed to him is whether or not those medical checks were then adequate and also the psychological checks. And he said that he believes that the Lufthansa policy is up to standard, but he also acknowledges that, in this case, this man apparently went through all the cracks, and he believes that there was no way to prevent all of this.

Let's have a listen in to some of the other things that Carsten Spohr told me today.


SPOHR: To tell you the truth, we have no explanation at this point. We at Lufthansa have been for decades so proud of selecting the best people to become pilots, training them in the best way, having them qualified in the best way. That something of this kind would ever happen to us is incomprehensible, and I think we just need to understand this is a single case which every safety system in the world cannot completely rule out. I think that's what we take as an explanation if you want to call it that.

PLEITGEN: We've been talking about there might have been a medical emergency. There might have been some other event that could have caused the pilot to become incapacitated. You believe that the co- pilot deliberately steered the plane into the mountain?

SPOHR: We do have a safety procedure in place in case the remaining pilot gets unconsciousness. There is a way to open the door from the outside, unless the person on the inside blocks it, and this apparently has happened here.

PLEITGEN: So he blocked it from the inside, as the pilot, the captain was trying to get back in.

SPOHR: From what we know, he didn't allow access to the cockpit. That's exactly what the French authorities have so far informed us about.

PLEITGEN: What did the captain try to do to get back in? Is there a possibility to knock a door down at this stage of the game?

SPOHR: After the terrible 9/11 accidents, we have put in Lufthansa like most other airlines, doors into our cockpits which are not to be broken by manual force. They're not able to be opened with small weapons. So there was no way to get back to the cockpit for the captain in this case when the co-pilot was not allowing that access.

PLEITGEN: In the United States, for instance, if one of the crew members leaves the cockpit, there always has to be someone who goes in, a flight attendant or something. Why was the co-pilot allowed to be in the cockpit alone?

SPOHR: Also in the United States, I understand that's only true for very few airlines. Most airlines around the world follow the same procedures as Lufthansa. That in flight phases with low workload, the pilot can leave the cockpit, especially for physical need, and then he returns to the cockpit as fast as he can. That's a global most accepted procedure, which we have used at Lufthansa for many, many years.


PLEITGEN: However, one of the things that Lufthansa did say was that they were going to look at those procedures, were going to see if those procedures are still adequate or whether or not they would adopt the ones that are apparently prevalent in the United States, where at least two people need to be in the cockpit at all times.

So that if one of the pilots decides that he has to go to the bathroom or go out for some other reason, a flight attendant would at least have to be in there to make sure that no one is ever in that sensitive part of the airplane alone, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Fred, thank you. Fred Pleitgen in Cologne, Germany.

Three America were killed in that crash, and the third has now been identified as Robert Oliver Calvo, a U.S. national living in Barcelona. The FBI has now been asked to assist in this investigation. And we're learning that investigators are moving boxes from the co-pilot's apartment. They're looking for clues to his motivation.

Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr. She's working her sources. What are you hearing, Barbara?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, for the U.S. intelligence and law enforcement community right now, it is all about trying to assist in what the motivation was behind this incident.

Right now, U.S. officials tell me there is still no direct link to terrorism that they have been able to find. But I have to tell you, one official telling me every intelligence agency and law enforcement agency around the world looking at this. This incident has shocked them, and they are looking at everything they can. On the part of the U.S., there are basically three threads that they

are looking at. It goes back; it starts with the manifest. All of the crew, all of the passengers, focusing on that co-pilot, everything they could learn about him: was he truly suffering from depression, looking even at his social media, what his contacts may have been on social media. And we do see boxes of evidence being removed from his home in Germany earlier today. That's one thread.

The next thread, the current threat stream against western aviation. There have been years now of threats against western aviation, most of them non-specific, most of them pretty general. But that is a constant worry.

[17:10:15] So again, U.S. intelligence, law enforcement going back through that thread to see if there is any information that they can derive from that. And again, looking at the recorders, still right now no nexus to terrorism, but this remains an active investigation -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It certainly does. All right, Barbara, thank you.

Joining us now, our CNN aviation analyst, the former NTSB managing director Peter Goelz; our law enforcement analyst, Tom Fuentes, a former FBI assistant director; the aviation journalist Clive Irving -- he's a contributor to "The Daily Beast"; and via Skype, our aviation analyst, Miles O'Brien.

Tom, you were on the scene and you are former FBI assistant director, you go to this co-pilot's house. You're looking for stuff, trying to determine is it possible there could be a nexus towards terrorism, something else? What are you looking for?

TOM FUENTES, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Wolf, they're going to try to take everything that would indicate what he might have been thinking, what he believed in, who his friends are, who his contacts are, his computer, social media postings, e-mails, phone calls, phone records, interview anybody that's known him or had association with him that could describe what his thought patterns were. They're going to try to get inside his head and, as Miles O'Brien has said so many times, there's no black boxes inside their heads.

BLITZER: Yes. No black boxes there. Let's go to Miles.

Miles, once alone in that cockpit, the pilot had gone out of the cockpit. The door is locked. The co-pilot, then flying, cruising at 38,000 feet, activated that steady descent. And it went down over the course of eight minutes or so. Explain why you think he was doing that, this co-pilot.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: It doesn't fit the pattern, Wolf. If you look at previous known suicide, successful suicides involving airliners. And sadly, this has happened before.

I'm thinking right now, of course, of the Egypt Air crash comes right to the tip of my tongue coming out of New York about 15 years ago. And in that case, also, the captain left the flight deck, and the first officer pushed forward quickly on the wheel. And they went into a very rapid descent. So, you know, this eight- or ten-minute gradual descent is odd, to say the least. But again, how can we -- how can we figure out what's going inside that mind?

BLITZER: You can't figure it out. A little bit late now.

But Peter Goelz, you investigated the Egypt Air crash when you were in the NTSB. If you get -- right now they have the cockpit voice recorder. That's what they're hearing the audio. They don't have this yet, though, the flight data recorder. If they get that, would that be able to provide more information on what may have happened, actually, as far as the motivation of this co-pilot to deliberately take that plane into that French Alps?

PETER GOELZ, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: It would, Wolf. It would tell the investigators exactly what steps the co-pilot took to put the plane into a descent, and it might give an indication of precisely when he started to engage in this act of mass murder and suicide.

BLITZER: Clive Irving, is it time to rethink the cockpit doors? Because after 9/11, we all know they were -- they were intensified, given what happened on 9/11 with the hijackers actually stormed into the cockpits, killed the pilots and then took those planes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania, as well. Is it time to rethink that?

CLIVE IRVING, CONTRIBUTOR, "DAILY BEAST": Of course, it does seem like that. The last thing we thought we would have to defend against, among all the other threats to aviation, the last thing we thought we'd have to defend against would be the pilots. That's the surprising thing in this situation.

But I'd like to refer to what Miles was saying about why did he choose that particular mode of descent. I've been wondering whether this wasn't premeditated, because he would have known that he couldn't put the plane in a dive because the Airbus has sort of flight envelope protection system, the flight management system, the computers which prevent him from -- it's there to prevent pilots from overcorrecting and taking extreme control actions to keep the plane within, as it were, the safety envelope.

He would have known that the only way he could have done that would have been to have disconnected the flight management system and flown the plane manually, which would have taken time. That's one point about was it premeditated.

The other thing which I think a lot of people are asking was how could he have known that the pilot would have left to go to the toilet, at what point. Obviously, he didn't know. He probably knew the pilot was in the habit of doing that, but he wouldn't have known when he did it. And it seems to me that it's entirely an unfortunate coincidence that this happened over the mountains.

Nonetheless, had this happened over normal terrain, he could have still flown the plane into the normal terrain, the ground. Just so happens that the pilot left at a moment when the flight plan led straight over the Alps and straight into that particular mountain, which has made it much harder, of course, to retrieve the stuff.

[17:15:11] So I think one important part of understanding what this pilot was doing would be to know was this a premeditated plan because it doesn't seem it could have been spontaneous like a sudden burst of madness. There must have been some disorder in this man's mind which led to this terrible point. And we need to know that.

BLITZER: We certainly do. And maybe we'll get some more clues. This investigation clearly intensifying. I want all of you to stand by.

Up next, how is that co-pilot able to lock the airliner's captain out of the cockpit? We're going to show you how a security measure this time had disastrous consequences.

After rebels topple a key U.S. ally, another major ally is leading a coalition in a massive air assault. Is Saudi Arabia ready to take on Iran? I'll ask the Saudi ambassador to the United States.


[17:20:23] BLITZER: We're following breaking news today, the shocking announcement that the co-pilot of the Germanwings airliner locked the captain out of the cockpit and deliberately crashed the plane into that mountainside.

Our aviation correspondent, Rene Marsh, has some new and very disturbing information just coming in from the investigation. Rene, what are you learning?

RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, I just got off the phone with flight tracking website Flight Radar 24. They tell me they spent the last two days analyzing all of the data from Flight -- Flight 9525.

In looking at all of the data which was streaming from its transponder, they tell me that they've been able to determine that someone manually programmed the autopilot from 38,000 feet -- that was the altitude -- to 100 feet. As you know, Wolf, if you're approaching the French Alps, if you've programmed it to 100 feet, there's only one scenario of how that could end up.

But again, based on the data analysis from Flight Radar 24 -- again, they said they spent 48 hours looking at this -- they were able to determine that within just two seconds, once the plane was at cruising altitude, someone manually changed the autopilot to reduce the altitude to 100 feet, Wolf.

BLITZER: That's pretty disturbing.

I want Miles O'Brien to give us his analysis. Miles, you heard what Rene is reporting. What's your analysis of that?

O'BRIEN: It certainly fits as one more piece in the puzzle that we're trying to decipher here, Wolf. And it just brings out a point I've been talking about for years now. We -- when a plane goes non-responsive for eight to ten minutes, it's

perfectly technically and financially possible for it to be equipped with the ability to stream out data, including a camera in the cockpit. We need to understand what is happening in real time. We've been through a lot of aviation disasters this year. And the airlines are resistant to it. Regulators need to step in here.

BLITZER: They certainly do. Cameras should be streaming video live back to ground control so that they have it if necessary.

All right. Miles, stand by.

Want to bring back Peter Goelz. He's the former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board. This is the cockpit. This is the cockpit of this plane. Walk us through, for example, how a pilot or a co-pilot, in this particular case, would actually go ahead and lock that door and prevent anyone from coming back in.

GOELZ: Sure, Wolf. Let's take a look at the door lock system. Here it is.

It has three positions, normal, unlock and lock. In the unlocked position, the door is open, and it can be accessed. It would be in the unlocked position, you know, at the gate prior to taxi way. The normal position, the door is locked. It can only be accessed from the outside by the numeric keypad which the flight cabin crew has the code. They can enter the cockpit if allowed by the cabin crew inside.

BLITZER: Now what happens if the pilot or co-pilot, in this case, puts it on lock, as opposed to normal or unlock?

GOELZ: Once it's in lock, you are banned from entering the cockpit for a full five minutes. No one can enter the cockpit, unless the pilot allows you to and moves -- removes the lock position. But the cockpit is impregnable.

BLITZER: What happens after five minutes?

GOELZ: Then there's a 30-second period. You have a buzzer activated that announces that the locking mechanism is going to be released, and you have a five-second moment when the door can be unlocked.

But the pilot inside the cockpit can defeat that. He can simply relock the mechanism, and there's another period of five minutes where you cannot enter the cockpit.

BLITZER: So basically, if the -- in this particular case, if the pilot had gone out -- let's say he went to the men's room -- and he wanted to get back in. The door was locked. Even if he's waiting that five minutes and then there's that 30 second -- if he starts pushing the right number, the right button, the co-pilot inside can still prevent him from going inside?

GOELZ: He can relock the mechanism, and the door remains unpassable. And we'll hear that on the voice recorder. That there will be a distinctive click as he resets the lock. BLITZER: All of this created in the aftermath of 9/11.

GOELZ: It was all done after extensive study after 9/11. This, they felt, was the safest way. One of the things they wanted to do was protect flight cabin crew members, the flight attendants. They're the last line of defense, and they didn't want to put them in a position where they could be held hostage or tortured to get access to the cockpit.

So they wanted to make sure that, you know, the men and women who serve as flight attendants were not targets.

[17:25:11] BLITZER: Stand by, Peter, because we've got a lot more to discuss. We have much more on the crash investigation. The CEO tells CNN the co-pilot was 100 percent fit to fly but didn't have to pass an ongoing psychological tests. What about pilots for U.S. airline companies? We have new information. Stand by.

Up next, we have more breaking news. Two U.S. allies in the war on terror, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, now at war. There's new developments. The Saudi ambassador to the United States, he's here. We will discuss what's going on right after this.


[17:30:08] BLITZER: Much more coming up on our top story, the stunning revelation that the catastrophic plane crash in the French Alps was a deliberate act by the co-pilot. Stand by. We have more on the breaking news.

But there's other news we're following. Huge news, just days after the last U.S. troops were evacuated from Yemen, Saudi Arabia and half a dozen other allies have launched massive air strikes on rebels there. Both the Saudis and Egypt are threatening to send in ground forces right now as well.

First on CNN, I'll speak with the Saudi ambassador to the United States. He is here. Adel al-Jubair. He announced the air strikes. But let's begin with some background.

Our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr is standing by.

What are you learning, Barbara?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, tonight, Wolf, the question is, has the U.S. military stepped into a new sectarian war in the Middle East.


STARR (voice-over): In Yemen's capital, devastating air strikes from Saudi Arabia. A new offensive to drive out Iranian-backed rebels who seized control of the capital and key military sites. Officials say the Saudi campaign was quickly planned, catching top U.S. military commanders off guard.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: General, when were you told by the Saudis that they were going to take military action in Yemen?

GEN. LLOYD AUSTIN, COMMANDER, U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND: Sir, I had a conversation with Chad right before they took action so it was shortly before.

MCCAIN: Right before they took action?

AUSTIN: Yes, sir.

MCCAIN: That's very interesting.

STARR: The White House has already committed significant assistance. The U.S. military is helping the Saudis plan bombing missions over Yemen, providing targeting intelligence from satellites overhead and making AWAC surveillance planes and aerial refueling aircraft available as well. The general says he doesn't know if it will all work.

AUSTIN: I don't currently know the specific goals and objectives of the Saudi campaign and I'd have to know that to be able to assess the likelihood of success.

STARR: The U.S. military involvement as sensitive as it gets. Saudi Arabia is backing beleaguered Yemeni President Hadi who has fled his country. The rebels are backed by Iran. The U.S. worries terror groups will exploit the chaos.

SETH JONES, RAND CORPORATION: There's a lot at stake here particularly with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and ISIS both active in Yemen but let's face the facts. The U.S. is involved now in a proxy war between the Saudis and the Iranians.

STARR: Iran condemning the intervention.

MOHAMMED JAVAD ZARIF, IRANIAN FOREIGN MINISTER: It is a very dangerous situation and we advise against any escalation because we believe that any interference in Yemen will simply lead to further loss of more lives.


STARR: Now the Saudi Arabia and the Gulf allies in the U.S. view are very nervous about Iran's growing influence in the region. They see Iran spreading across the area. That may be one reason they are undertaking some of this. But the U.S. very definitely stepping into it. The Pentagon offering help to the Saudis and help to the Yemenis. What everyone is watching for right now is what will Iran's further reaction be -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. We'll get some information right now.

Barbara, thanks very much. These air strikes by the Saudis were first announced to the world by the Saudi ambassador to the United States here in Washington, Adel al-Jubair. And first on CNN, he's joining us here right now to discuss what's going on.

This is all-out war right now, Mr. Ambassador, isn't it?

ADEL AL-JUBAIR, SAUDI AMBASSADOR TO THE U.S.: Our objective is to defend the Yemeni people and protect the legitimate government of Yemen. And we will do whatever it takes to achieve that objective.

BLITZER: There are now reports that some of these Shiite Houthi rebels backed by Iran are actually targeting Saudis on Saudi soil. Is that correct?

AL-JUBAIR: We are preparing for all eventualities inside the kingdom as well as outside the kingdom. We are determined to defend Yemen, defend the legitimate government of Yemen, degrade and destroy the capabilities of the Houthis.

BLITZER: Are they in Saudi Arabia, though, right now, based on the last information you've received?

AL-JUBAIR: We have almost four million Yemenis in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. And we have to assume that most of them are innocent. And so I don't want to prejudge any of this.

BLITZER: But there's no battles that are going on, on your soil, as far as you know right now?

AL-JUBAIR: Not as far as I know.

BLITZER: Is this really for all practical purposes a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which supports these Shiite Houthi rebels?