Why was the German jet flying so low and so fast?

What happened to the Germanwings Airbus that crashed in the French Alps on Tuesday? Shortly after reaching its cruising altitude, the airplane began a dangerously fast descent over mountainous terrain, but no distress call was issued. Alan Diehl, an aviation safety consultant and crash analyst, joins Judy Woodruff to discuss the airplane model’s track record and the new investigation.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    There are lots of questions still being asked tonight about the German passenger jet that crashed in Southern France.

    We look at some of the factors that investigators may be pursuing.

    Alan Diehl is an aviation safety consultant and crash analyst who has worked with the National Transportation Safety Board, the Federal Aviation Administration and others. He's the author of "Air Safety Investigators: Using Science to Save Lives One Crash at a Time."

    Alan Diehl, we welcome you to the program.

    It was daylight. The weather was mostly clear. What do you focus on as you try to understand what happened to this airplane?

  • ALAN DIEHL, Former National Transportation Safety Board Investigator:

    Well, obviously, there are three potential areas, if you eliminate weather.

    You have to look at human error, mechanical problems. And you can't discount some sort of criminal act, although I know everybody is downplaying that. And, of course, it is very strange. But this is such a high-speed impact. That's the thing that is so surprising.

    The fact that they descended, well, you could have a minor problem and get busy and not tell the controllers that, but keeping your speeds up over 500 miles an hour in the mountains, that is incomprehensible if you're actually in control of your own faculties and the aircraft.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Why — why incomprehensible?

  • ALAN DIEHL:

    Well, I have had to make a forced landing in the mountains, incidentally, Judy, in a light plane.

    And the first thing you do when you get down below the level of the mountains, you want to start slowing down so you can look for a place to set it down. But it appears that there was no indication of any kind of maneuvering. I know there's only been a couple eyewitnesses produced so far. The plane was very low, very fast, almost like a military aircraft colliding with the terrain.

    We haven't seen anything like that since 9/11, when the aircraft, of course, hit the buildings and the field in Pennsylvania.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Since 9/11.

    What do you make of the fact that there was no — as far as we know, no distress call, no attempt to communicate between the cockpit and the ground, air traffic?

  • ALAN DIEHL:

    Judy, we always say that pilots aviate, communicate — aviate, navigate and communicate. But, in reality, they aviate, troubleshoot, navigate, and communicate.

    So they may have been very, very busy with a full-blown emergency, and it's possible that they just became overcome by pressurization, smoke, flames, whatever. We don't know. Obviously, the recorders will tell the story, and I'm convinced they will find the recorders. They have already found the one. And they always lead you to what else you need to examine.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, yes, they have found one of the black boxes. Does that mean we're going to find all the answers there?

  • ALAN DIEHL:

    No, not necessarily, but usually, between the two boxes — I always say, Judy — and I talk about it in the book — the flight data recorder, which has hundreds of channels, it takes several days to download, as you know. And that's reportedly what they found.

    That tells you what happened typically, but you have to listen to that voice recorder very carefully to understand the whys.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Anything about the track record of this airplane, the Airbus-320, that tells you something?

  • ALAN DIEHL:

    Well, they have had some problems with the Airbus family. As you know, they're highly computerized, more so than the Boeings, but basically these are very safe aircraft.

    My daughter asked me the other day, should she get on an Airbus and get to her destination quicker so she doesn't have to rush to her meeting or wait for a Boeing flight that had an intermediate stop. I told her, take the Airbus. The most dangerous part of the trip is going to be the drive to the airport.

    And so, no, Airbuses are certainly safe. They have a slightly worse track record than their competitors. The 320 competes with the late-model Boeing 737s. The Boeings are slightly safer, but these are basically safe aircraft, even though we have lost a couple of them recently, this one and of course the tragic AirAsia over the Java Sea earlier this — earlier last year, actually.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Alan Diehl, air safety consultant, we thank you very much.

  • ALAN DIEHL:

    Thank you, Judy.