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Germanwings plane crash: What we know so far

Last Updated Mar 27, 2015 at 3:35 pm EDT

A Germanwings Airbus A320 passenger plane carrying 148 people crashed Tuesday in mountainous southeastern France, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls told reporters. CNN

A swarm of questions surrounds what happened on board Germanwings Flight 4U 9525, which crashed Tuesday in the southern French Alps.

“We don’t know much about the flight and the crash yet,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said. “And we don’t know the cause.”

Here’s the key information that’s available so far, and the big questions that remain.

The flight

Flight 9525 took off at 10:01 a.m. local time Tuesday from Barcelona, Spain, bound for Dusseldorf, Germany, with 144 passengers and six crew members aboard. It was operated by Germanwings, a low-cost division of Lufthansa. The aircraft crashed shortly before 11 a.m. in a remote area near Digne-les-Bains in the Alpes de Haute Provence region. All aboard are presumed dead. The flight’s takeoff was delayed by 26 minutes from its scheduled departure time because air traffic controllers didn’t give permission to the plane to start its engines earlier and because of a small delay in the takeoff rotation, Lufthansa said.

The final moments

At 10:45 a.m.,the plane had reached its cruising altitude of 38,000 feet. It then unexpectedly began an eight minute descent, according to Germanwings. The aircraft lost contact with French radar at 10:53 a.m, at a height of approximately 6,000 feet. Then, it crashed. The cockpit didn’t issue a distress call, the French Civil Aviation Authority said. Air traffic controllers sent out a distress call after radio contact with the plane was lost.

CNN aviation analyst David Soucie says he believes the pilot “was definitely aviating and navigating, from what we can tell” in the final moments of the flight.

The crash site

The plane went down in a rugged, sparsely populated part of the Alps. A local tourist official told French newspaper Liberation that the crash occurred on a particularly steep area of mountainside. Helicopter crews found the airliner in pieces, none of them bigger than a small car, and human remains strewn for several hundred meters, according to local authorities. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier described it as “a picture of horror.” Access to the crash site is reported to be difficult, with no roads leading to it. Authorities were not able to retrieve any bodies Tuesday, with the frozen ground complicating the effort.

The people on board

The captain of Flight 9525 had flown for Germanwings for more than 10 years and had more than 6,000 flight hours on the aircraft model, according to the airline. Germanwings hasn’t released details about the five other crew members. Details have begun to emerge about some of the passengers on the plane, but officials have cautioned that there is still a degree of uncertainty at this point over who exactly was aboard. Spain’s King Felipe VI said “high numbers of Spaniards, Germans and Turks” were on the aircraft. The Germans included 16 students and two teachers from a school, the airline said. Citizens of Argentina, Australia and Belgium, Colombia and the Netherlands have also been confirmed to have been on the plane by their national governments.

The plane

Flight 9525 was being operated with a twin-engine Airbus A320. The model is generally considered to be among the most reliable aircraft, according to Soucie. The A320 that crashed was delivered to Lufthansa in 1991, Airbus says. It had clocked up roughly 58,300 flight hours over the course of about 47,600 flights, according to the manufacturer. Germanwings says it was last checked in Dusseldorf.

“It seems that an event occurred that compelled the crew to descend,” CNN aviation analyst Les Abend says in an opinion article. “But that raises the question of what that event could be?”

The investigation

Hundreds of French firefighters and police officers are involved in the recovery effort in the Alps. Searchers have so far retrieved the cockpit voice recorder, one of the plane’s two “black boxes,” but it is damaged, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said. The device, which is designed to capture all sounds on a plane’s flight deck, is damaged but not beyond use, he said. However, Cazeneuve told told French Radio RTL officials will be able to reconstruct it in the coming hours.

The flight data recorder, which stores a vast array of parameters about the aircraft, is still missing. The two devices are expected to be crucial in unraveling what led to the crash. Investigators typically spend months analyzing the recorders’ information.