“The investigation will conclude when all those responsible are retired or dead”

Ten years after the crash of Air France 447, family members of German victims still await the prosecution of officials of Airbus, DGAC, Air France and EASA. But there is still no date for the court case.

Family members of German victims of AF447 (HIOP) at Brazilian memorial on June 1, 2019.

Ten years have passed since Air France Flight 447 — an Airbus 330 — crashed into the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Although it has become clear that the accident was a combination of design flaws, computer errors and a lack of upset recovery training at high altitudes on the part of the pilots, the case for involuntary manslaughter in the French criminal justice system appears to be dragging on forever.

Design flaws

The organization of German victims of AF447 — HIOP (“Hinterbliebene der Opfer des Flugzeugabsturzes AF447” in German) — has sent its harsh conclusions to the French investigative judges, Mr. Aubertin and Mrs Bernard. HIOP questions the lack of action on behalf of the French authorities to prosecute the protagonists involved, namely Air France and Airbus.

“The reluctance of Airbus and its suppliers to replace the acknowledged unreliable parts and systems have to be classified as breach of duty, which contributed to the involuntary homicide of 228 people,” reads the HIOP statement sent to their lawyer M. Cailliez and signed by HIOP representatives Bernd Gans and Barbara Crolow. Cailliez has until June 20, to present the families’ observations to the Investigative Judge.

Thales AA speed probe banned by the EASA

According to HIOP, all the improvements made to the Airbus 330 after 2009 are an indirect proof of its design flaws, including the faulty speed sensors. HIOP’s Bernd Gans cites a decision by the European Aviation Authority (EASA) from August 10, 2009, barely two months after the accident, ordering the replacement of all Thales AA pitot probes with better performing models.

Gans identifies another EASA airworthiness directive which retroactivily questions the airworthiness of the A330 aircraft. For instance, on December 22, 2010, the EASA issued an operational procedure for flight crews warning of potentially dangerous situations “when two airspeed sources offer similar although erroneous data and the flight guidance computers then display the Flight Director bars again.” This is exactly what happened on Flight 447.

Air France Airbus 330

The Air France disaster revealed a critical problem with the computer logic behind the Airbus flying laws. The system designers had not taken into consideration that three different airspeed sensors could freeze at the same time. This not only affects the speed readings, but also can lead “to the autopilot ordering inappropiate abrupt pitch-up commands,” according to EASA’s AD 2010–0271.

The Concorde and the Boeing 737 MAX

Such design flaws tend come to light only after a serious incident or an accident. The recent Boeing 737 MAX accidents, where a resident software in the Flight Control Computer was found to be the source of the crash, are a perfect example. This software (called the MCAS) did not feature redundancy in its design. Instead, it linked to only one external (angle of attack) sensor. Afterward, the Boeing company publicly admitted its mistake and is working on a software update. In contrast, none of the parties involved in the AF447 case — Airbus, Air France, and the French and European regulators (DGAC, EASA) — have been held accountable.

Since 2009, the French and German victims’ family’s organizations have been stuck in the quagmire of French justice, still waiting to see those reponsible for the crash brought into court. Three different investigative judges have reviewed the case, as well as three different technical reports, one of which was declared void by the third team of “Juges d’ Instruction.”: Mr. Aubertin and Mrs. Bernard.

They now must either recommend the case be sent to criminal court in Paris or dismiss the claims of criminal responsibility. In the meantime, the prosecutors office (represented by Mr. Raschel and Mr. Badorc) as well as the civil parties (victims’ families’ organizations like HIOP) can offer opinions. That process is expected to take at least three more months.

Left: HIOP’s Dirk Peter (2019). Right, Dirk with his brother Matthias at Machu Picchu (2004)

“The whole thing boils down to the fact that they want to do the same as with the (July 2000) Concorde accident,” says Winfried Schmidt, who lost his daughter on Flight 447. “That case was postponed and postponed until the final report came out last year. My theory is that they want to gain time until those responsible are either retired or dead. That’s the big picture behind it.”

Damage claims

The saga of the Boeing 737 MAX ironically also changed the outlook for the case of corporate responsibility in theAF447 crash. Why don’t Airbus and Air France simply admit their errors?

“The problem is not that the accident took place,” says Dirk Peter who lost his younger brother Matthias on June 1, 2009. “Everybody makes mistakes, individuals as well as big organizations. The problem is that they try to hide their mistakes deliberately.”

Peter, originally from Stuttgart, thinks it’s a financial issue. “There is too much money involved in this accident. Air France’s Insurance company AXA has already put 800 million euros aside for this case. Probably they fear that when they admit guilt, they will face enormous claims by greedy lawyers representing the families.”

The insistence of the German families’ organization, the HIOP, to take the case to a criminal court has been echoed by their French counterparts, the Association d’entreaide et solidarité AF447 and the Air France Pilots Union, or SNPL.

On June 3, Union spokesman Vincent Gilles said: “the whole truth must come out and the circumstances should be investigated by a judge. And therefore it’s important that all the protagonists of this case — without exception — appear in Correctional Court.”

Tom Dieusaert published a book on Air France 447 and other modern airline accidents called “Computer Crashes, when airplane systems fail.”

The Spanish version, updated with the story on the Boeing 737 MAX, is coming out this month.

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