Flight AF447 crash trial: Air France and Airbus plead not guilty

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The airline Air France and the manufacturer Airbus have both pleaded not guilty to charges of involuntary corporate manslaughter in the trial for the crash of Flight AF447. 

On June 1, 2009, an Air France A330, registered F-GZCP, carrying out flight 447 from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, killing all 228 people on board. The accident remains the worst Air France has ever suffered, and the deadliest involving an Airbus A330. 

After a 10-year investigation, the investigating judges ended up dropping all prosecution in September 2019. “This accident is obviously due to a conjunction of elements that never occurred, and thus highlighted dangers that could not be perceived before this accident,” they concluded. 

But in May 2021, the Court of Appeal of Paris ordered that Air France and Airbus must be tried for involuntary manslaughter, following a demand expressed by the General Prosecutor of Paris. 

13 years of waiting for the families of victims 

On October 10, 2022, the Criminal Court of Paris reopened the case. On the first day, the names of the 216 passengers and 12 crew members killed in the crash were read in the presence of Guillaume Faury, CEO of Airbus, and Anne Rigail, CEO of Air France. 

Rigail was the first to speak up, stating that while the crash “forever marks the collective history” of the airline, the latter “did not commit a criminal fault at the origin of the accident”. 

Then, it was Faury’s turn to address the victims. 

“I wanted to be present here first to show my deep respect, my deep consideration for the families and loved ones of the victims,” the executive chairman of Airbus. “Our mission is that all the people who get on an Airbus can get off the plane at the end of the flight in good health,” he added. 

If the courts find a criminal fault on their part, Air France and Airbus risk fines of a maximum amount of €225,000. 

What happened? 

On the night of June 1, 2009, at approximately 02:00 am local time, radar contact with flight AF447 was lost. 228 people vanished, sparking a mystery that would last for two years.  

It was a loss that seemed unimaginable at the time. How could a state-of-the-art commercial airliner operated by one the world’s safest airlines simply disappear?  

By June 6, the first pieces of debris were sighted floating in the Atlantic Ocean. Any hope of the jet having managed to perform a miracle landing or ditching were dismissed. Air France 447 had been lost, leaving no survivors. 

The investigation had limited evidence to work from, with only a few floating pieces of debris found. The remainder of the wreckage, including the two most important pieces of evidence, the flight data recorder (FDR) and cockpit voice recorder (CVR), remained somewhere deep in the ocean.  

Sabotage was an early consideration. However, the recovered pieces showed no trace of explosive damage. While the crash did not appear to be intentional, only the wreckage could indicate whether the aircraft was intact upon impact.  

The pieces that were initially recovered were compressed in a manner that indicated the plane crashed belly first, ruling out a nosedive. The nature of the damage and the size of debris indicated that AF447 did not crash at an extremely high speed.  

There had also been no indication from the crew that something was amiss. After the crew’s last communication with Brazilian air traffic control (ATC) at 01:33 am, AF447 entered a communication dead zone over the mid-Atlantic. The next scheduled connection was due to take place with ATC in Senegal, Africa. However, this did not take place. Somewhere in between the gap in communication, AF447 went down.  

Despite advanced underwater scanning technology, it would take two years to locate the aircraft. Finally, on April 2, 2011, the wreckage was found 6.5 nautical miles (10.46 kilometers) northeast from the flight’s last reported position.  

The wreckage field was small and concentrated, indicating that AF447 was intact when it hit the surface of the water. The black boxes were also recovered, meaning that investigators would finally be able to find out what had happened to the aircraft.   

AF447 had been cruising over the Atlantic when it encountered a thunderstorm. It was during this storm that the first in a series of fatal events occurred. The Pitot tubes (part of the Pitot static system) became obstructed by ice crystals. The system immediately reported inadequate speed readings to the flight computer, causing the autopilot to disconnect, and the flight entered manual mode.  

It was at this moment that the second fatal event occurred. The first officer pulled back on his control yoke, pitching the nose up. This maneuver caused the plane to stall. The normal undertaking would have been to just keep the plane flying level. But the misleading speed readings combined with the deactivation of the autopilot caused confusion. For the remainder of the ill-fated flight, neither one of the flight crew was able to pull the plane out of the dive. 

What happened during the descent, or what it was like for the people onboard, can never be known for certain. However, the fact that oxygen masks were recovered in the stoved position and life jackets were never inflated or unpacked from their original positions seems to suggest that preparations for an emergency crash landing had not been underway in the cabin. 

Legacy in the aviation industry 

The final report from the French Bureau of Enquiry and Analysis for Civil Aviation Safety (BEA), released in 2012, pointed at icing of the Pitot probes and incorrect pilot reactions as the main causes of the crash.  

“The obstruction of the Pitot probes by ice crystals during cruise was a phenomenon that was known but misunderstood by the aviation community at the time of the accident,” the BEA concluded. “The combination of the ergonomics of the warning design, the conditions in which airline pilots are trained and exposed to stalls during their professional training and the process of recurrent training does not generate the expected behavior in any acceptable reliable way.” 

While the Pitot probes, manufactured by the French company Thales, met the certification standards of the time, previous instances of icing had been reported. At the time of the crash, Air France was in the process of replacing them with another version less prone to becoming obstructed. Following the incident, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency prohibited the incriminated probe (model AA) and only authorized the new probe (BA) in the 3 Pitot positions. 

A global working group, which included most major players in the global aviation industry, such as ICAO, airlines, manufacturers, and pilots’ associations, created a guide called “Airplane Upset Prevention and Recovery Training Aid” to mitigate the risk of loss of control in flight. 

Article written by Clément Charpentreau and Aleksandras Griskevicius

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