Flight AF447 crash trial: Airbus and Air France acquitted

Força Aérea Brasileira / Flickr.com

The airline Air France and the manufacturer Airbus were both acquitted of involuntary corporate manslaughter in the trial over 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. 

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.     

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. On October 10, 2022, the Criminal Court of Paris reopened the case. The airline and the manufacturer had both pleaded not guilty. They both risked fines of a maximum amount of €225,000.  

Nearly 14 years after the crash, the Paris Criminal Court pronounced that the two defendants were acquitted of charges on April 17, 2023, deliberating that it was “impossible to demonstrate” their guilt. 

What happened? 

On the night of June 1, 2009, flight AF447 was cruising over the Atlantic when it encountered a thunderstorm, causing the Pitot tubes to become obstructed by ice crystals. The system immediately reported inadequate speed readings to the flight computer, causing the autopilot to disconnect, and the flight to enter manual mode.    

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.   

At approximately 02:00 am local time, radar contact with flight AF447 was lost.   

BEA animation of the event
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