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Airbus and Air France will stand trial next week over the crash of the 2009 Air France 447 flight, which claimed the lives of 228 people.

It is one of the best-known accidents in aviation history, which brought about a number of changes in the industry. It also brought about some controversy, in part about how pilots get training and work in aircraft with a lot of automation. The final report on the investigation into Air France 447 came out in July 2012. But for many, this wasn’t the end.

Air France 447 Crash Trial Goes Ahead In Paris

The A330 that was involved in this crash. Photo: Pawel Kierzkowski, CC BY-SA 3.0

The goal of air accident investigations is not to assign blame. The purpose of these investigations is to find out what happened so that similar tragedies do not happen again. However, some relatives of those that perished in this crash, felt that Air France and Airbus needed to answer for this event. So from the coming Monday, the airline and the aircraft manufacturer will stand trial for the events around Air France 447.

 

A Tragic Crash

The details of this event are too complicated to analyze here. It happened on the 31st of May 2009. In short, the flight took off from Rio de Janeiro Galeão Airport in Brazil, heading for Paris Charles de Gaulle in France. On board were 216 passengers, 9 cabin crew, and 3 flight crew. The flight disappeared as it headed out into the Atlantic.

Air France 447 wasn’t in contact with any ground radar stations at the time. It would be nearly two years before the authorities managed to find the wreckage and recover the two black boxes. Their information showed that the aircraft’s pitot tubes had likely been obstructed with ice crystals. The crew had previously tried to avoid some bad weather.

Because of the pitot tube issue, the aircraft reverted to alternate law, and the autopilot disconnected. Then the pilots’ control inputs caused the speed to degrade and the aircraft to enter a deep stall. Unfortunately, the pilots did not diagnose what was happening until it was too late. For the full 223-page accident report, you can go HERE.

But the Air France 447 trial is focusing on the role of the airline and Airbus in this event. While the investigation pointed out several errors from the flight crew, airline procedures and system characteristics also form part of this equation. The probes that iced up are just one of those systems.

 

Air France 447 Trial – Legal Matters And Closure

One legal anomaly is that Air France and Airbus will face maximum fines of only 225,000 euros if convicted of involuntary manslaughter. This is because, in France, these monetary penalties typically involve individuals, not companies. Families of the victims have gotten more money in previous settlements, however.

Air France 447 Crash Trial Goes Ahead In Paris

A330 cockpit. Photo: Andres Dallimonti

There have been other lessons from Air France 447, like the fact that it took so long to locate the wreckage. Even afterwards, systems like satellite-based ADS-B didn’t come in quickly enough to help in the case of MH370. The use of camera recordings in the cockpit is another issue that this investigation has touched upon, bringing some more controversy. The trial will last nine weeks, running until the 8th of December.

They say that aviation safety is written in blood. Air France 447 is a gruesome example of what this phrase means. In addition to its conclusions about the causes of this tragedy, BEA’s investigators made a total of 41 safety recommendations.

Air France 447 Crash Trial Goes Ahead In Paris

The accident aircraft. Photo: Hansueli Krapf, CC BY-SA 4.0

The industry has already adopted changes as a result, for example by instituting upset prevention and recovery training (UPRT). Newer aircraft systems give more feedback to crews, about what the aircraft AND the other pilot are doing. In any case, this trial will hopefully bring some closure on the matter, as the industry explains what it has been doing to keep us safe.

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