In a landmark case, a French court cleared Airbus and Air France of involuntary manslaughter, for the tragic Air France 447 crash in 2009.
It was one of aviation’s great mysteries because it took so long to find the aircraft after the crash. And when investigators finally got their hands on the black boxes, it became a landmark example of avoidable tragedy, which led to many changes in aviation training and procedures. But for the friends and families of the victims of the Air France 447 crash, the matter didn’t end with the investigation’s publication.
This trial started last October, and was expected to run for five weeks – so it should have ended by around mid-December. Multiple delays meant that the result of the trial had to wait until today. Paris judge Sylvie Daunis listed several acts of negligence on the part of both Airbus and Air France. Four of these involved Airbus, and one involved Air France.
However, the judge told her audience that these probable causal links weren’t sufficient to characterize an offense, under French law. The verdict was an immense disappointment for many family members of the victims on board Air France 447. But in a way, the result of a different verdict would have mattered little.
A Strange Legal Case?
This was the first time that corporate entities were charged with involuntary manslaughter in France. However, because the law typically involves individuals, the maximum fine for such cases is just 225,000 euros (about $245,600). French courts have handed Air France and Airbus convictions in civil cases, relating to Air France 447.
Both companies have had to pay considerably more money in these civil cases, as well as in some settlements. The French court will hear more such cases in September. So the aftermath of Air France 447 will press on, over 14 years after the tragedy. Still, members of the victims’ families expressed their disappointment, saying that the court told them that Air France and Airbus are “responsible, but not guilty“.
Much of the Air France 447 trial focused on the fact that Airbus and Air France were aware of problems with certain pitot tubes. The airline was replacing them in all of its A330s – the accident aircraft was scheduled to get a new set after this flight. These pitot tubes had a key role at the start of the sequence that led to the crash.
Air France 447 happened on the 31st of May 2009 (local date; it was the 1st of June in UTC). The crew of the Airbus A330 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 – An Industry-changing Tragedy
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 circle around some areas with 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.
In total, the investigation into Air France 447 led to a total of 41 safety recommendations. The industry has already adopted many 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.
For a full breakdown of the sequence of events that led to this tragedy, you can watch this Mentour Pilot video below.
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