Published on :
Thirteen years after the events, the trial of the Air France Airbus A330 crash in which 228 people lost their lives opens Monday in Paris. The civil parties hope to obtain answers from the two aeronautical giants who will persist in denying their responsibility for the disaster.
After more than ten years of proceedings and a reversal of justice which had initially pronounced a dismissal, the hour of the trial for “involuntary homicides” has come for Air France and Airbus. From Monday, October 10, the two French flagships of aeronautics appear before the Paris Criminal Court. They face the families of the 228 passengers and crew members who died in the crash of dependent flight AF447 Rio de Janeiro to Paris on 1uh June 2009.
It is an understatement to say that this extraordinary trial is awaited by the civil parties, tossed about for a decade in a legal labyrinth made up of expertise and counter-expertise demanded by Airbus.
“We await this trial with impatience but also with a certain excitement”, confides Danièle Lamy, the president of the association Entraide et Solidarité AF447 who lost her son in the tragedy. “It will plunge us back into extremely painful moments, but this trial is absolutely essential for the memory of the disappeared and for the families,” she adds.
“The families of the victims wishing an acknowledgment of guilt” from the company and the European manufacturer, explains Maître Sébastien Busy, who represents several civil parties. “So far, there are no officials and the two people have argued that this accident would only be the consequence of a series of misfortunes”.
For the 476 civil parties, the drama that unfolded over the Atlantic Ocean is on the contrary the result of a series of malfunctions, negligence and attention on the part of Airbus and Air France .
“The Trial of the Dead”
The investigations of the Bureau of Investigations and Analysis (BEA) had established in July 2012, the series of human and technical failures which had led to the crash.
On May 31, 2009, the Airbus A330 chartered by Air France took off from Rio de Janeiro for Paris. But off the Brazilian coast, the pilots of flight AF447 are confronted with a frequent meteorological phenomenon called “the doldrums”, an area of unstable thunderstorms which causes strong turbulence and a freezing atmosphere.
In these extreme conditions, gel forms on the Pitot probes, nickel tubes located at the front of the aircraft which constantly provide indications of the speed of the aircraft. The pilots then receive erroneous data on the speed of the aircraft. Misled by the faulty probes, they think the plane is losing altitude.
The flight conversations obtained thanks to the discovery two years after the crash of the aircraft’s black boxes reflect the misunderstanding that reigns in the cockpit. At the time, the pilots had no training to deal with this kind of situation.
To regain altitude, they do what seems most logical to them in these circumstances: they pull on the control column to pitch up the plane. The maneuver proves fatal. The nose is too high, the speed too low. The plane reached 38,000 feet and lost lift in the air. He falls like a stone. The “STALL” stall warning was heard and in less than four minutes, the A330 crashed into the Atlantic.
During this trial, Airbus should once again insist on what it considers to be pilot errors to clear itself of all responsibility. “We are on trial for the dead who cannot defend themselves”, deplores Maître Jean-Claude Guidicelli who represents the father of Clara Amado, a flight attendant who died in the crash. “But in the hierarchy of responsibilities, there is first Airbus which should have changed the Pitot probes”.
“The main culprit for us is Airbus, which underestimated the risk linked to the icing of the probes and did not take into account the incidents in the year which preceded the crash”, confirms Maître Busy. “We have the feeling that Airbus waited hoping that nothing would happen.”
A year before the Rio-Paris crash, around twenty events related to the freezing of the probes had indeed been recalled and brought to the attention of the manufacturer. Incidents considered serious enough to push certain companies such as Air Caraïbes and XL Airways to replace these French Thalès probes with those of the American manufacturer Goodrich.
Why did Air France not take a similar decision? The company was however worried about these failures with Airbus, according to the BEA.
“Air France preferred to keep Thalès because it is a French company”, advances Maître Guidicelli according to whom “we sacrificed lives on the altar of money and business”. After the disaster, the affected model was replaced worldwide.
During the nine weeks of this trial, a question should run through all the debates: could this accident have been stopped? The civil parties are convinced of this. Airbus would have been blinded by an unbounded faith in the reliability of its A330. As for the Air France company, it should have better informed its crews about the malfunctions encountered by the Pitot probes.
But after ten years of proceedings, some families of victims doubt they will get the answers that haunt them. “We risk seeing a new game of ping-pong between Air France and Airbus, which reject responsibility,” says Maître Guidicelli.
“Airbus would be honored to recognize its share of responsibility in the accident”, wants to believe Danièle Lamy of the association Entraide et Solidarité AF447.
If the courts find a criminal fault on their part, Air France and Airbus are considering a fine, the maximum amount of which is 225,000 euros. The trial is due to end on December 8.