Air France and Airbus are on trial over the 2009 Rio-Paris disaster

Air France and Airbus are on trial over the 2009 Rio-Paris disaster


Air France and planemaker Airbus are on trial in Paris on Monday for manslaughter in the 2009 crash of a plane from Brazil that killed all 228 people on board.

At the heart of the case are allegations of inadequate pilot training and a faulty speed monitoring probe that was quickly replaced on planes worldwide in the months following the accident.

Flight AF 447 from Rio de Janeiro to Paris crashed into the Atlantic Ocean during a storm in the early hours of June 1, 2009 as it stalled after entering a zone of severe turbulence.

The Airbus A330 carried 12 crew members and 216 passengers, including 61 French. It was the carrier’s deadliest crash.

Debris was found in the days that followed, but it took nearly two years to locate most of the fuselage and recover the “black box” black boxes.

Air France and Airbus were charged over the course of the investigation, with experts finding the crash was due to error by pilots who were disoriented by so-called pitot speed monitoring tubes frozen over in thick clouds.

Both companies have denied any criminal negligence, and investigating judges overseeing the case dropped the charges in 2019, attributing the crash primarily to pilot error.

This decision enraged the victims’ families, and in 2021 a Paris appeals court ruled there was enough evidence to allow a trial.

“Air France … will continue to prove that it did not commit any criminal negligence that caused this accident and will seek an acquittal,” the airline said in a statement.

Airbus, maker of the A330 jet, which entered service just four years before the accident, declined to comment before the trial but has also denied any criminal negligence.

They each face a maximum fine of 225,000 euros ($220,000).

– ‘We lost our speed’ –

The court will hear testimony from dozens of aviation experts and pilots, along with up-to-the-second details of the last few minutes in the cockpit before the plane went into free fall.

As it approached the equator en route to Paris, the plane entered what is known as an “intertropical convergence zone,” which often produces violent storms with heavy rainfall.

Around that time, the 58-year-old captain handed his 32-year-old senior co-pilot over and went to bed, with the second co-pilot sharing the controls.

To avoid the worst of the storm, they turned left and slowed their speed after warning the crew of impending turbulence.

Shortly after the automatic pilot functions stopped working, the pitot tubes froze over, leaving the pilots without clear speed readings.

“We’ve lost our speed,” says a co-pilot in the flight logs, before other gauges erroneously indicate a loss of altitude and a series of alerts appear on the cockpit screens.

The pilots quickly point the plane’s nose higher to begin the climb, but soon a “STALL” alarm sounds once, which then pauses and then sounds continuously for 54 seconds.

The plane continues to climb, engines revving up, reaching 11,600 meters (38,060 feet) before stalling begins. “I don’t know what’s going on,” says one of the pilots.

By this time, the captain is back in the cockpit trying to help, but the plane is rapidly falling at 10,000 feet per minute. “Am I sinking?” asks the senior co-pilot. “No, now you’re climbing,” replies the captain.

Recordings then stop four minutes and 30 seconds after the pitot tubes freeze.

– “The Human Element” –

Testimonies are also being heard from some family members of the victims, 476 of whom are plaintiffs in the case.

“It’s going to be a very technical process… but our goal is also to reintroduce the human element,” said Alain Jakubowicz, lawyer for victims’ organization Entraide et Solidarite (Mutual Aid and Solidarity).

Its president, Daniele Lamy, said that instead of trying to pin the blame on the pilots, “we want this process to be that of Airbus and Air France.”

“We expect an impartial and exemplary trial so that this never happens again and, as a result, the two defendants make safety their priority and not just profitability,” she said.

But Nelson Faria Marinho, president of the Brazilian Association of Victims’ Relatives, said: “I don’t expect anything from this process.”

His 40-year-old son, also named Nelson, was killed on his way to work in the oil industry in Angola.

“Even if there is a conviction, who will be punished? The CEOs? They were switched at Airbus and Air France a long time ago,” he told AFP during an interview at his home in Rio.

Although Faria Marinho has traveled to France 18 times to meet with authorities and investigators, she will not attend the trial.

He is represented by former French pilot Gerard Arnoux, who has counseled several victims’ families and has written a book entitled Rio-Paris Not Responding: AF447, the Crash That Shouldn’t Have Happened.

“The French government will not pay for the journey and the tickets are far too expensive. I’m retired and I don’t have the means,” he said. “But if I could, I would.”

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