Friday, November 30, 2012

Common Sense and Aviation Disasters, Via France

A French appeals court threw out a criminal conviction for involuntary manslaughter of Continental Airlines for its part in the crash of an Air France Concorde plane in Paris that killed 113 in 2000. Here's the Times report today.

This sensible move -- in effect, "de-criminalizing" an accident that occurred partly as a result of human error -- comes as authorities in Brazil continue the clear folly of criminalizing another accident that was the result of human error, the horrific mid-air collision between a business jet and a 737 over the Amazon in 2006 that killed 154.

In Brazil, in the latest manifestation of stubborn foolishness, prosecutors are now making charges of perjury against a pilot who served as a major defense witness in the criminal trial of the two American pilots of the business jet that collided with the 737.  The rationale? Well, since the American pilots were earlier convicted (in what I have described as a sham trial that was part of the Brazilian authorities' ongoing attempts to cover up the major role that Brazilian air traffic control played in the mid-air crash), why, then, the expert witness for the defense must have lied. Otherwise, you see, the defendants would have been acquitted. This is reasoning out of Alice in Wonderland, of course.

More on that nonsense later today, but now back to the Air France Concorde disaster and the very good ruling by the French appeals court.

Long story short, the Concorde disaster in Paris came about through a series of errors and occurrences, which is almost always the case in major aviation accidents. Continental and one of its mechanics had been faulted for an apparent mechanical error that led to the loss of a metal strip off a Continental plane, which took off on the runway minutes before the Concorde took off and crashed on that runway, after that metal strip punctured a Concorde tire.

There were, of course, other factors in the crash, all of which played a part in the investigation. But the issue, in Paris as it was in Brazil, is the question of criminalizing  an accident, of rushing to assign criminal culpability. In Brazil, one of the most notable consequences of this rush to criminal judgment (the emotional, xenophobic rush to blame the Americans and exonerate Brazilian air traffic control) was that important witnesses, including air traffic controllers, simply clammed up. The result was a wretchedly botched investigation -- and yet another major embarrassment for Brazil in the international aviation community.

[I was one of seven survivors on the American jet, and I was subsequently convicted in Brazil of causing "dishonor" to Brazil by my reporting on the coverup. My case then became a small part of the momentum that led to a new federal law in the U.S. called the SPEECH Act, which forbids a U.S. court from enforcing spurious libel and slander judgments against Americans for speech, made in the U.S., that is entirely protected by the First Amendment.

[And one of the more amusing aspects of that ridiculousness seeking unsuccessfully to silence me came when a group representing Brazilian "journalists," the National Federation of Journalists, belched forth a statement in 2011 supporting the civil and criminal actions against me because I "published posts offensive to Brazil" and showed a "disrespectful manner" when I argued against the Brazilian coverup. This august association of Brazilian journalists then proceeded to repeat obvious lies and asinine whoppers about what I had in fact written. But I digress ...]

Meanwhile, here's a smart statement on the French case by the Flight Safety Foundation. [Italic emphasis mine]:

Foundation Applauds Decision of French Court

Alexandria, VA, November 29, 2012 –The Flight Safety Foundation applauded the decision today by the French appeals court to throw out the convictions against Continental Airlines and one of their mechanics in relation to the tragic crash of the Concorde in 2000.

“We’re very pleased that courts are recognizing that professional human error does not amount to criminal conduct, even where it can lead to catastrophic consequences,” stated Kenneth Quinn, FSF General Counsel. “The tragedy of this accident and others is only compounded by decades-long efforts to find someone to ‘blame,’ rather than focus on human factors, training, and technology to make sure that the tragedy does not reoccur.”

“Undue prosecutorial and judicial interference can not only create further victims of accidents, but more importantly harm the integrity and timeliness of the accident investigation process, with an adverse effect on aviation safety” Quinn continued.

Mr. Quinn is currently also serving as Vice Chair of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Task Force on Safety Information Protection, which will be hosting a listening session on December 5, 2012 in Washington, DC, with many interested stakeholders and family representatives scheduled to attend.