The families of 228 people who died in a plane crash 13 years ago – including co-down wife Eithne Walls – are finally getting a chance at justice after more than a decade of legal wrangling.
Passengers on the storm-tossed Air France flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris were killed when their plane crashed into the Atlantic in 2009.
The dead passengers included Eithne Walls, 28, from Ballygowan, and her two colleagues: Jane Deasy, 27, from Rathgar, Dublin, and Aisling Butler, 26, from Roscrea, Co. Tipperary.
The close wives had studied medicine together at Trinity College and remained friends after graduating in 2007. They were returning from a vacation when the plane crashed.
Aviation industry heavyweights Airbus and Air France have been charged with manslaughter in a trial opening Monday over the June 1, 2009 crash of Flight 447.
The worst plane crash in Air France history killed people from 33 nations and had lasting repercussions, leading to changes in aviation safety regulations, pilot training and the use of airspeed sensors.
But it almost didn’t make it to court.
The companies insist they are not criminally responsible and Air France has already compensated families.
Investigators pleaded for the case to be dropped, but the judges unusually resisted and took the case to court.
“We promised our loved ones we would have the truth for them and make sure they didn’t die in vain,” Ophelie Toulliou, whose 27-year-old brother Nicolas was killed, told The Associated Press (AP).
“But we also fight for collective security, for all those who board an Airbus or Air France every day.”
She said the companies presented themselves as “untouchable” and Airbus made no effort to address the families’ concerns.
“We are nothing to them. They have not lost 228 people. They have lost a plane.”
Few families in Brazil, who lost 59 citizens in the crash, can afford to travel to France for the trial.
Some say the French justice system has been too soft on Airbus and Air France – two industrial giants in which the French government has a stake.
The attempt is expected to focus on two key factors: icing of external sensors called pitot tubes and pilot error.
The Airbus A330-200 disappeared from radar over the Atlantic between Brazil and Senegal with 216 passengers and 12 crew on board.
The first wreckage was not sighted at sea until five days later.
And as recently as 2011, the plane — and its black box recording devices — were located on the sea floor at depths of more than 13,000 feet in an unprecedented search operation.
The French aviation accident investigation authority BEA determined that the accident involved a cascading series of events without a single cause.
When a storm shook the plane, ice crystals present at high altitudes disabled the pitot tubes, blocking speed and altitude information.
The autopilot has disconnected.
The crew resumed manual control, but with erroneous navigation data.
The plane went into an aerodynamic stall, its nose pitched up, and then it crashed.
The pilots “didn’t understand what was happening to them. A difficulty of interpretation in an all-digital aircraft like all aircraft in the world today – well, it’s easy to be wrong,” said Gerard Feldzer, a former pilot and pilot trainer for Air France.
He said he and pilots around the world then asked themselves: ‘If it had been me, would I have acted the same way? It was a very difficult question to answer.”
No one risks jail in this case; only the companies are in court.
Each faces a fine of up to 225,000 euros (£197,000) – a fraction of their annual turnover – but could suffer reputational damage if found criminally responsible.
Nelson Marinho, whose son Nelson Jr. was killed, is furious that no company executives will be brought to justice.
“They have changed different directors, both at Airbus and Air France, so who are they going to arrest? nobody. There will be no justice. That’s unfortunately the truth,” says Marinho, a retired mechanic who runs a family support group, told the AP.
Air France has been accused of failing to provide training in the event of icing of the pitot probes, despite the risks.
In a statement, the company said it would state in court “that it was not guilty of criminal responsibility for causing the accident” and plead for an acquittal.
Air France has since changed its training manuals and simulations.
It also provided compensation for families who had to agree not to disclose the amounts.
Airbus is accused of knowing that Flight 447’s model of pitot tubes was faulty and not doing enough to urgently notify airlines and their crews and ensure training to mitigate the resulting risk.
An AP investigation at the time found that Airbus had known about problems with pitots since at least 2002, but only replaced them after the crash.
The model in question – a Thales AA Pitot – was subsequently banned and replaced.
Airbus blames pilot error and told investigators that icing is an inherent problem with all such sensors.
“They knew and did nothing,” said Daniele Lamy, president of an association of victims’ families that was pushing for a trial.
“The pilots should never have got into such a situation, they never understood the cause of the breakdown and the plane had become uncontrollable.”
Mrs. Lamy lost her son Eric just days before his 38th birthday.
Since then she has been struggling to find out the truth.
“The plane had sent messages to the ground about the problem but had not warned the pilots. It’s like driving a car at 130, your brakes wouldn’t work, but the car sent the warning to the mechanic and not the driver,” Ms Lamy told the AP.
She is one of the 489 civil parties to the trial, which is scheduled to last until December.
The crash forced Airbus and Air France to be more transparent and responsive, Feldzer said, noting the process will be important for both the airline industry and families.
“The history of aviation safety is made of it, of accidents,” he said.