Regular readers will be aware that France is to air safety what Scotland is to gastronomy and New South Wales is to probity in government. Today’s news, though, had me genuinely shaking with incredulity and rage.

Not the fact that Germanwings flight 4U9525, flown by 23-year-old A320-200 D-AIPX crashed mid-morning on 25 March (Europe time), of course. Flying is unnatural. The fact that we don’t all die every time we go up in an aluminium-and-plastic tube that doesn’t even float in water is a miracle in its own right, and like all the best miracles it is down to limitless human innovation, experimentation, and learning from experimentation.

It is generally better to be in a plane of the sort that has learned from experimentation, rather than the sort which is experimenting, which is why despite building the world’s first jetliners, De Havilland is not the world’s leading civilian aircraft manufacturer (although admittedly, it is one of the companies that is now merged into Airbus, so it sort of is, a bit, but not really).

Anyway. If you hit granite at 600km/h, then you become shrapnel, which definitely makes learning from experimentation harder. In particular, if you hit a low but pointy Alp at 600km/h, then you end up with bits of aeroplane and person and luggage all over the unwalkable hellhole that vaguely resembles a place, so it will take you months to collect the full jigsaw of former Airbus and frozen Germans.

Every passenger aeroplane carries two black boxes, which are orange because aviation engineers believe themselves to have a sense of humour, and are easier to find and survive crashes better than their fellow passengers. So far, the only one authorities have for D-AIPX is the cockpit voice recorder (CVR); the one recording technical data (FDR) hasn’t yet been retrieved.

After the CVR was recovered and read on the night of 25 March (Europe time), The New York Times, which is broadly honest, quoted some unnamed officials who had heard it. According to them:

  • one of the two pilots was locked out of the cockpit during the eight minutes that the plane went from cruising height to mountain height.
  • the plane’s path, in longitude-and-latitude terms, was in line with the flight plan.
  • the plane descended, quite consistently and at about the steepest level consistent with a normal rather than emergency descent, for the eight minutes before it hit the mountain.

This seems like a reasonable enquiry leak, of the sort that the people leading the enquiry should deny, but which focuses the public mind on key issues. Such as, why did the fucking plane fly into the fucking ground, and why couldn’t the locked-out pilot get in the cockpit?

But then, something really terrible happened: the formal investigation was handed over to a French judge-prosecutor.

In the US and the UK, which are generally recognised as being at the forefront of aviation safety – and also in Germany and Switzerland – formal authority over air crashes goes to an independent governmental agency. They have priority over cops and prosecutors seeking to assign blame, because it is recognised that working out what the fuck happened is far more important.

In France, this is not the case. The French BEA is generally respected for its technical skills, but doesn’t have control over air crash investigations or sites. Instead, they are handed over to local avocats (I’d translate this as “solicitor”, but I got a bit of pushback from doing so on Twitter), who know a fair amount about French law, absolutely jack shit about aviation, and are immediately forced into an adversarial situation of assigning blame (the word for ‘investigator’ and ‘prosecutor’ is the same).

Provincial avocat Brice Robin, who is in charge of the Germanwings crash, is a perfect example of this. Less than two days after the crash, he gave a press conference insisting that the plane was deliberately destroyed by its first officer whilst the captain was in the toilet. And naming both gentlemen.

This conclusion isn’t completely inconsistent with the evidence available. But it’s a gigantic reach from the evidence available, of the sort that a prosecuting counsel would absolutely reach for, but which someone seeking to find the facts would absolutely not. We still don’t have:

  • Any physical evidence from the wreckage showing the status of the door.
  • Conformation of whether the captain’s problem was the electronic lock or the manual deadlock.
  • The Flight Data Recorder
  • Any psychiatric or other medical evidence showing the state of the pilot
  • Basically anything explaining why the plane flew into the bloody Alp

As a result, well before there is any justification for doing so, the French system has struck fear into the hearts of air travellers worldwide, grossly impugned a dead man who may well be completely innocent, and – worst of all – forced the investigation into a specific narrative rather than going through the facts until a narrative is unimpeachable.

(Falsely claiming people are responsible for jet crashes is a bad idea. It turns out that even when they’re dead already rather than waiting to be shot by a crazed relative their homes still need police guard.)

One thought on “Don’t get your Germanwings over France

  1. Spot on, John B. My thoughts exactly. At this stage of the process it is critical that reporting sticks to the facts, rather than starts witch-hunts.

    In this case, if the reports of the CVR content are correct, we simply know:

    1) That the pilot was locked out and couldn’t get in (we don’t know why – he may simply have forgotten the necessary code or used the wrong one in a moment of panic) and then tried to break in.

    2) That the plane appears to have been put into automatic descent mode (we don’t know how or why)

    3) that the co-pilot was breathing regularly up to the point of impact (we don’t know if he was awake, asleep, or incapacitated). He uttered not a word, which is certainly consistent with one of the two latter options.

    4) that there were no signs of problems up to the time the descent commenced.

    That’s it. All else is speculation

    Yet even ‘responsible” media are muddying the water with very different accounts. Australian ABC Radio News, for example, has been saying the prosecutor has “found that the co-pilot deliberately steered the plain into a mountain”. The prosecutor’s actual words jumped the gun dramatically, but even he didn’t claim anything as deliberate as that. Simply that the plane was put into descent mode, he says, “deliberately”.

    Yes, on the evidence it is possible the co-pilot undertook a conscious action to bring the plane down, but there are a host of other possible explanations that the same “facts” fit just as well.

    The precipitous rush to judgement on such scanty evidence is appalling.

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