The nine-week trial of two aviation giants, Airbus and Air France, for involuntary manslaughter in the crash of Air France flight 447, will conclude on Thursday, thirteen and a half years after an Airbus A330 en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris plummeted 38,000 feet into the Atlantic Ocean, killing all 216 passengers and 12 crew members.
The crash of June 1st, 2009, was the worst air disaster in French history, and the trial marks the first time in French justice that companies rather than individuals have been brought to trial for alleged criminal negligence. Airbus and Air France are pleading not guilty.
The families of the victims of the air crash were bitterly disappointed on Wednesday afternoon when the prosecutor said he was “unable to request the conviction” of Airbus and Air France because “it appears impossible to prove” their guilt.
The prosecutor’s summing up does not mean the companies will be cleared, but it makes it more likely. Civil plaintiffs cried out in the courtroom. Some stood and shouted “Lie!”
Three young Irish women, who graduated from Trinity College Dublin medical school in 2007, were returning from a holiday in Brazil when they died in the crash. They were Dr Aisling Butler, age 26, from Roscrea, Co Tipperary; Dr Jane Deasy, age 27, from Dublin, and Dr Eithne Walls, age 28, from Co Down.
John Butler, the father of Aisling, is the only Irish family member to have joined Entraide et Solidarité AF447, an association of 384 family members from 12 different countries. “Being Aisling’s dad, I feel it is my duty and my responsibility and my natural reaction to join this organisation,” he said.
Had the association not continued to campaign after a French court dismissed charges in 2019, the case might have ended there.
“The trial was totally necessary,” says Butler, the owner of a food transport and cold storage company in Roscrea. “I am delighted that it hasn’t been pushed under the carpet, because we need justice for our loved ones, and for the living victims.”
Butler is himself a “living victim”. On November 24th, he told the court about the pain of losing his beautiful daughter. “To be honest, it was very hard,” he said, “but I am Aisling’s dad, so I feel it is important I speak on her behalf and on behalf of my bereaved family.”
Danièle Lamy, whose 38-year-old son Éric also died in the crash, has been president of the association for the past decade. She praised Judge Sylvie Daunis, who presided over the trial, her two deputies and the prosecutors. “They know the case well. They are asking the same questions we have been asking for the past 13 years,” Lamy said, the main question being, “why wasn’t the accident avoided?”.
Speed sensors called Pitot tubes manufactured by the French company Thales iced up as the aircraft flew through a tropical storm. Instead of holding the plane level, as he should have, the youngest of three pilots, Pierre-Cédric Bonin, age 32, pulled on the control column, causing the aircraft to rise. The autopilot turned off amid shrill warnings of “stall, stall, stall”. In less than four and a half minutes, the aircraft fell 11,500 metres and crashed into the Atlantic.
An underlying question has been whether the sophistication of cockpit avionics made the aircraft incomprehensible to humans in an emergency. A cry of realisation by one of the pilots – “F***, we are going to crash! It’s not true!” – was among the last words on the flight recorder.
Butler and Lamy blame Airbus for its slowness in replacing the Pitot tubes, which had been found to be responsible for 20 non-fatal incidents, according to Le Monde newspaper, including a “Mayday” from the Paris-Antananarivo flight on August 16th, 2008.
“The president of Air Caraïbes testified that his airline had several incidents, and that if he hadn’t changed the sensors, they would have had an accident,” says Lamy.
Christophe Cail, a former fighter pilot, former chief test pilot for Airbus, now Airbus’s flight security adviser, testified that the aircraft manufacturer considered there was “no particular danger” to earlier incidents involving Pitot tubes.
Air France began changing the Pitot tubes on its aircraft the day before the Rio-Paris crash, a process which took two weeks. The terrible irony “is tragic for us,” Lamy notes.
A tacit non-aggression pact between Airbus and Air France frayed during the trial, when Cail blamed the crash on pilot error. Air France’s lawyer, François Saint-Pierre, challenged Cail, saying: “We are shocked. We protest. We defend the pilots”.
Yet Air France has been at a loss to explain the crash. “For us, what led the crew to act the way it acted remains mysterious,” Pascal Weil, a former pilot, testified on behalf of the airline.
The families of the victims blame Airbus for failing to recognise how dangerous the flawed Pitot tubes were, and Air France for insufficiently warning and training their pilots. “The crew didn’t know how to deal with it when the problem occurred,” says Butler. “Air France are in charge of the crew training, so they are responsible for the response of the crew. They weren’t prepared for it.”
The captain of the aircraft, Marc Dubois (58), was taking a nap in his couchette when Bonin lost control of the aircraft. The 37-year-old co-pilot, David Robert, was in the co-pilot’s seat.*
“Crossing the equator, going into a known storm, the captain decided to take a rest,” Butler says incredulously.
Sixteen other aircraft flew north or south of the storm, Butler says. “Why did the captain fly into a known storm?”
John Butler describes his daughter as “extremely witty, totally driven, very, very smart and absolutely devoted to her medicine”. Jane Deasy, who also perished, “was her very, very best friend”.
Aisling Butler worked in a Dublin hospital and wanted to become a consultant. “She had a lot of aims and she was achieving them all, one by one,” Butler says. “That’s one of the reasons she was on that damn plane, because she chose not to go to Australia and stay at home and pursue her career. As a consequence, we don’t have Aisling.”
Much as they wanted the trial, the families have found it traumatic. Lamy has attended every session except the testimony of forensic scientists detailing the identification of bodies, “because for us it was really too difficult”.
“I miss Aisling unbelievably,” John Butler says. “Her mum and sister are just beside themselves with grief ... It has left an unbelievable vacuum in our lives. It’s something we deal with every day, a pain that you have for the rest of your life. Unfortunately, or fortunately, it becomes familiar, so you endure it ... You have good days and bad days. Me, I just work hard. That helps me to deal with it.”
Lamy’s son Éric had graduated from business school and launched a highly successful internet ticket system for concerts and theatre. “People tell you it takes time, but time doesn’t change anything,” she says. “You survive. You cannot live like before. The wound never heals ... It is very difficult to rebuild one’s life around a family with a missing member.”
The date of the verdict will be announced when prosecutors and defence lawyers complete their summing up on Thursday. It is expected to be in late March or early April. John Butler will fly to Paris to hear it.
“There were passengers from 32 countries,” says Lamy. “Thirty-two countries are waiting to see how French justice deals with this.”
The families meet to remember the 228 victims of flight 447 every June 1st, at the memorial monument at Père Lachaise cemetery.
“We did not retrieve Aisling’s body, and this is the only place where one can grieve,” says John Butler. “My grief drives me to Paris every year. Until the day I die, I will go there.”
*This article was amended on Friday, December 9th, 2022 to correct an error