Manufacturers fingered in Greek Falcon 900 upset

 - October 8, 2007, 7:16 AM

The 24 deadly seconds of the Sept. 14, 1999, Dassault Falcon 900 in-flight upset are under scrutiny by the Athens First Degree Court. The trial, which started May 13, was expected to last several days and was still ongoing at press time. The court has been asked to decide if the accident was due to pilot error, a technical malfunction or a combination of the two. The accident led to the death of seven passengers, including Greece’s foreign affairs deputy minister, Giannos Kranidiotis.

The surprising event at the trial was that the two pilots, Ioannis Androulakis and Gregory Sinekoglou, seem to be cleared of the heavy responsibility attributed to them in a report prepared by investigators Alexander Fischer and Akrivos Tsolakis. That report notes the initial sudden loss of altitude at 15,000 ft was “of minor importance and could be handled,” but pilot responses resulted in a fatal situation. Further, it speaks of pilot error in the captain’s attempt to level the aircraft after the unexpected descent, which resulted in sudden ascents and descents.

However, Fischer testified that he “did not detect any error in pilot responses” but that a malfunction of the Arthur-Q unit, in conjunction with an “unfortunate combination of events,” led to the fatal result. He placed some blame on Bucharest ATC for controllers’ delayed response to the pilots’ request for a descent to 5,000 ft. Tsolakis contributed to the pilots’ cause by testifying on the “decisive failure of Dassault to include in the flight manual the speed limitation [260 knots] when the light goes on, indicating the malfunction of the pitch-feel system…the instruction was included in the manual after the accident…we name and condemn Dassault.”

Tsolakis added, “The pilots performed a check when the light went on; however, the controls did not function at the critical point…the pilot possibly intervened, obviously to switch the autopilot off, but the system did not function and vibrations started…the ‘fasten seat belts’ indication, according to Falcon procedures, lights up when the landing sequence begins.” Tsolakis said that he, as a conservative pilot, might have turned the indication on, but it is at the pilot’s discretion, and he further bolstered the pilots’ position by saying, “I consider as the pilots’ achievement the fact that they managed to land the aircraft safely.”

The investigators’ testimony sparked a wave of protest by relatives of the deceased, who spoke about “canceling their own findings report.” Fischer said he never blamed the pilots for the tragedy.

The New Legal Targets

Olympic Airways’ legal representative, Ioannis Stamoulis, revealed that the airline has sued Dassault on the grounds of disturbing flight safety, manufacturing errors and errors in the flight manual. He also charged two employees of autopilot manufacturer Honeywell for attempted fraud.

Olympic said a Honeywell autopilot caused a similar incident on another Falcon 900 that experienced an upset on an Oct. 9, 1999, flight from Grand Rapids, Mich., to Portland, Ore.

Government spokesmen Dimitris Reppas said in November 1999 that “the French state authority on air accidents intervened and asked to relate the Greek Falcon investigation to the one in the U.S. regarding a similar accident with a similar type of aircraft.”

Stamoulis also pointed out that the French civil aviation authority issued an airworthiness directive for all Falcon manuals calling for an instruction to reduce speed to 260 kt when the pitch feel light comes on.

Some months ago, press circles were intrigued with the fact that a NATO exercise was taking place in the same airspace at the time of the Greek upset. Among the participants was a British AWACS aircraft. The possibility that radio interference could have affected the Falcon systems had not yet surfaced in the court proceedings as AIN went to press.

The indications so far lead to the conclusion that, due to limited or faulty instructions in the flight manual, the pilots did not perform the appropriate actions.