Greek Falcon trial raises thorny issues

 - April 16, 2008, 9:51 AM

The trial seeking the truth in the September 1999 fatal in-flight upset involving a Greek Dassault Falcon 900 in Romanian airspace continued last month at the Athens First Degree Court. It started May 13 and hopes to shed light on the circumstances surrounding the deaths of seven passengers, including Greek Foreign Affairs Deputy Minister Giannos Kranidiotis.

Some points in favor of the two accused pilots have been brought to light in the courtroom, but their defense has already made charges to the European Union commissioner of Transportation about what it describes as the Greek authorities’ unacceptable and illegal handling of the case.

The defense is based on the Nov. 21, 1994, “European Economic Community Directive 94/56/CE” regarding the appropriate principles for investigating civil aviation accidents. The arguments are twofold. First, that the directive should have been made national law by November 1996 (therefore, all accident investigations should be in line with it), but it became national law only in May last year. Second, that all charges against the defendants are based on reports from investigating boards that were set up in violation of the directive for impartiality.

The directive (Greek Law 2912) states: “Investigations of civil aviation accidents and events must be carried out  by an independent organization or entity, or under its control, to avoid conflicts of interest and to avoid the investigating organization or entity being involved in any way in the causes of the event under investigation.”

Article 6 is more specific: “Each member state takes care so that technical investigations would be carried out by a permanent organization or by a permanent civil aviation entity, or under the control of this organization or entity. The organization or entity in question is functionally independent from the national aviation authorities responsible for airworthiness, certification, flight conduct, maintenance, license issuance, air traffic control or airport exploitation, and generally from any third party whose interests might be in conflict with the mission awarded to the organization or entity in question.”

This organization or entity must publish the final investigative report. These provisions were not honored, since Olympic Airways employees, the airport director and even Dassault and Honeywell employees were directly involved in the investigations. The Romanian side of the investigation opted for all-Greek representatives.

The defense pointed out that the Romanians removed the autopilot and sent it to Honeywell to determine if it operated properly during the accident, in contradiction of the  directive. While Romania is not an EU state, the Greek authorities did accept three reports (and used them as the basis of charges against the defendants) issued by committees that did not meet the minimum EEC impartiality standards.

‘Erased by Mistake’
Another fiery point that surfaced in the trial is what the defense described as a “peculiar mistake.” The autopilot, which was sent to Honeywell labs, did not yield any data because it had none. During the laboratory tests at the company’s facility, “the recordings were erased by mistake,” according to the pilots’ defense lawyer, John Stamoulis, who stressed the importance of these recordings since the autopilot keeps 20 recordings per second. The FDR and CVR recordings could not be read in Romania, and they were sent (at Dassault’s request) to a German lab and then to one in London.

A critical element is a set of FDR and CVR recordings appearing in the Romanian report, which the defense claims are inexplicable by any natural law. At 19:15:43 (with barometric altitude of 14,975 ft and instrumented airspeed of 333 kt) the g value had risen slightly to 1.13. At the very next second it fell to 0.79, at 19:15:45 it jumped to 2.54 and then  dropped to -0.79, a 3.33-g drop. The autopilot was disengaged at that moment. These were the first seconds that led to the fatal sequence of events. The defense pointed out that although the normal response time for a pilot is 2.5 sec, in this case the pilot responded in 1.3 sec, which it said was a decisive factor in avoiding an actual crash.

The “electromagnetic” interference/pulse explanation for the auto-pilot behavior is also being presented by the defense, backing this claim with increased AWACS air traffic between Bulgaria and the former Yugoslavia (due to NATO operations), as well as a Turkish military exercise over the Black Sea.

The trial was still continuing at press time, though with great uncertainty about the outcome and the possibility of a mistrial.