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Investigation: Air France 296
By: Chris Kilroy

In the first crash of a new 'Fly-By-Wire' aircraft, the Airbus A320-100 impacted trees while performing a fly-by at an airshow and burst into flames. The crew, and Air France maintenance officials, have all been sentenced to probation for manslaughter; the Captain has been imprisoned. Evidence, including photographs, has now been exposed that an Airbus official at the scene switched the Digital Flight Data Recorder before the court hearing.

Since May 1998, it is proven that the Flight Data Recorder was switched after the accident. The Lausanne Institute of Police Forensic Evidence and Criminology (IPSC) comes to the conclusion that the recorder presented to the Court is NOT the one taken from the aircraft after the accident. Details: See below

Contents:

The Crash
The Official Version
The Captain's Version
The OEB's
The Black Boxes
The Engines: CFMI assesses CFMI
Germain Sengelin
Norbert Jacquet
The Forest
Why shouldn't one believe the official version?
The Sentence
The IPSC report: The Flight Data Recorder has been substituted!

The Crash

On Sunday June 26, 1988, the airclub at the airfield of Mulhouse-Habsheim in Alsace/France had organized with Air France a low approach of a brand new Airbus A320 in landing configuration. Michel Asseline was the pilot in command of F-GFKC, Pierre Mazière was his first officer, when the aircraft overflew the airfield at 2 pm in wonderful sunny weather. Some seconds later the aircraft touched the tops of the trees behind the runway and crashed into a forest. 3 passengers died in the accident and about 50 were injured. The accident was filmed by a video amateur and has been shown dozens of times on TV. F-GFKC was the first of a couple of aircraft of this type to be lost in the next few years (see below).

The Black Boxes were taken undamaged from the aircraft 2 hours after the crash, but unfortunately they have been out of control of justice for 10 days, and since May 1998 it is proven that the Flight Data Recorder was substituted during this period. The Lausanne Institute of Police Forensic Evidence and Criminology (IPSC) comes to the conclusion that the Black Boxes used in the trial to declare the pilot guilty are NOT the ones taken from the aircraft.

The aircraft was new, Airbus was waiting for commands, a lack of confidence in the highly computerized aircraft would have meant a commercial disaster - not only for the manufacturer, but also for the French administration, which has a share in the European Airbus consortium.

The Official Version

The French minister of transportation (Louis Mermoz), the company (Air France) and the aircraft manufacturer (Airbus Industry) declared with precipitation shortly after the accident that the aircraft was beyond any doubt. The final report (published 18 months after the accident) comes to the same conclusion, but the authenticity of the data on which the report has always been very doubtful, and since May 1998 it is proven by the report of the Lausanne IPSC that the Flight Data Recorder (DFDR) was substituted after the crash. For 10 years the media have not stopped reporting about the anomalies which have accompanied the technical investigation of the accident from the beginning.

The Captain's Version

Captain Asseline flew the aircraft manually. He had been instructed by Air France to overfly the airfield at 100 ft above ground. When he increased throttle to level off at 100 ft, the engines did not respond. So after some seconds he got worried and thought there was something like a short-circuit in the completely computerized throttle control. So he pulled the throttle back all the way and forth again. By that time the aircraft had touched the trees.

After the accident, Captain Asseline was very astonished when he saw on an amateur video tape that the gear was only 30 ft above ground when the aircraft was passing over the runway. He affirms the altimeter of the Airbus A320 indicated 100 ft.

Operational Engineering Bulletins

No fewer than 52 provisional flight notices have been published by Airbus Industry between April 1988 and April 1989. Hardly any new aircraft type has manifested such a large number of malfunctions. An OEB (Operational Engineering Bulletin) is a temporary notice sent out by the manufacturer to the users of an aircraft. They form a list of anomalies or simply functional features which do not appear in the users' manual. 2 OEBs are particularly interesting in relation with the Habsheim crash:

  1. OEB 19/1 (May 1988): Engine Acceleration Deficiency at Low Altitude. This means that it was already known before the accident that the engines sometimes did not respond normally to the pilot's commands on the Airbus A320. However Air France did not inform their pilots about this anomaly. After the Habsheim accident, the engines have been modified (OEB 19/2, August 1988).
  2. OEB 06/2 (May 1988): Baro-Setting Cross Check. It stated that the current design for barometric altitude indication on the Airbus A320 did not comply with airworthiness. This could be a hint why the aircraft was as low as 30 ft (9 m) above the runway whereas Asseline affirms that the altimeter indicated 100 ft (30 m).

These OEBs were sent to the company (Air France), but they had not been handed to the pilots. In fact both the engines and the altimetric system have been modified after the crash, which indicates that they did not function correctly at that time, but Airbus Industries was not held responsible of anything by the French Court, the whole responsibility was given to the pilots and to the organizers of the airshow.

The Black Boxes

The Black Boxes (the DFDR and the CVR), major pieces of evidence, have been out of control of the investigating court at Mulhouse for 10 days. The CVR (Cockpit Voice Recorder) records the pilots' voices. The Digital Flight Data Recorder (DFDR) records the flight parameters, for example the altitude, speed, acceleration/deceleration, engine speed etc. According to the French Penal Procedure the police should have confiscated the black boxes immediately after the accident for further examination by independent experts. Instead the black boxes have been illegitimately in possession of the DGAC (Direction Génerale de l'Aviation Civile) from June 26 (the day of the accident) to July 6, when Germain Sengelin, investigating magistrate at Mulhouse, had ordered their confiscation.

The Black Boxes from which the official report has been made show a series of anomalies, which has led a lot of critical people since 1988 to call in question their authenticity:

  • The black boxes have been physically opened, the magnetic tape has been cut. Normally you put the black boxes into a reading machine without opening them - the same way you read a cassette in a video recorder.
  • 8 seconds are missing in the recording, 4 seconds are missing just before the impact. That means that the DFDR would have stopped accidentally just before the impact.
  • The DFDR and the CVR are 4 seconds out of synchronization during the last part of the recording.
  • There is no indication of longitudinal deceleration at the impact. This might be expected in a collision with a mountain, but in Habsheim the recorders should have been able to operate until the aircraft disintegrated. Any crash which could be survived by all but 3 passengers should not have caused an abrupt stop in the DFDR recording.

Due to these anomalies, and the fact that the Black Boxes were in the hands of the DGAC, it has always been supposed, and is finally proven since May 1998, that the Flight Data Recorder confiscated on July 5 from the DGAC is NOT the one which was taken from the aircraft after the crash.

The Engines: CFMI assesses CFMI

The engines of the crashed aircraft have been examinated by the manufacturer (CFMI/SNECMA) himself instead of independent experts. An Operational Bulletin (OEB 19/1) about Engine acceleration deficiency at low altitude was sent out before the accident, in May 1988 (but Air France didn't pass it to its Airbus A320 pilots) and was modified in August (OEB 19/2). The engines, too, were modified after the accident.

Germain Sengelin

Germain Sengelin, investigating magistrate at Mulhouse, was amazed that the Black Boxes had been out of control of justice for 10 days. On Tuesday July 5 1988 at 12.30 pm he ordered the recorders to be confiscated at Paris. His order ought to have been executed before 5 pm; in fact, for some reason, it was not executed before Wednesday July 6 8.00 am: This is another anomaly.

Norbert Jacquet

Norbert Jacquet, an Air France pilot who spoke out in Asseline's support, was suspended from duty and had his licence withdrawn by Air France on the grounds of "mental instability". Meanwhile he has got five psychiatric certificates which unanimously state that he is completely sane and does not have any signs of mental trouble. One understands that co-pilot Pierre Mazière, who has continued to fly for Air France after the accident, cannot dare to express himself on the subject.

The Forest

When the aircraft hit the trees, its wings made an aisle in the forest - a valuable source of evidence. However the forest has been razed with precipitation within 3 days after the accident. The order to cut the trees was given by Mr Mangane and Mr Villeneuve from the Accident Investigation Bureau. While going down, the aircraft cut the trees at a height of 11 m (36 ft) on the left and 8.5 m (28 ft) on the right side. This difference might indicate that the engines were not running at the same speed. That has not been taken into account in the final report.

Why shouldn't one believe the official version?

Consider the following argument: If anything was OK with the aircraft, why did the DGAC withhold the tapes until the police confiscated them? Why are there several seconds missing in the recordings, just before the impact? Why have the Black Boxes been substituted? The people interested in the success of the aircraft would be stupid if they aroused unnecessarily suspicion and rumours.

Why should someone who has a clear conscience behave in a suspicious way? That's why I think it's difficult to believe that the investigation was in order.

The Sentence

5 persons have been accused for injury and manslaughter by the Court of Colmar/France:

  • Captain Michel Asseline
  • First Officer Pierre Mazière
  • the president of the Habsheim airclub
  • a Security Officer of Air France
  • a Director of Flight Operation of Air France

In 1996, the court refused a request of Asseline's defense for annulment of the flight-data recordings. On March 14, 1997, the Court of Colmar pronounced its judgment under the presidency of judge Christian Riss: Asseline gets 6 months of imprisonment plus 12 suspended on probation. The other 4 accused all get prison sentences suspended on probation. So the Court gives the major responsibility to Captain Asseline. Asseline announced he would make appeal, if necessary he will appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. Mazière said he accepted the judgment. Anyway Mazière never comments the accident - he is still flying for Air France.

The appeal process startet in January 1998, again at the Appeals Court of Colmar, under the presidency of judge Claudine Krieger-Bour. On April 9, 1998, the Court declared Asseline guilty of manslaughter and bodily harm, again on the basis of the doubtful recordings, and increased the original sentence to 10 months of imprisonment plus 10 months on probation.

Asseline walked free from the court and said he would appeal to France's Supreme Court, the Cour de Cassation. The arrest will become valid in about one year, and according to French law, Asseline must declare himself prisoner before his appeal is examined by the Court.

So the French Justice fails to confiscate in due time pieces of evidence, which could possibly prove the innocence of an accused, and nevertheless uses these pieces against him after 8 years.

The IPSC report: The Flight Data Recorder has been substituted!

N°1: Photograph taken from a helicopter by journalists of SIPA-Press on the accident site N°2: Enlargement of photograph N°1 showing Mr. Gérard carrying the Black Boxes: the CVR on the left, the DFDR on the right

N°3: Black Boxes photographed at the Court of Colmar (the DFDR being in the foreground) N°4: Enlargement of photograph N°2, showing the visible side of the CVR

The Institute of Police Forensic Evidence and Criminology (Institut de Police Scientifique et Criminologique, IPSC) based at Lausanne/Switzerland has analyzed photographs from the site of the accident showing a man carrying the Black Boxes. The Black Boxes are equipped with white stripes so that they can more easily be detected under water.

The IPSC has determined that the DFDR from the aircraft has straight stripes on its side (perpendicular to the edges), whereas the DFDR presented at the trial has angled lines. The IPSC comes to the conclusion that:

  • either Mr. Gérard is NOT carrying the DFDR of the crashed Airbus A320 on the photograph
  • or the DFDR presented at the trial is NOT the one from the crashed Airbus A320.

Read the detailed report on the IPSC report on the site of the French Airline Pilots' Association www.snpl.com/habsheim.html (in French)

The Air Bulletin writes:

The black box of an Airbus that crashed during an air show in France in 1988 was replaced with another after the accident, a report shows. Three people died when an A320 airliner piloted by Michel Asseline ploughed into a forest and burst into flames after a low pass over an airfield near the eastern French city of Mulhouse. Mr. Asseline, a former Air France pilot, was sentenced to ten months in jail by an appeal's court for manslaughter and bodily harm over the crash, but he always maintained that the flight data used by investigators and displayed at the trial was a fabrication.

Acting on Mr. Asseline's request, the renowned Institute of Police Forensic Evidence and Criminology (IPSC) of Lausanne (Switzerland) examined documents from the crash and the trials and concluded that the black box of the aircraft had been switched after the accident. Along with its report, the IPSC published photographs of a French Directorate General for Civil Aviation (DGAC) official retrieving the black box from the wreckage of the aircraft. After enlarging, a photograph shows straight white stripes on the side of the black box. The black box presented at Mr. Asseline's trials as the original one had angled white lines on its side.

The report is expected to be a boost in Mr. Asseline's attempt to have his conviction overturned. Mr. Asseline has already exhausted all appeal procedures and has now filed a claim with France's highest court, which rules only on legal technicalities and will not look into the crash again, to have the first trial annulled for evidence tampering. Until the report from the IPSC, Mr. Asseline's claim that the black box had been switched after the crash had no solid proof, but there were doubts on the integrity of the crash investigation because of a one week delay between the time the Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) and the Cockpit Data Recorder (CDR) were retrieved from the wreckage and the day they were handed over to investigators. To this date, it is not clear exactly who held the black box for a week and why.



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