|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
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
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 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.
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.
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:
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).
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
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
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 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
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, 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.
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.
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.
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
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.