Prison Time for Pilots?
The verdict by a French appeals court last week that Continental Airlines wasn’t responsible for the crash of an Air France Concorde in July of 2000 that killed 113 was a just decision. A French court had originally ruled that Continental and one of its mechanics was responsible for the crash. A mechanic had installed a metal strip on a Continental DC-10 that came off, later puncturing the tire of the Concorde as it was taking off, sending rubber into the engine and starting the fire that brought the airliner down shortly after it had lifted off from Paris.
The assigning of blame for what is clearly a freak accident is something that sticks in the craw of most pilots. We do what we do with the knowledge that there’s a little bit of luck in our staying safe. Near mid-air collisions are far more common than mid-air collisions, thanks to the big sky we fly in, but for a couple of airplanes every year, the sky isn’t quite big enough. The Continental mechanic who made the repair to the DC-10 did so in good faith that it was a good repair. The chances of that repair failing and causing another airplane to crash catastrophically were, statistically speaking, zero. That mechanic won the reverse lottery. It happens.
In the United States, unlike in France, we typically leave enforcement of pilots and mechanics to the FAA and let the courts do their thing with actual criminals. Bust a TFR and you’ll have your ticket suspended. Steal an airplane and the FBI will be talking to you. That is as it should be.
Letting the FAA have its rightful position as enforcer of aviation regulations makes things very clear about which agency you’ll answer to if you screw up.
In other countries this is not always the case. In Brazil, courts pressed criminal charges against a pair of U.S. pilots who survived a midair between the business jet they were flying and a Brazilian airliner, that subsequently crashed, killing all aboard the 737. The pilots, so far as anyone can tell, made the mistake of simply flying the clearance they were issued. In my view, they should be collecting an award instead of being threatened with jail time.
The charges had the appearance of an attempt by the Brazilian courts to cover up for the controller’s grievous error, putting two jets on intersecting courses at the same altitude.
That was a tragic mistake. Was it criminal, though? It depends, I guess, on where the mistake was made. Here, it would probably lead to the controller being fired. In France, it might mean criminal charges, despite the fact there was no intent and arguably no negligence. How, then, was there a crime? Same for the Continental mechanic. In the latter case, at least the French court got it right in the end.
The bottom line is, sometimes tragic mistakes are simply that.