From: email@example.com (Robert Dorsett)
Subject: Criminal justice and air crashes...
Date: 20 Jan 93 02:39:37 PST
Peter Ladkin's comment RE the charging in relation to the Air Inter
crash reminded me of another incident. Many countries establish
kangaroo courts in response to air disasters, to satisfy an
immediate blood-lust on the part of the families and the local
community. Civilized countries, of course, prefer to punish
everyone involved via drawn out, expensive civil suits. :-) (although
I will note that a hysterical prosecutor in New York was awfully quick
to talk about criminal charges against a USAir crew after one of their
runway overruns at La Guardia :-)).
The following is adapted from _Human factors in managing aviation
safety: proceedings of the 37th annual international air safety
seminar, held October 29-November 1, 1984, in Zurich, Switzerland_.
Sponsored by the Flight Safety Foundation.
This is based on an "open letter" by Captain Max Venet, of Swissair.
He was ordered to investigate the crash of a Swissair DC-8 at Athens
on October 7, 1979. They were charged with manslaughter. A trial was
held April 25-27, 1983; the captain and first officer were sentenced
to five years imprisonment. Prior to the verdict, Swissair offered
to post a 20 million drachma bail ($266,000), to allow the crew to
skip town. The captain refused, wanting to make this a test-case,
since both the circumstances of the crash and the behavior of the
authorities are not unique to Greece: I am not sure how it all worked
out. The last I heard of it (1985), IFALPA was trying to organize a
pilot boycott of Greece.
The reader not familiar with runway variability should be aware that
runways come in all shape, sizes, and lengths. Runway markings can
range from nonexistent to excellent: conditions can range from
heavily grooved, high-quality baking surfaces to flat, rubber-coated
skidding ranges. The actual composition of runways is also not
guaranteed: Karachi, for many years, had a reputation as one of the
worst in the world, being comprised of large cement blocks, none of
which were at the same elevation as the ones adjoining, and many of
which had wide gaps between them, as they settled. Pilots flying
into Karachi often likened it to a controlled crash. All runways
also have a slope (they aren't level), and all long ones have
definite *differences* in slope from one end to another, such that
it often isn't possible to see more than a few thousand feet down.
At any rate, original text follows. My comments are in brackets .
ATC: Air traffic control
IAS: Indicated airspeed.
ICAO: International Civil Aeronautics Organization.
IFALPA: International Federation of Airline Pilot Associations.
TDZ: Touchdown Zone
VOR: VHF Omni Range, a navaid. ]
On the evening of October 7, 1979, a Swissair DC-8-62 started his
approach for a landing at Athens-Hellinikon Airport coming from
Geneva, bound for Bombay and Peking.
Due to fuel availability constraints in Athens, the airplane carried
16 tons of extra fuel, according to company instructions, and was at
maximum landing weight, with 154 persons on board, including 10
After passing Didmon VOR at FL 210 at 19:51 local time, the aircraft
was cleared for a radar vector to ILS 33 to be followed by a visual
circling approach to the landing on runway 15L.
Wind reports issued by the controllers indicated 090/18 knots, during
the initial approach, and 090/12 kts. in short final.
Suspecting a wet runway, while in downwind leg for runway 15L, the
crew asked the tower about the braking action.
A Greek B-707, which had just landed, reported a "medium to poor"
braking action, and this was acknowledged by the Swiss crew.
Owing to terrain obstacle in the flight path, the landing threshold
of runway 15L is displaced 920 meters, and the DC-8 followed the
prescribed curved visual approach procedure, lining up with runway
centerline at 450 feet on the normal approach slope angle.
During this phase of the approach, a windshear was encountered,
momentarily increasing IAS from 145 kts. to 160, and a power
correction was applied to reduce airspeed, together with the adoption
of a 1000/1500 ft/min rate of descent to stay on the proper slope
angle despite the tailwind effect.
At 300 ft., the airspeed was stabilized around 150 kts., and the rate
of descent adjusted to normal value.
The DC-8 touched down approximately 400 to 500 meters after the
displaced threshold 15L on runway centerline, with almost no flare.
The first officer, who was at the controls, initiated the normal
thrust-reversing sequence prescribed by Swissair according to Douglas
specification: idle reverse thrust on all four engines, then full
reverse thrust on the two inboard engines, whilst spoilers were
He then tested the wheel brakes and applied brake pressure
progressively according to procedures.
At this stage, owing to the profile of the runway, the pilots could
not see the end of runway and thereby assess remaining distance.
Deceleration appearing slow, the Captain increased reverse thrust on
all four engines and increased pressure on the brakes at no avail,
whilst the antiskid devices were in action in "release" mode on what
appeared a very slippery portion of the runway [rubber deposits along
1200 m TDZ 33R].
When sighting the red lights of runway centerline's last 190 meters
(non ICAO standard, not published in IAP), and preceding immediately
a 30% abrupt downward terrain slope and a rough terrain depression
cut at 90 degrees by a road bluff), the crew was caught by surprise
and, despite heavy braking and full reverse power, was unable to stop
the DC-8, which ended its course 30 meters past the runway concrete.
A desperate last second alteration of heading to the left enabled the
crew to avoid the heavy metallic poles of approach lights 33R.
During this phase, the landing gear collapsed and the tail cone hit
the edge of concrete runway extremity, while the aircraft stopped
against the road.
Fire broke out from dismantled fuel tanks spilling their contents
onto hot engine debris, and the center aft section of fuselage was
seriously damaged during impact.
The crew did their best to help the passengers out of the aircraft
through the front and aft left exits. Inflatable evacuation ramps
were quickly damaged by spreading ignited fuel, and several
passengers were injured during evacuation.
Fourteen passengers died trapped in the center aft section of
fuselage and could not be rescued in the raging fire.
Fire-fighting trucks arrived within 3 or 4 minutes from the US Air
Force base and from the airport emergency facilities but were unable
to master the fire immediately: their trucks being unable to move
down the 30% terrain slope, the fire was initially fought from the
concrete runway extremity, some 40 meters away from the fire source.
Some vehicles finally managed to reach the road on which the DC-8 had
come to rest, but for this, had to use a complicated pattern of
peripheral roads to gain access to the wreck. Even then, only one
side of the aircraft could be reached, the DC-8 sitting on the road
and the vehicles being unable to reach the other side.
[ Author notes that certain conclusions in the Greek accident report
were impossible to sustain, given the five-parameter flight data
This trial was held in a scandalous manner, according to all the
people who attended it (Airline officials, lawyers, press
correspondents, pilots and cabin crew): the tribunal room was a noisy
caravanserail where a constant flow of turbulent visitors came in and
out to take photographs of the accused pilots and tape record the
The first morning session started at 9:30 AM with cases dealing with
prostitution, thefts, swindling and other misdemeanors. Without
transition, the same court called the witnesses for the Swissair
pilots case and started their cross-examination and testimonies.
The two eminent Greek attorneys selected by Swissair to defend its
two pilots did a great job and deserve admiration for the quality of
The Court was composed of three judges, one state prosecutor and one
The hearings were stopped at 2PM and started again at 6PM the same
day till 3AM the next day without interruption.
The last day session started again at 6PM and the verdict rendered at
Most of the time, the main judge could be seen asleep, while the
secretary was drawing instead of taking the minutes.
Finnair DC-8 captain and several Olympic Airways captains who had
landed in Athens within a few minutes before the accident or shortly
after testified at the very poor water drainage and the very slippery
status of this runway, especially on the portion of 1200 meters
corresponding to the heavily utilized (80% of the time) touch down
zone of runway 33R contaminated by thick rudder deposits, oil and
kerosene mixed with undrained rainwater.
US expert specialists of runway friction analysis testified under
oath that such a combination of elements, together with the absence
of accurate wind measurement (wind was measured at threshold of
runway 33 while the landing runway was 15), had undoubtedly been the
main causal factor of this accident.
After the prudent and short, rather neutral declarations of ATC
controllers and of some airport employees, the head of the Greek
Civil Aviation Authority came to deny all responsibilities on behalf
of his Services: according to him, everything was in conformity with
ICAO Standards and Recommended Practices (I), and, if the foreign
airlines were not happy about Athens Airport, nobody compelled them
to operate on this airport.
The two Swissair pilots stood for hours listening with perfect
dignity and finally testified for almost two hours again before the
State prosecutor started to announce his accusation, taking no
account of the arguments brought forward by the witnesses and by the
This marathon went for three hours with the two attorneys presenting
the defence plea.
The judge then suddenly seemed to wake up, withdrew with his two
assessors, the State prosecutor and the secretary.
Everybody was confident that, after such a brilliant defence and
bearing in mind that Swissair had financially settled all the claims
of the families of the victims, the accusation would be abandoned.
"After a ten minute recess, the Court came back. The judge was
smiling and left it to the State Prosecutor to start where the
"whereas." He then announced the sentence:
"FIVE YEARS and TWO MONTH of IMPRISONMENT for each pilot, "TWENTY
MILLION RACHMAS bail offer ($266,000), "POSSIBILITY FOR APPEAL."
The two pilots were convicted of MANSLAUGHTER, CRIMINAL NEGLIGENCE
AND INTERRUPTION OF AIR TRAFFIC. [emphasis in original]
[ RECOMMENDATIONS to IFALPA omitted ]