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Only the court and the prosecutor’s office are aware of why Boeing is not involved in Case 24120/2012

30 January 2013 / 23:01:47  GRReporter
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On 7 February, the Athens Court of Appeal will announce its decision on the case against the four employees of Helios Airways whose Boeing 737-300 crashed near Athens on 14 August 2005. The crash killed all 121 people on board. Stelios Voudouris is a representative of the "Ioannis Iriotis" law firm, which has undertaken to defend the four defendants - Dimitris Pandazis, CEO of Helios Airways, George Kikidis, director of flight operations, Ianko Stoimenov, chief pilot and Alan Irwin, chief engineer. Maria S. Topalova is talking with Stelios Voudouris.

- Mr. Voudouris, what do you think are the weak points in the pleadings of the prosecutor and the lawyers for the prosecution?
- The honourable prosecutor and the honourable colleagues from the prosecution accept that the cause of this tragic accident is the one mentioned in the report of the Greek commission to investigate the accident. It is that the switch adjusting the pressurisation system was in the "manual" rather than the "automatic" position and therefore, the cabin was not pressurised enough, which led to hypoxia - oxygen deficiency in the brain of all who were on board the aeroplane. As a result, they lost consciousness and in reality the aeroplane was flying without control. We believe, and I personally strongly support the view, that this scenario is not confirmed. It is not confirmed because the necessary checks that can help us make such a conclusion were not carried out. From the outset, we wanted to bring to the court the control panel of the pressurising system and the switch selecting the mode of the system operation to subject them to microscopic analysis and to identify the traces on the control panel. These traces could have led to a conclusion as regards the starting position of the switch. Because the switch was found in a position that did not correspond to any of the three normal positions; it was found 7 mm after the "manual" position, it had obvious signs of physical confrontation and its lever was bent. That is to say, that bearing this in mind, nobody can tell what the starting position of the switch was in order for it to end up in this position, which is different from the normal operating position of the switch.

    A group of Canadian experts in the field of crashes went to Cyprus and examined the control panel with a microscope and high-resolution lens. It is still in Cyprus. The experts found that the movement of the switch started from the "automatic" position. This means that if the selected operating mode of the pressurisation system was "automatic" and the cabin was not pressurised, then it was a design fault, a functional problem, which indicates a technical failure. I.e. there was a failure in the pressurisation system and although it was in automatic mode, it was not functioning, as it should have been. This changed the way the pilots reacted because they relied on the automatic mode and there was no way for them to be aware that there might have been a problem. That is to say that the whole theory accepted by the Greek commission to investigate the accident fails. The report of the Canadian experts was reviewed with great attention by leading U.S. experts on aviation safety and they asked the U.S. commission on flight safety to do what it could to resume the investigation. The British Civil Aviation Office has also asked the Hellenic commission to resume the investigation of the accident, taking into account the findings of the Canadian experts. In my opinion, the argument due to which it is believed that the starting "manual" position of the switch is undeniable is absolutely groundless.

- Is this to say that we know what the cause of this tragedy was?

- The cause of the crash was that the cabin was not pressurised, the aeroplane was not pressurised. No one on board had the amount of oxygen that the brain needed to function. The higher you are, the less the oxygen content in the air. To function properly, the human brain needs a minimum amount of oxygen. When the aeroplane cabin does not contain that minimum amount, the higher the aeroplane flies the faster the amount of oxygen in the brain drops. As a result, man loses consciousness first and brain damage follows next, and because the plane is not controlled, it falls. This was the reason - the lack of pressurisation in the aeroplane cabin. There are two explanations. The first is that of the Greek commission, which is accepted by the prosecutor and the prosecution. The other is based on an examination which the Greek commission to investigate the accident did not carry out and which shows that the lack of pressurisation was due to a failure in the pressurisation system rather than to pilot error.

- And what caused this failure?

- This failure was due to a flaw in the design of the aeroplane. The electronic system and the mechanics were not functioning. The aeroplane design created problems, very serious problems, and it was the reason for the pilots not to find out in time that the cabin was not pressurised. The design of the specific model has been modified with recommendations for safety and improvement of the flying capacity. The so-called Airworthiness Directives in aviation, so that no legitimate flights by that aircraft type are made as happened on that fatal day. Both the processes and the signal systems have been changed and there is already a visual indication that alarms the pilot of a problem with the cabin pressure. This was the only model without visual indication of pressure loss. It had only sound indication that was the same for another system - the problem was reported both before and after the crash, namely that the pilots confuse this sound alarm and associate it with another reason that turns it on. This is something that happened during this flight too, unfortunately.

- Is the Boeing Company a party in this trial?

- The Boeing Company is not involved in the Greek criminal procedure.

- Why is that?

- This is a question for the prosecution and the court.

- Doesn’t the CrewVoiceRecorder in the cockpit give a clear answer to the cause of the crash?

- In aeroplanes, unlike ships, the time of recording the talks, which take place inside the cockpit by the CrewVoiceRecorder is very short. It records only for half an hour, if I remember well, which is absolutely insufficient to prove and reproduce what happened in a flight that lasted more than three hours, unlike in ships where it records the voices of the last 24 hours. I can give you the example of the sinking of the cruise ship Sea Diamond in Santorini in 2007, which I also represent. In this case, we know everything that was discussed on the bridge in the last 24 hours before the accident because it was recorded. Unfortunately, we cannot do this when it comes to aeroplane flights. If it were possible to record the conversations throughout the flight, we would not have grey areas and unanswered questions that are currently harassing all of us.

- There is some evidence that has been lost.

- When we requested the examination of some key evidence such as the pressurisation control panel and the switch, which selects the mode of its operation, we were surprised to find out that the switch had been lost. It had gone. We all understand that this is an important issue. This switch should have been examined in order for us to see the traces on its bottom side and to conclude how it was pushed from the position in which it was and what exactly its original position was. However, it has disappeared.

- In this situation, do you think that if a reinvestigation is carried out, it could help to reveal the truth?

- When you have 121 dead and the same number of families that have been destroyed, what should be done primarily for the sake of the memory of those people and for the sake of their families is to fully clarify what happened. I believe that a reinvestigation of the case will help a lot to prove what happened.

- In the trial, you are defending Helios’ chief pilot Ianko Stoimenov. What are the specific charges against him?
- Ianko Stoimenov to me is an outstanding professional, conscientious, a highly knowledgeable person, entirely dedicated to aviation. He was a chief pilot for Helios Airways. According to the theory, since the switch was in the "manual" position, then both the pilots were not trained well. This theory blames Ianko Stoimenov for not training them well in his capacity of chief pilot and not implementing the training sessions required by law. The examination of the records of the two pilots shows that not only Stoimenov, but the company as a whole, were doing not just what they were required to do, but that they went beyond the requirements of international law. Significantly, both pilots had repeatedly participated in trainings for failures in the pressurisation system in previous years. They were rated capable by dozens of trainers. They were very experienced and the documents show that they passed all statutory trainings and testing. I believe without reservation that Ianko Stoimenov fulfilled his obligations to the minutest detail.

Why is it that two parallel trials against the same people who are accused of the same crime are taking place in Greece and Cyprus?

- Each country has its own criminal law and justice, which makes parallel trials possible. Of course, within the context of the European Union and the attempts to complete the harmonisation in the field of criminal law, several steps have been taken in the Lisbon Treaty to recognize each other's final judgements that are not subject to appeal. That is to say that when a judgment is final in a country another country that has signed the Lisbon Treaty cannot initiate proceedings against the same people, i.e. seeking responsibility of the same individuals is not prohibited, but under the Lisbon Treaty, when there is a final judgement in one country the other one shall stop the procedure. There is an intermediate stage - that of pending court decisions, starting from the beginning of the trial until its completion. The Lisbon Treaty has not regulated this stage. I.e. the stage of the specific legal case – in Greece, the case is being heard in the second instance whereas it is pending in Cyprus. This means that there is no final decision in both countries but there is no regulatory text of what to be done in this case. It might be advisable, for example, to suspend one of the trials until the second one is completed. In this way, both parties are obliged to continue this trial until the court in one of the two countries announces a final decision. This trial has strongly manifested this problem, precisely because there is no regulation of pending lawsuits.

Follow Maria S. Topalova on Twitter

Tags: Ianko StoimenovHelios AirwaysStelios VoudourisCourt of AppealBoeingPlane crash
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