A Licensed Aircraft Maintenance Engineer has received a 10 year prison sentence by an Athens court for allegedly not resetting a cockpit switch following maintenance on the Helios Airways Boeing 737-300 which crashed into a mountain near Athens in 2005 after its oxygen supply failed and the pilots and most of the passengers fell unconscious. It is difficult to grasp how aviation safety can be improved if the legal process surrounding an aircraft accident allows an engineer to be condemned to a prison sentence based on an «assumption» that a cockpit Switch (critical to flight safety) was set in the incorrect position….
There was absolutely no evidence presented during the trial that the Engineers actions caused or even contributed to the accident. On the contrary, the conviction is based purely on the unproven supposition that the switch was left in the incorrect position although it was demonstrated by experts that that was unlikely. In fact some accident investigators maintain that the switch was still in AUTO (correct position) at impact. The factual evidence in the Helios case paints a rather different picture of the engineer than that suggested by this decision. The facts suggest an extremely conscientious and professional engineer performing the job at hand in an extremely professional manner.
Perhaps most importantly, the decision makes the ground engineer criminally responsible for the configuration of the controls of the aircraft, prior to the flight crew joining and carrying out their pre-flight and post take off checks. Such a proposition runs completely counter to the core proposition of division of responsibilities that every engineer and every pilot will recognise but which sadly various engineers and pilots called as witnesses on behalf of the prosecution felt able to deny.
Once again we are witnessing a judicial process that offered an opportunity to improve aviation safety failing to meet that challenge preferring instead to allocate blame on an uninformed and irrational basis and with a mindset that someone must pay because an accident sadly causing deaths has occurred and society demands a scapegoat. The current trend of criminalising aircraft accidents serves no other purpose other than to undermine safety and will ultimately lead to more accidents. Despite all the rhetoric about aviation safety being paramount, the introduction of safety and quality management systems, the simple fact remains that due to a failure on the part of Europe to create a centre of investigatory excellence for the industry and to eliminate the inappropriate use of accident reports for criminal purposes; instead pandering to the blame culture, safety systems will fail to deliver what air travellers want – Safety in the skies.