Monday, March 30, 2015

Germanwings "No Right to Rule Out Other Hypotheses"

BEA's chief Remi Jouty
As if awaking from a stunned stupor, (incapacitation with breathing perhaps?) the Bureau d'Enquêtes et d'Analyses, the French air safety investigatory authority, has suddenly spoken. After six days in which French law enforcement has all but wrapped up the case of the crash of Germanwings Flight 9525, the spokeswoman for the BEA has told The New York Times, her agency's ire was focused on the shocking leak of the content of the cockpit voice recorder, but had no statement about the appropriateness of concluding the cause of the accident without recovering crucial pieces of evidence.

That wise disclaimer was left for Jean-Pierre Michel an official with the judicial police who, in one of the only moderate statements to emerge from this fiasco told the Times, “we have no right today to rule out other hypotheses including the mechanical hypotheses, as long as we haven’t proved that the plane had no problems.”


Jean-Pierre Michel
Michel arrived in Germany on Friday “to coordinate the action of French investigators” which I can only hope is bureaucrat speak for, trying to regain control of an investigation that turned into a media circus when the prosecutor in Marseilles concluded the pilot wanted to destroy the aircraft.

This rocket scientist made the statement that investigators knew the pilot was not incapacitated because they could hear him breathing. Well incapacitation means alive and helpless therefore breathing. (Should I have to point that out to someone who went to law school?) It was at that moment that I realized the gravity of the shift of this probe from the tin kickers to the law enforcers.

Martine del Bono, spokeswoman for the BEA, has been completely silent, failing to answer my calls or emails. From the quote in the Times, however, I see where the blame for the mess is going from her perspective.

For years, I've listened to accident investigators gripe about social media and how quickly news is disseminated. From runway overruns to macadamia nut fracus to #hashtag #trending with a single click.

Investigators don’t know about social media. They don't like social media. About the bitching and moaning on this subject at an air safety investigators' conference in 2013, I wrote, "aviation regulators and airline executives are frustrated by social media as a communication source  - about which they know little but the disturbing fact that they cannot control it, even when the information is distorted or flat out wrong."

The crash scene, BEA photo
The scenario in Germanwings, as explained to me, is that once Nicola Clark of the New York Times broke her fabulous exclusive that the captain was locked out of the cockpit based on the statement of an unidentified military official, it began a cascade of events that culminated in the “we can all wrap it up and go home” conclusion of the Marseilles prosecutor Brice Robin.

This would have been the time for the BEA to use its considerable knowledge base to call its own news conference and explain to reporters that accident investigations are complicated affairs. That much, Much, MUCH, information lies on the mountainous terrain of the Alps and that their sworn duty is to collect it, examine it and let it lead them scientifically to the cause. Or at the very least to urge moderation in their reporting.

Instead the department sat silently by while journalists and criminal investigators used a mountain of speculation, innuendo and pseudoscience to create a portrait of a quiet maniac based on shredded doctors notes and an interruption in the first officer's pilot training.


I have no idea what happened on that airplane, but I know how accident investigations are handled and this one has been off the rails since the criminal investigators got involved. There's no getting it back.  The BEA can blame the Times. It can blame unnamed "leakers". It can blame the twitter-sphere. It should examine its own inability to adapt to a changing environment and ask, "Who really gets wet when pissing in the wind?"

Regardless of whether this pilot was a perpetrator or a victim like everyone else on the plane, it is important to know what really happened. That's in serious danger now as prosecutors, in a race to prove their initial hunch, go out to find the evidence to support their theory. 
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