In 1996, a ValuJet MD-80 went down in the Florida Everglades, killing all 110 on board. The cause of the crash was ultimately traced to oxygen generators, which had been removed from service and improperly secured and loaded into the plane’s cargo hold.
The FBI became involved early on. Various players were charged with, among other things, criminal conspiracy to falsify records and violations of regulations concerning hazardous materials.
That turned out to be a bad idea. As soon as the FBI came on scene, witnesses clammed up. Many refused to talk unless granted immunity from prosecution. The NTSB’s work came, to some extent, to a standstill.
The lesson learned from the ValuJet crash was that, after an accident, determining the cause of the crash so that others can be prevented should be paramount. Meeting that objective requires a free flow of information. Except in the most egregious cases, aviation accidents should not be the subject of criminal proceedings.
On Monday, a French court convicted a US mechanic of involuntary manslaughter in connection with the July 2000 crash of the Air France Concorde. The details of the charges against the mechanic are here. Regardless of whether it sticks on appeal, the guilty verdict will negatively impact aviation safety for years to come.
The verdict will result in no additional compensation for the Concorde families. Nor will it bring about any additional improvements in industry maintenance practices. As discussed here, those improvements happened long ago as a result of the civil lawsuits. All that the guilty verdict will do is cause those involved in future aviation accident investigations to assert their 5th amendment right to keep mum for fear of criminal prosecution. That will make it only more difficult to determine the cause of an aviation accident, and to bring about the changes necessary to prevent similar accidents from happening again.