Madrid court clears mechanics of responsibility for fatal Spanair crash

Report places blame for tragedy on human error by pilots

The regional High Court of Madrid on Wednesday shelved the criminal investigation into the fatal 2008 Spanair crash at Barajas airport and dismissed the charges against two mechanics working for the airline on the day of the disaster.

The August 20, 2008 accident resulted in the deaths of 154 people. Just 18 passengers survived the disaster, which was caused by a series of mechanical faults, causing the Boeing MD-80 aircraft to crash on take-off.

Last December, the investigating judge concluded his probe and provisionally charged Felipe García and José Antonio Viñuelas with 154 counts of negligent homicide and 18 of causing injury. The court ruled that the two mechanics were not responsible for the crash and instead apportioned blame for the disaster on the pilots, Antonio García Luna and Francisco Mulet, who forgot to deploy the flaps and slats necessary to give the aircraft lift on take-off. An alarm system, TOWS, designed to warn of any mechanical failure was also faulty. Both pilots died in the accident.

In its report, the court stated that there was no provable link between the failure of the two mechanics to get to the root of a problem with the air temperature probe (RAT) and the failure of the aircraft's TOWS system on take-off. The malfunction of the RAT probe had caused the flight to be called back to the hangar an hour before the accident. In accordance with the Minimal Equipment Manual, the mechanics simply disconnected the probe’s fuse and dispatched the aircraft. The manual states that faults of this kind can be delayed for up to 10 days.

“There are no rational indications that the disconnection of the RAT affected the TOWS system, thereby generating a risk that contributed to the result,” the court report read.

It also remains unclear whether the TOWS system would have functioned had the RAT been properly repaired. The magistrates noted that the malfunction of the RAT is a rare and atypical occurrence and that Boeing has recorded 106 incidents involving the probe on its aircraft since 2000.

The court rejected appeals on behalf of the victims’ association, which called for executives of Spanair, airport administrator Aena and McDonnell Douglas to be charged. It also ruled that there were sufficient medical staff available to deal with the aftermath of the crash and that a delay of “20 to 25 minutes” in ambulances reaching the stricken aircraft was attributable to the scale of the tragedy and the difficulty in accessing the area of the airport where the crash occurred.

The magistrates did, though, leave the civil jurisdiction path open to the victims’ families to seek compensation.

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