Aircraft mechanic Felipe García has a contrite look on his face as he walks into the first interview he has given to the press. Speaking before the criminal case against him was shelved, it was unclear whether he was afraid of the interview itself, or rather just unwilling to have to relive the tragedy of Spanair flight JK5022, which crashed on August 20, 2008, killing 154 people and injuring 18 survivors. Until Wednesday, García - along with his supervisor José Antonio Viñuela - was facing 154 counts of involuntary manslaughter and 18 counts of injuries. Now that the case has been shelved, the now-defunct airline is facing civil action for its role in the crash.
As he talked, García's eyes often filled with tears. He is unwilling to lay the blame for what happened, but does not accept that the crash was his responsibility. He says he does not feel "guilty", and that his actions that day had "nothing to do" with the accident.
"I wouldn't wish this experience on anyone. It's a nightmare," sums up the 45-year-old airplane mechanic, who has been working in the job for 24 years.
The causes of the accident are already known. Captain Antonio García Luna and his aide, Francisco Mulet, who was in charge of take-off, forgot to deploy the flaps and slats, which generate the necessary lift to get the aircraft in the air. In addition to that, the Take-Off Warning System (TOWS) that alerts pilots of any such omissions failed to work. The black box recordings reveal a mood of distraction in the cockpit. There is laughter; the co-pilot phones his girlfriend to warn her that the flight has been delayed; and there was a guest present, as well. The delay had been caused by a malfunctioning heat sensor. The captain took the plane back to the gate to get that checked out, which is when García gave the aircraft the OK after deactivating the heat sensor (known by its acronym, RAT). It was after that, on its second take-off attempt, that the plane crashed and burned.
Question. The judge said that you "unduly" sent the aircraft on its way without investigating the causes of the breakdown.
Answer. I was on the runway, in a truck, and was told to go to Hangar 11 because a plane had turned back. The pilot told me that the RAT temperature was high. [...] I took out the Minimum Equipment List (MEL) and saw that fixing this breakdown could be postponed. I checked with my boss, who said he agreed. [Every aircraft has a manufacturer's manual telling mechanics whether a breakdown is severe and whether the plane can fly without repairing it immediately.]
"Hit the gas!"
Either because they forgot or got distracted, the pilots of Spanair flight JK5022 did not activate the flaps and slats and the aircraft only rose 12 meters at the end of the runway, according to expert reports on the accident. The last few seconds inside the cabin were chilling.
"Engine breakdown?" the captain asked the co-pilot, according to the black box recording, when he saw that the plane had no lift and the controls were shaking. Before the plane crashed to the ground, the captain is heard shouting: "¡Vuélalo!" (slang for "Hit the gas!").
The judge believes that the Minimum Equipment List should be stricter with regard to breakdowns, and not let a plane take off until they get fixed.
"That's not my problem, the plane manufacturers should change that," says Felipe García, the mechanic who worked on JK5022. Regarding the report drawn up by the judge's own experts, who found García responsible, he replies: "I imagine they are doing their job, but I disagree; one of the two maintenance technicians makes it clear that he disagrees with the other one."
Q. What did you talk to the captain about?
A. I told him about the defect, and he asked whether they could fly. I said there was a reference to it in the MEL, and that if he agreed, the repair work could be delayed. He also looked at the MEL, and agreed.
Q. Do many planes fly with glitches whose repairs have been delayed?
A. [García opens his eyes wide in an affirmative gesture, but his words are less categorical.] There are breakdowns where the repairs have a deadline. They are not all the same. They are designated by categories A, B, C and D. This was a C, where the repairs can be delayed up to 10 days. It depends on the type. That's what MEL is for.
Q. Why did the TOWS alarm not go off after the pilots forgot to activate the flaps?
A. I don't know. I've been asking myself a lot of questions for a long time, and I don't have the answer to some of them.
Q. What are the unanswered questions you've been asking yourself?
A. The flap issue, how it was the pilots failed to see that they were not activated when they performed the check.
Q. Did the RAT breakdown have anything to do with the TOWS alarm not working? Why did you not check the TOWS?
A. They have nothing to do with each other. They're different systems. The TOWS is an alarm, and the RAT measures outside temperature. If you deactivate the RAT the TOWS stays activated. I insist, this was a plane in transit and my job was to check the breakdown I was told about, not to check every single system.
Q. When did you hear about the accident?
A. My wife told me about it. I was at home, sitting on the couch, napping. She told me but she didn't know which plane it was or anything... Later the base chief called me and said, 'The plane crashed. It has nothing to do with what we did here, but just so you know.' I couldn't believe it...