Early on the morning of 14 August 2005, Alan Irwin, then 44, was with his partner, Donna, and their two young children in an apartment in Larnaca, Cyprus. It was a convenient base, only minutes from the airport. Irwin was an aircraft engineer; he had become obsessed with the technical aspects of planes as a young man in the Royal Air Force, following in the footsteps of his father, also an aircraft engineer and pilot. “I enjoy being around machines,” Irwin says. “If they’re broken, they’re broken. You can’t get angry at them. People can be quite frustrating.”
Irwin went on to work for airlines such as McAlpine Aviation and Monarch, and by 2005 had been a freelance licensed engineer for 15 years. The work suited him: it was well paid, and he liked to travel. He had worked in Kuwait, China, Malaysia, the Middle East, Africa, Mexico, Miami.
That April, Helios Airways, the low-cost Cypriot airline, hired Irwin for six months. He was a familiar face, having worked there in 2002. Small and trim, with wavy hair, he had an affable, hands-on manner his managers liked. Helios was based at Larnaca airport and had three aircraft – all Boeing 737s. Irwin’s job was to do the “turnarounds”: checking the plane over after it arrived and ensuring it was safe to take off again. On some days he was needed for only a few hours. “The work was interesting and the quality of life fabulous,” he says, from the home he designed and built himself in Bedfordshire. A pool table stands in the open-plan living room. “My lad used to stand on a plastic box the size of a top hat to take his pool shot,” he remembers. His son is now six foot five.
That day, Irwin had started work at 1am, finished at around 6.30am and was planning to take his children to the beach. It was the school holidays and his family were over from Bedfordshire, where they lived during term time. At 8am, the phone rang. It was the operations centre at Helios asking Irwin to go into the office. He didn’t think much of it. “Sometimes the engineering manager just wanted to chat about the flying programme or shift patterns,” he says.
But Irwin found the operations room in crisis. They had lost radio contact with one of their planes. Flight 522 had taken off from Larnaca for Athens at 6.07am. The flight time was one hour and 45 minutes. It was now more than two hours since takeoff and the plane was still in the air, with 121 people on board. The office had received a chilling report from two jets scrambled by the Hellenic air force to intercept the plane: the captain’s seat was empty; the person in the first officer’s seat was slumped over the controls; the only three passengers visible were motionless, wearing oxygen masks; and masks were dangling from overhead units. “Everyone was thinking terrorism,” Irwin says.
His response was measured. “Engineers aren’t particularly reactive people. I don’t panic. I just take the information and work through it.” The plane, now on autopilot, was circling over Athens, as if waiting for permission to land. Irwin calculated that it had taken off with enough fuel to be in the air for around three hours. In another 20 minutes, flight 522 would crash. As the news of the impending disaster spread, the operations room filled up. “It was decided I couldn’t be of any use,” Irwin says. “They said, ‘Go home. We’ll phone if we need you.’”
At 9.03am, flight 522 crashed into a hillside near the village of Grammatiko, 25 miles from Athens, killing everyone on board. There were 115 passengers, from Greece, Cyprus and Australia, and six crew. A fireball destroyed several acres of scrub and pasture land.
There is a ritual to aviation disasters. When a plane crashes, each twisted and charred fragment is painstakingly located, mapped and tagged, with findings submitted to investigating boards who probe and question, and draw conclusions. It is based on the principle that what we learn from one accident can help prevent another. But the rituals of disaster also involve a blame game, with a tendency to point to human error.
This has played out in the recent catastrophic crashes of two Boeing 737 Maxs. In the immediate wake of these crashes, involving newer planes, Boeing suggested the blame lay with the pilots. “Procedures were not completely followed,” said Boeing’s then CEO, Dennis Muilenburg, at a news conference in April 2019. A month later, Boeing admitted it had known about a software problem with its 737 Max planes a year before the fatal accidents – though it insisted that there were plans to address it. This week, however, a damning report by US politicians found that a “broken safety culture” at Boeing had contributed to both crashes.
Earlier this month, a Boeing spokesperson told the Guardian that, since the 737 Max crashes in 2018 and 2019, the company had developed a software update “expected to reduce the crew’s workload in non-normal flight situations and prevent erroneous data” from being shared. “Boeing is working closely with the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) and other international regulators to meet their expectations as we work to safely return the 737 Max to service.”
After the Helios crash, attention focused on a number of employees, including the airline’s chief pilot, Ianko Stoimenov, who was in charge of training and supervising pilots; and the captain, Hans-Jürgen Merten, who died in the crash. Of Merten, the accident report said: “His East German heritage meant he was likely a man of few words who was not very comfortable around people.” But a large portion of the blame was attributed to Alan Irwin. For him, it was the start of an eight-year legal battle. It destroyed his 20-year relationship with his partner; he lost his job and his equilibrium.
After the disaster, Greek air investigators determined that flight 522 had crashed because it had failed to pressurise properly. As it climbed, the air in the cabin had become too thin to breathe, causing most people to lose consciousness. The investigation quickly focused on the theory that the pressurisation selector switch had been left in “manual” rather than “auto”, and attributed this to human error – principally that of Irwin who, they said, had not returned the switch to its correct position after a safety check; and of incompetent pilots who had failed to spot the error.
This narrative was soon leaked to the press. “Alan Irwin… is at the centre of the inquiry after reports that a knob used to control cabin pressure was left in the wrong position after a safety check,” stated the Times.
Meanwhile, Boeing was also attributing the crash to human error. “Helios’s ground engineers did not follow Boeing’s correct procedure,” said Stephen Preston, a lawyer hired by the manufacturer, in a private deposition to the Greek courts seen by the Guardian. “At least 16 separate mistakes were made by the ground staff, the flight deck crew and the passenger cabin crew. If any one of these mistakes had not been made, the accident would not have happened.”
But the causes of the crash were more complicated. Since 1994, there had been a history of incidents involving a confusing alert system on Boeing 737s. A warning horn on the plane would sound for two very different reasons: problems with the takeoff configuration (incorrect positioning of wing flaps, for example) or as an altitude warning – a loss of pressure that leads to less oxygen on the plane. Boeing had been alerted to this as a safety concern – most recently by the director of Nasa’s Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS), the year before the crash.
For Irwin, this design flaw was crucial. “The crew have to take some responsibility, because at the end of the day they are in command of the airplane,” he says. “But if Boeing had listened to previous concerns, the crash wouldn’t have happened.”
What did, and didn’t happen, in the early hours of 14 August 2005? At 1.25am, flight 522 arrived at Larnaca airport from Heathrow. As Irwin walked out to the plane, the pilot told him about a tech log entry: noisy door. Cabin crew had heard a banging sound coming from the door used for loading catering supplies. “No problem, I’ll look at it,” Irwin said.
That day Irwin was working with Malcolm Fowler, then 39, a British engineer on a six-week contract with Helios. Irwin decided to carry out a cabin pressurisation leak check, to test the integrity of the door.
He switched the pressurisation selector switch to manual. This closes the outflow valve and means air inside the cabin cannot escape. (When the switch is in auto, a computer calibrates the pressure inside the plane automatically.) He told Fowler to sit by the problem door. They waited for a few minutes, but heard nothing. Irwin depressurised the plane, returning the switch, he stresses, to auto.
The flight took off. At 6.12am and at an altitude of 12,040ft, and climbing, the warning horn sounded. At 6.14am, the captain contacted the operations centre at Helios. Irwin was still on the airfield; he would always stay for 30 minutes after takeoff to make sure a plane got clear. He spoke to the captain. “He said, ‘My cooling light is off.’ There are two equipment cooling fans; if they fail, they bring the light on. So I said, ‘Well, they’re meant to be.’” In the accident investigation report, Irwin is recorded as asking the captain to confirm that the pressurisation panel was selected to auto. The captain replied, “Where are my equipment cooling circuit breakers?” Irwin told him they were behind his seat, and the call ended at 6.20am. Irwin went home.
Based on the flight data, the accident investigation report later concluded that the crew had “reacted to the warning horn as if it had been a takeoff configuration warning. Had the flight crew realised the significance, they should have immediately donned their oxygen masks.”
When Irwin watched the aftermath of the crash on TV a few hours later, he was stunned. “I felt numb because of all the people on board and the crew, who were friends – I’d known them for years,” he says. When the plane came down, it was travelling at an estimated speed of 400mph. The force of the impact was enormous, spreading chunks of metal and other fragments over two rocky hills. Most victims were found still strapped into their seats. The galley carts were stowed, suggesting the cabin crew had not yet begun to serve food or drinks. The most intact part of the plane was the tail section. Radiant among the burnt scrub and twisted metal was a giant portrait of the Greek sun god: the crest created in Helios’s glory days.
Three hours after flight 522 went down, a senior Helios executive put in a call to Kenyon International Emergency Services, based in Bracknell, Berkshire. Catastrophes are Kenyon’s business. The company is on a retainer with many of the world’s airlines, national governments and rail companies to provide practical help after a crisis: it leads efforts to recover and repatriate human remains, return possessions and help bereaved friends and relatives.
At 1.30pm, a briefing was held at Kenyon’s crisis management centre, where a rapid response team had been assembled. Some members flew to the crash site; others identified hotels in Cyprus and Greece where the bereaved could gather to receive information and support.
Kenyon’s co-owner and CEO, Robert Jensen, has learned many lessons in his 20 years with the company. One is that the airline should send a condolence letter to the bereaved: “It is a formal acknowledgment – of the loss, that life is changed and will for some time be very hard. And that the company involved, though perhaps not responsible, has a human face.”
But in the case of flight 522, families did not receive a letter.
Sean Gates, a lawyer who advises companies represented by Kenyon, attributes this to a fear of criminal prosecution: “Everybody at Helios was very scared of putting their head above the parapet. Nobody wanted to say sorry because that could be admitting fault.
Robert [Jensen] and I stayed up one night until two o’clock drafting the condolence letter, getting the wording right. We gave it to the board at Helios, but nobody would sign it. Ultimately no letter was sent.”
Gates notes that the antipathy “ramped up” every day; staff received threats, intimidation and abuse. The crash had been the deadliest in Greek history. Several children had been on board. “It reinforced the idea: this is a bad company, they don’t care, so they should be accountable,” Jensen says.
The crash was now an international news story. It was a “ghost plane”, a “flying tomb”, with people passed out in their seats for more than two hours. The forensic report concluded that victims had been alive on impact, though in a “deep, non-reversible coma”. There was a hero and a mystery: in the last 30 minutes (all that was documented on the cockpit recorder), a cabin attendant had used the emergency code to open the locked cockpit door, sat in the captain’s seat and tried, too late, to take control of the plane. As the engines flamed out and the aircraft started its rapid descent, he made an attempt to level it, alleviating the impact. How had he remained conscious? Why had he not entered the cockpit sooner?
The Greek-led accident investigation got under way. According to Gates, “The regulations are absolutely clear – the job is to find the causes and not to assign blame. But straight away,” he alleges, “there was a blame mentality. And, ultimately, Alan got caught up in that.”
When Irwin arrived at the police station in Larnaca, four days after the accident, he presumed it was for a casual chat – that the police might need technical assistance. Quickly, however, the atmosphere changed. “It started to get a bit heated. I thought it might be a good time to have a solicitor, just in case. The police refused. They said, ‘You’re not under caution – you are only assisting with an inquiry.’
“Right at the end, one of the officers said, ‘I put it to you that you left the switch in manual and you caused the accident.’ The other officer said, ‘You don’t have to answer that question, but it will be on your statement.’ So I said, ‘No comment.’” After that, they drew the 12-hour interview to a close.
At that point, Irwin still didn’t anticipate that he would be charged: “There was nothing criminal to answer for, I’d done my job.” On 29 August, he flew back to the UK, at Helios’s suggestion. But his name and address were published in the British newspapers. A photographer followed Irwin and Donna as they drove through their village. “He went the wrong way round a roundabout, leaning across, trying to get a photograph. That distressed Donna.”
Irwin had a job lined up at easyJet. But when managers realised he was implicated in the Helios crash, they withdrew the offer. It was only after engineers who knew Irwin spoke up for him that he was taken on. Life resumed, with Irwin still regarding the Greek accident investigation as misguided. “I still had faith in the system,” he says.
The linchpin of the case against Irwin was that, when investigators found the pressurisation mode switch at the crash site, it was in manual. Irwin had already acknowledged that he had turned the switch to manual to do the pressurisation test. This, the investigators alleged, proved that the switch had remained in this position throughout the flight.
Except that it was not left in manual, says Irwin, who argues that investigators had not accounted for the distorting effects of impact. He points out that the stem of the switch had been forcibly bent several degrees past manual. There were also deep gouge marks on the faceplate of the switch, suggesting trauma from the crash.
The switch was shipped for analysis to Boeing’s laboratory in Seattle. It was Boeing, under the supervision of an accident investigator, that concluded that the switch was in manual on impact. This finding formed the basis of the accident investigation report, published in 2006, which concluded that the crash had three direct causes: the switch being in manual; the failure to identify the cabin warning; and the crew being incapacitated by hypoxia, or lack of oxygen. (Boeing did not escape censure: the report also recorded “ineffectiveness of measures taken by the manufacturer in response to previous pressurization incidents” as a “latent” cause.)
The report’s finding that the switch was in manual formed the basis of the subsequent prosecution against Irwin; the wreckage was never examined by the Greek court. “The court more or less took what was in the report as gospel,” says Phil Giles. Formerly with the UK Air Accidents Investigation Branch, Giles was brought in as a technical adviser for Irwin’s defence team. He had worked on such high-profile cases as the Lockerbie bombing, and interviewed Irwin at length. “I gave him a bit of a hard time,” he says. “He didn’t bullshit, he just came out with what he did.”
Giles’s gut feeling was that Irwin had put the switch back to auto. His theory is that “it’s possible that the crew, for whatever reason… may have unintentionally left it in manual when they took off”. Irwin’s explanation for the crash is that the system that controlled the outflow valve failed. But, of course, there was no proof either way.
When Stephen Preston appeared before the Greek courts on Boeing’s behalf, on 20 and 21 February 2008, he gave a slew of reasons why the crash had been caused by human error: one third of Helios employees were seasonal and “many did not have Greek or English as a mother tongue”; Helios engineers “failed to use common sense… by leaving the pressure system selector in manual”; the pilots were “low standard” and their “inability to work together” was “well documented”, owing in part to the East German captain’s “authoritarian nature”.
According to Preston, the pilots “failed to react correctly” to the altitude warning alarm. “It appears [the first officer] reacted to what he took as a takeoff configuration warning signal, despite the fact that the plane was flying at 12,000ft.” This mix-up, he suggested, was so ridiculous as to be almost farcical. He pointed out that Boeing 737s had flown safely for decades and that, in millions of flights, “the Helios accident was the one and only accident in which pressure problems were not understood or were not put right”. But this downplayed a number of near misses and a string of complaints about the warning system.
When asked by the judge, Preston acknowledged that Boeing had been informed of six “air pressure instances” before the Helios crash. On 15 February 2001, a Boeing 737 on a flight from Kristiansund to Oslo in Norway was climbing above 10,000ft when the captain and first officer were surprised to hear the warning horn. Neither associated it with a pressurisation problem. Knowing that takeoff configuration couldn’t be the cause, they assumed that the problem was the horn itself and switched it off, only realising their mistake when the oxygen masks dropped in the cabin. A further four serious pressurisation incidents, all involving confusion over the warning horn on Boeing 737s, were reported to the Irish air accident investigation unit between 2000 and 2005. In 2004, the director of Nasa’s ASRS had brought the same safety concern to Boeing’s attention. Accident investigators had identified 10 incident reports on Nasa’s database over the previous decade, in which flight crews admitted to having, at least momentarily, misinterpreted a warning horn.
Preston told the Greek judge that the main cause, in five out of the six cases, was the “repeated habits of pilots to deactivate the air-conditioning systems and the air supply pipes from the motors, in order to assist takeoff, without reactivating these functions after takeoff”.
But “if the director of Nasa ASRS gives you a safety alert, you do something about it,” Giles says. “Boeing didn’t. And then we had the accident.”
In Preston’s deposition, the assumption was that when the warning horn sounded, the pilot would know the cause and respond appropriately. But Giles points out that the startle factor is huge: “Things will go off and you think: what the hell is that?”
Preston told the court that US aviation authorities had confirmed in 2003 that Boeing’s cabin altitude alarm system provided an “adequate level of safety”; and that, since the Helios crash, Boeing had updated its cabin crew manual to include guidance on how to differentiate between the two causes. He stressed that this “was not motivated by any notion that the 737 or any of its systems was in any way ineffective”.
But a document seen for the first time by the Guardian reveals quite a different picture. Eighteen months earlier, a Boeing safety assessment summary, conducted by the FAA in response to the Helios crash, had acknowledged that the pressurisation failure and the warning system were “likely a significant contributing factor”. The condition was anticipated to occur again, was “not likely to be detected by flight/cabin/ground crew” and brought “the airplane within one foreseeable failure of a catastrophic event”. This document, far more damning in its assessment, was not made public.
When I show it to Alan Irwin he is aghast. He had no idea of its existence.
Irwin was charged with manslaughter on 7 April 2008. “Officers from New Scotland Yard called me on my mobile. They said, ‘We need to meet up.’” He was served with court papers in a coffee bar at Luton airport, where he was working for easyJet. “I was gobsmacked,” he says. “Totally dismayed. I’d done nothing wrong.”
At the chief prosecutor’s office in Athens a month later, he was escorted by a large, powerful man with a machine gun: “I was being treated like a criminal.” The prosecutor released him to await trial in the UK.
His way of dealing with the court case was to remain detached. He read accident reports, canvassed experts, studied flight recorder details and won the support of Nadine Dorries, his MP. He approached it “as if I wasn’t involved, almost as a third party. That’s the only way you can keep sane.” Donna, however, was more fragile.
The couple met when Irwin was 27 and Donna was 22. Their son was born in 1995; their daughter in 1997. “It was an awesome life and we were really happy,” he says. Then, in 1998, the couple lost their third child during labour. Donna’s womb, weakened by an earlier caesarean, collapsed during the delivery. “Our daughter, Katy, was starved of oxygen. Poor little thing was born brain-damaged and passed away within three days,” Irwin says.
Donna had a hysterectomy: an abrupt end to the couple’s plans to have a large family. At 32, she was grieving for the loss of her child and her fertility. “She never let Katy go,” Irwin says. “It was agreed that the first one of us who passed away would be buried with Katy’s ashes.”
Irwin says Donna’s way of coping was to drink. “It started off with just wine, then spirits, anything.” By the time Irwin was charged with manslaughter, she was already a heavy drinker. “The thought of me being incarcerated somewhere, leaving her on her own with the children, contributed to her drinking getting out of hand.”
The couple separated in 2009 and Irwin was awarded custody of the children. As he awaited trial, he was getting to grips with being a single father and relying on his parents, who lived nearby, for support. “I stripped out one of the bedrooms and put all the kids’ school clothes in there for the week: all lined up on hangers, one for each day, so the kids knew exactly what they had.”
He tried to protect his children from the court case, but they heard rumours at school. “I always played it down: ‘Don’t worry about it, Dad will sort it out.’ But they were frightened.”
In December 2011, six years after the crash and three years after being charged, Irwin, then 51, found himself in a courthouse in Athens, on trial for the manslaughter of 121 people. In a windowless room, he sat by his lawyer, wearing his only suit – pinstriped and made by a tailor in Kuala Lumpur when he had worked for Malaysian Airlines more than 20 years before. Nearby was Ianko Stoimenov, Helios’s chief pilot, as well as CEO Demetris Pantazis and flight operations manager Giorgos Kikkides. All four faced the same charge of manslaughter by negligence.
“One lady came up to me in court holding a picture of her young son in a white military uniform,” Irwin remembers. “She went round each of us, one by one. She was furious. She blamed us for this boy’s death.”
The trial occasionally descended into farce: a technical expert had Alzheimer’s, and Irwin’s barrister was compelled to join a national barristers’ strike. Phil Giles believed Irwin should never have been charged. “It’s up to the flight crew to configure the plane for flight, not the engineer,” he says now.
Stoimenov, now 59, had moved to Cyprus with his wife and two children from Bulgaria in 2000. After the accident, he lost his job and was tried for manslaughter in two court cases (the first, in Cyprus and not involving Irwin, was dismissed and the defendants acquitted).
“When I first heard we were going to be prosecuted, my wife went to see a lawyer,” Stoimenov says. “She came back crying. Just to look into the case was €150,000. I was basically my own lawyer.” Between preparing pleas, he worked as a flying examiner and instructor in Oxford. “I don’t know how I survived. My kids were teenagers – they need you, and I was basically derailed.” His son left university in Sofia because he could no longer afford the fees.
On 20 April 2012, the day of the verdict, Irwin was advised not to be in court: “My barrister said, ‘If they don’t accept your appeal straight away, they may put you in prison there and then.’” He had dropped his children at school and was at home in Bedfordshire when his barrister called. He had been sentenced to 121 years – one for every person who died. “I said, ‘That’s quite a long time. Mind, the last 50 have flown by.’” The flippancy was his way of masking fear and disbelief. Later that day, his barrister called back to say his sentence had been reduced to 10 years because the court was not authorised to impose longer sentences. “I just shrugged,” Irwin says.
He was already looking ahead to a process he had more faith in. “I had been warned by my barrister even before the trial started that I would be found guilty, and the first time I’d get a decent hearing would be in the appeal court,” he says.
In the lead-up to the appeal, Irwin tried to carry on as normal, going to work. “Quite often I’d sit down in the evening with the dog next to me and go through papers, accident reports, figures,” he says. But his conviction had been widely reported. “The kids got to hear about it. I just said, ‘Don’t worry, Dad’s got it in hand.’”
Thirteen months later, Irwin won his appeal. Again, his barrister advised him not to be present for the verdict. “He called saying, ‘You’ve been found not guilty’ – not exonerated, just not guilty. I didn’t celebrate. A lot of people had perished. If the cabin staff and pilots could have come back and shared a drink, that would have been the day to open a bottle of bubbly.” Donna never got to see his name cleared. She died from an alcohol-related disease in 2012. Her ashes are buried with their baby daughter’s. Most of Irwin’s legal bill was covered by insurance, but the case still cost him £60,000.
The other three defendants lost their appeals. Stoimenov had been sentenced to 121 years; by lunchtime that had been reduced to 10, and by the close of the day it had been converted to a fine of €79,000, payable within 10 days. He could not pay, but was saved from jail by the prime minister of Bulgaria. “The Bulgarian government was convinced I was innocent,” Stoimenov says. “Even now I have dreams of being in court. My daughter started suffering from panic attacks. There were so many years when we didn’t know which way it was going to go.”
Stoimenov and his family now live in Sofia, where he works as a pilot, although, he says, “the shadow follows me”. A 2018 job offer was withdrawn at the last minute, he thinks, “because of Helios”.
Kikkides, the flight operations manager, died of cancer in 2013. Helios CEO Pantazis retired, and is now an aviation consultant.
In 2007, the families of eight Cypriots who died in the crash filed for €76m (£69m) in compensation from Boeing, for having “the same alarm in place for two different types of dysfunction”, according to their lawyer, Constantinos Drougas. The case was settled out of court and the families were paid an undisclosed sum.
“It’s a tragedy on top of a tragedy,” says Kenyon’s Robert Jensen now. “The airline made mistakes, but people shouldn’t have been sentenced to jail. What is the value of putting blame on someone else? It all comes down to dollars and cents: ‘We’re not liable – these other people are liable.’”
When approached by the Guardian for comment, a spokesperson for Boeing said: “The Greek Air Accident Investigation & Aviation Safety Board and the Greek courts independently found that the direct causes of the [Helios] accident were a failure to follow standard operational procedures.”
From 2011, older Boeing 737s were retrofitted with two additional cockpit warning lights to alert pilots to pressurisation problems. Thousands of planes were affected by the issue.
Irwin left easyJet at the end of his contract in 2010 and freelanced, before finally leaving the industry in January 2019, to become a property developer. He would like to see the case reopened and his colleagues cleared. “Ianko and Demetris were found guilty in a court – they were held as criminals and that will be with them for ever.”
He now lives with his grownup son, and is enjoying his work on an ambitious new housing development. But the many years and months he spent appealing his case will never leave him, nor the experience of being held accountable for a tragedy that was part human error, part design flaw – and one that had been flagged many times before Helios flight 522 went down.
“I was the fall guy,” he says. “One hundred per cent.”