Concorde crash trial begins

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Concorde, a joint Anglo-French project, withdrawn from service in 2003.

A French court Tuesday launched the trial of five men and a US airline over the Concorde disaster. 113 people were killed when the supersonic jet struck a hotel near Paris in 2000.

The prosecution case agrees with the facts set out in the final accident report, which, by international law, was written from an entirely different investigation and thus cannot be introduced in court. It alleges that improper maintenance of an American airliner and failure to detect design flaws with the Concorde were responsible for the Air France jet's crash, to an extent that makes the six defendants guilty of involuntary manslaughter.

Both official investigations found that a Continental Airlines McDonnell Douglas DC-10 had taken off five minutes before Concorde with an improvised repair. A metal strip had been machined by mechanics instead of using a certified part. This strip dropped off the aircraft, leaving a 43cm (17in) piece of titanium on the runway.

Prosecutors and investigators concluded that as Concorde struck the part on takeoff a tyre burst and ripped apart, sending chunks of rubber flying. A large piece slammed into the underside of the wing hard enough to trigger a pressure wave that ruptured the fuel tank. Damaged wiring is believed to have been responsible for igniting this, creating a trailing fireball as the aircraft took off bound for New York.

Concorde's pilots attempted to circle round for an emergency landing back at Charles de Gaulle Airport, but instead struck a hotel approximately three kilometres (two miles) from the airport. All 109 passengers and crew were on board, as well as four people in the hotel, were killed. The majority of victims were Germans heading to meet up with a cruise liner for a Caribbean holiday, the remainder of the 100 passengers were from Austria.

John Taylor, the Continental mechanic who is alleged to have built and fitted the nonstandard part, and his boss Stanley Ford, have been targeted for prosecution. Both individuals and their employer deny responsibility. Also charged are two members of the UK-French firm behind Concorde - Aérospatiale, who have since merged into Airbus parent EADS. Henri Perrier was head of testing for Concorde and the aircraft's chief engineer was Jacques Herubel; both have been charged for a perceived failure to locate and rectify design flaws with Concorde. The former chief of civil aviation, Claude Frantzen, is facing charges on the same basis.

Each individual can be imprisoned for up to three years and fined up to 50,900 (US$71,000. Continental face a fine of up to €375,000 (US$520,000). The airline's defence claims the part on the runway had no role to play in the accident. TV channel Canal+ previously suggested the investigations and prosecution were a coverup of more serious issues with Concorde.

Nothing was allowed to disturb Air France [...] orders came from very high in the administration

—Michel Bourgeois, air accident investigator

The broadcast alleged Concorde erupted into flames long before getting as far down the runway as the strip. Continental's lawyers say they can call 28 witnesses to give similar evidence and told the Le Parisien that they would seek a dismissal of the charges today. The case opened with judge Dominique Andreassier reading out every one of the 113 names of the deceased, followed by the charges against the six, in the court in Pontoise.

There are 80,000 pages of documents to be presented at trial, and 543 items are to be presented as evidence. The case is split into 90 volumes and is expected to take four months. The judge cautioned against losing touch with the human aspect of what is anticipated to be a very technical trial. The estimated cost is expected to be in excess of 3 million Euro (US$4.2 million).

The investigation found some contributory causes that can be linked to Air France. Four days before the crash an important tyre spacer was left off the Concorde by mechanics, and the plane was overloaded. The airport itself was also criticised for having cancelled a scheduled sweep of the runway. Air France lawyer Fernand Garnault, an aviation specialist, was adamant that Continental did play the main role in the accident; "[i]t is clear that a piece from a Continental plane fell on the runway. It is clear that the origin of the accident was this. This is my personal conviction and of course that of Air France."

Few families are represented at the trial, because all the passengers struck a deal with Air France to accept compensation in exchange for waiving their right to take legal action, leaving only those killed in the hotel and the crew. However, French group Fenvac are representing the families, and spokesman Stephane Gicquel said that the families would be observing keenly, that "[t]his tragedy is part of their personal history and of their family history."

Captain Christian Marty's family's lawyer, Roland Rappaport, said outside court today that, "[t]his accident should have been avoided. The weaknesses of the Concorde had been known for twenty years," while Air France's lawyers stated the inquiries had not located any evidence to suggest that Concorde had indeed encountered problems before reaching the metal debris.

Daniel Soulez Larivière, who represents Frantzen, said, "this accident was unforeseeable," and the original investigations should have agreed. Concorde suffered a string of similar incidents in the 1970s including one in Washington that came close to triggering a fire. "They [the authorities] wanted to protect Concorde, the image of France that it projected. They should have stopped service then [1979]," said Olivier Metzner, representing Continental. The plane was not grounded until after the accident, although it returned to service before being retired in 2003.

Metzner told the court that former French air accident investigator Michel Bourgeois was to be a key witness. Bourgeois recently alleged that authorities were indeed hiding flaws with the airliner, saying "[n]othing was allowed to disturb Air France [...] orders came from very high in the administration," and that investigations into Concorde's safety were shut down by the government.