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Ten years on, Concorde crash trial set to open
Supersonic travel came to an abrupt halt after a Concord flight crashed in 2000, killing 113 people. Accusations and counter-accusations abound as US airline Continental and three French aviation officials go on trial in a Paris suburb on Tuesday.
Nearly a decade after Air France Concorde Flight 4590 crashed shortly after take-off, effectively grounding the legendary supersonic aircraft, a trial at a specially enlarged courtroom in a Parisian suburb on Tuesday is set to re-examine one of aviation’s most high-profile disasters.
US airline Continental, along with two of its employees and three other individuals, face charges of manslaughter for the deaths of 113 people in the accident. The victims included 100 passengers, most of them German holidaymakers, as well as nine crew members and four hotel staffers, who were killed when the aircraft rammed into a hotel two kilometres from Paris Charles de Gaulle airport after catching fire as it left the ground.
The July 25, 2000, Concorde crash marked a bitter milestone in the history of commercial supersonic flight. After briefly resuming service after the crash, Air France and British Airways suspended their trans-Atlantic supersonic service in April 2003.
Tuesday’s trial is set to examine conflicting accounts of the causes of the crash and is expected to re-open discussion of aviation security issues.
The official explanation for the tragic accident is that the aircraft’s undercarriage tyre
exploded after rolling over an 18-inch strip of titanium, which dropped onto the runway from a Continental Airways plane that took off just before the Concorde. The burst tires penetrated a fuel tank in the left wing, causing a fire, a loss of power and ultimately the crash.
Continental Airlines is under fire for using titanium, a metal much harder than aluminium or stainless steel, for a temporary repair on one if its aircraft, breaching security rules. Two of its ground staff in Paris, John Taylor and Stanley Fort, are accused of ignoring the titanium ban for the repair job.
Continental, however, rejects these accusations, claiming that several witnesses saw the Concorde catch fire 800 metres (2,600 feet) before it reached the part of the runway where the titanium strip fell.
In press interviews prior to the trial, Continental’s principal defence lawyer, Olivier Metzner, has claimed that investigators ignore evidence to “obscure the truth”. Metzner instead claims that a mistake in the repairing of the Concorde’s undercarriage caused the burst tyre and the subsequent crash.
Air France lawyers maintain that Continental is solely to blame for the crash.
The design of the aircraft itself is also in question, with two Concorde engineers (Henri Perrier, 80, and Jacques Herubel, 74) accused of deliberately playing down or ignoring evidence of weaknesses in the aircraft’s tyres and wing fuel tanks to keep the pride of the French and British aviation in the air.
Claude Frantzen, director of technical services at the French civil aviation authority, DGAC, from 1970 to 1994, is accused of similar charges.
A successful prosecution would result in a maximum fine of 375,000 euros for the airline and up to five years in jail and a fine of up to 75,000 euros for the individuals involved.
The trial has also put a focus on compensation and criminal charges resulting from air disasters.
According to news reports, Air France, Concorde manufacturer EADS, Continental and tyre-manufacturing company Goodyear paid the families of victims an $100 million dollars as compensation.
The families of the four hotel staff, which the airline’s insurance refused to cover, received no compensation. They have pressed charges, as has the family of Concorde pilot Christian Marty.
Aviation experts also note that there are security implications for airline staffers who face criminal prosecution for airplane crashes.