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Ten years on, French court asks who's to blame for Concorde crash

Video by Jonathan WALSH

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2010-02-03

US airline Continental and three French aviation officials went on trial outside Paris on Tuesday in connection with the July 2000 crash of an Air France Concorde leaving Charles de Gaulle airport in which 113 people died.

Nearly a decade after Air France Concorde Flight 4590 crashed shortly after take-off, effectively grounding the legendary supersonic aircraft, the trial of five people in connection with the crash got underway at a specially enlarged courtroom in a Parisian suburb on Tuesday to re-examine the causes of one of aviation’s most high-profile disasters.

US airline Continental, along with two of its employees and three French aviation officials, 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 transatlantic supersonic service in April 2003.

Conflicting explanations

Tuesday’s trial is set to examine conflicting accounts of the causes of the crash. The official explanation for the tragic accident is that the aircraft’s undercarriage tyre exploded after rolling over an 18-inch strip of titanium that dropped onto the runway from a Continental Airways plane that took off just before the Concorde. The burst tyre penetrated a fuel tank in the left wing, causing a fire, a loss of power and ultimately the crash.

FOCUS: 10 years on, the concorde case takes off

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, which is a breach of security rules. Two of its ground staff in Paris, John Taylor and Stanley Fort, are accused of ignoring the titanium ban to complete 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.

"There is no dispute over the immediate causes of the accident. What muddies the waters in this case are the alleged safety problems of Concorde's actual design. There were 65 instances of burst tyres on Concorde planes before the fatal crash," says FRANCE 24's correspondent Christopher Moore, speaking from outside the courtroom.


ANALISIS: Pierre Sparaco, European columnist of Aviation Week

In press interviews prior to the trial, Continental’s main defence lawyer, Olivier Metzner, said investigators had ignored evidence to “obscure the truth”. Metzner instead claimed 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 French and British aviation in the air.

Claude Frantzen, director of technical services at the French Civil Aviation Authority, or DGAC, from 1970 to 1994, faces similar charges.

"You could say that the entire Concorde project itself, once the pride of the British andFrench aviation industries, is in the dock," Moore says.

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.

Hefty compensation

The trial has also put a focus on the compensation and criminal charges resulting from air disasters.

According to news reports, Air France, Concorde manufacturer EADS, Continental Airlines and tyre-manufacturing company Goodyear jointly paid the families of the victims 100 million dollars in 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.

Date created : 2010-02-02

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