French court blames Continental Airlines for fatal Concorde crash

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The Independent Online

A botched and illegal repair by Continental Airlines was the principal cause of the Concorde crash near Paris in July 2000, a French court ruled yesterday.

The court accepted the official explanation that the crash just after take-off – which killed 113 people and ended the career of the Anglo-French supersonic airliner – was caused by a strip of titanium alloy that fell onto the runway from a Continental DC-10 that took off before the Concorde.

The shard of titanium burst a tyre on the Concorde when it took off four minutes later, the court decided. Fragments of tyre penetrated one of the supersonic aircraft's wing fuel tanks causing a fire and explosion.

In a deferred judgment following a three-month trial which ended in May, the court at Pontoise, near Paris, rejected the defence's counter-argument that a failed undercarriage repair by Air France was the real cause of the burst tyre. It also rejected the findings of a seven-year judicial investigation that French aviation officials were partially culpable because they played down evidence of structural weaknesses in Concorde's tyres and fuel tanks.

Continental Airlines was found guilty of manslaughter and ordered to pay fines and damages of at least €1.2m.

The Continental mechanic who allegedly fitted the non-standard titanium strip, John Taylor, 42, was also convicted of manslaughter and given a 15-month suspended sentence. Both said they would appeal. The metal is not cleared for use on aircraft by some authorities.

A Continental manager and three senior officials from Concorde's manufacturers and the French civil aviation authority were acquitted.

However, the court ordered that the Airbus planemaker, EADS, successor to Concorde's French manufacturer, Aerospatiale, should pay 30 per cent of the damages already paid out to the families of victims. The Concorde developer allegedly ignored warnings over burst tyres and potential consequences for weaknesses in the aircraft's fuel tanks. The remaining 70 per cent must be paid by Continental.

The court said "defective maintenance" practices by Continental were the immediate cause of the crash. Defence lawyers alleged that the Concorde's engine was on fire before the aircraft struck the titanium strip. "No material proof or witness account corroborated this thesis," the court said.

After catching fire the Concorde failed to gain height, flipped onto its back and crashed into a motel immediately after take-off. All 100 passengers, who were mostly German, nine French crew and four motel employees were killed.