Concorde's final humiliation: a trial to apportion blame for Paris crash

A decade after the supersonic jet's horrifying demise, a French court will try to establish who was at fault

John Lichfield
Monday 01 February 2010 01:00

Almost 10 years after the Concorde crash, lawyers and experts will begin this week to pull apart what remains of the supersonic airliner's legend.

A four-month trial, starting near Paris on Tuesday, will, examine at least three competing, or overlapping, explanations for the crash of the Air France Concorde near Charles de Gaulle airport on 25 July 2000.

Did the aircraft, its 100 passengers, nine crew and four people on the ground fall victim to an 18in strip of titanium which dropped onto the runway from a previous, Continental Airways, flight? Or is this – the official explanation – simply a cover-up for a blunder by Air France in the maintenance of the doomed Concorde's undercarriage?

The trial will also examine more fundamental questions about the safety of the iconic aircraft, which was for 24 years the pride of the French and British aviation industries. Both prosecution and defence lawyers will claim that Concorde suffered from design weaknesses which were systematically ignored for at least 20 years to keep the aircraft flying.

The crash led, after a brief resumption of flights, to the abandonment of Air France's and British Airways' supersonic services across the Atlantic in April 2003.

The accused, in an especially enlarged court-room at Cergy-Pontoise, west of Paris, will be the Continental Airways company itself, two of the airline's Paris ground staff, two elderly retired Concorde engineers, and a former senior French air safety official (see box). All are charged with the manslaughter of 113 people when the aircraft, carrying German holidaymakers to the Caribbean, crashed into a motel two miles from the end of the Charles de Gaulle runway.

More than a million pieces of the aircraft were painstakingly gathered and reassembled in a hangar after the accident, which partially – but only partially – explains why the trial has taken a decade to come to court.

The immediate cause of the accident is not in dispute. At least one of the Concorde's left-hand undercarriage tyres burst as it was gaining take-off speed. A shower of hard rubber fragments penetrated a fuel tank in the left wing, causing a fire and a loss of power.

The pilot, who was beyond the point of no return on his take-off run, tried to save the aircraft by lifting it into the sky prematurely. One engine was halted deliberately by the co-pilot. The other engine began to lose power. As the pilot struggled to remain airborne, the Concorde flipped onto its back and fell – "like a leaf" according to one eye-witness – onto the Hotêlissimo motel. All passengers and crew and four motel employees were killed.

According to the prosecution, the tyre was shattered by hitting an 18in-long titanium "repair patch" which fell from a Continental Airlines DC10 which had taken off from the same runway four minutes earlier. Titanium, a much harder metal than aluminium or stainless steel, is not supposed to be employed for temporary repairs on aircraft.

Continental Airways is accused of systematically using titanium for such repairs, even though the danger to aircraft tyres was well known. Two of its ground staff in Paris are accused of ignoring the titanium ban and botching the repair. Continental rejects these accusations.

Its principal defence lawyer, Olivier Metzner, claims that 28 witnesses saw the doomed Concorde catch fire before it reached the part of the runway where the titanium strip was lying. "Their evidence has been ignored. Everything has been done to obscure the truth," said Mr Metzner, who was also the lawyer for the former prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, in his successful defence against charges of trying to smear President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Mr Metzner will argue that the Concorde's tyre burst because an important element of the undercarriage had been accidentally left out by Air France ground staff. As a result, too much weight was bearing on the tyres, one of which exploded when it hit a bump in the runway. Air France and the French air accident bureau admit that there was a mistake in repairing the Concorde's undercarriage but they insist that it could not have caused the tyre burst.

The other main battleground in the trial will be the safety record, and design, of Concorde itself. Two Concorde engineers and a French air safety official are accused of deliberately playing down or ignoring the evidence of weaknesses in the aircraft's tyres and its wing fuel tanks.

In the 24 years of Concorde flights before July 2000, there were 65 incidents of burst tyres, six of which led to the perforation of fuel tanks.

The lawyers representing the families of the crew will argue that the three individuals on trial are merely scapegoats for a policy that was agreed at a higher level.

In the dock: The accused

Six defendants have been accused of manslaughter in the Concorde trial. All deny the charges.

*Continental Airlines

Accused of negligently allowing its staff to use banned titanium strips for aircraft repairs. If found guilty the company faces a fine of up to €375,000.

*John Taylor, 41, Continental Airlines mechanic

He fitted the titanium strip which fell onto the runway before the doomed Concorde flight. Like the other four individuals on trial, he faces up to five years in prison and a maximum fine of €75,000 if found guilty.

*Stanley Ford, 70, head of the Continental Airlines maintenance team

He is accused of approving the banned repair.

*Henri Perrier, 80, head of the Concorde programme at Aerospatiale from 1978 to 1994

Accused of failing to respond to evidence of weakness in the aircraft's tyre and fuel tank designs.

*Jacques Herubel, 74, chief Concorde engineer at Aerospatiale from 1993 to 1995

Accused of not taking action to strengthen the fuel tanks.

*Claude Frantzen, 72, senior official at the French civil aviation directorate from 1970 to 1994

Accused of underestimating the gravity of previous tyre and fuel tank incidents and failing to demand design changes.

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