Concorde crash trial gets underway

A court today finally began to decide who was to blame for Air France’s 2000 Concorde crash, an accident that killed 113 people and hastened the end of the world’s only supersonic airliner.

The trial in Pontoise, outside Paris, could last four months as the hearing discusses responsibility for the July 25, 2000 crash minutes after takeoff from Charles de Gaulle airport.

US-based Continental Airlines and two of its staff are among those on trial for manslaughter. Investigators say the crash was caused by a metal strip lying on the runway that had fallen from a Continental DC-10 minutes before.

Continental’s lawyers will argue that Concorde caught fire before it reached the debris and say the American company was just a scapegoat.

The judge opened the proceedings by reading out the names of the victims. She described the investigation as “difficult and technical” and that the long length of the probe was necessary. The court has amassed 80,000 pages of investigation.

Interest in the trial is so high that the courtroom has been expanded with makeshift walls. The trial is also being broadcast on a video screen in a separate courtroom.

Besides pointing a finger at Continental, the prosecution also accuses French officials of neglecting to fix known design weaknesses in the jet. The Concorde, capable of flying at twice the speed of sound, was the pride of commercial aviation – although never a financial success – before both Air France and British Airways retired it in 2003.

Two others on trial for manslaughter were employed by Aerospatiale, the precursor of plane-maker Airbus, while the fifth is an employee of the French civilian aviation authority. Their lawyers say they were not to blame and argue the crash could not have been predicted.

As the trial opened, several lawyers said they had asked the court to call off the proceedings on a technicality. Olivier Metzner, the lawyer for Continental, and Daniel Soulez Lariviere, representing aviation official Claude Frantzen, said the document ordering the trial failed to provide counterweights to the accusations against their clients, as required.

The crash killed 109 people on the plane, mostly German tourists, and four people on the ground. Compensation is not a major issue in the trial as most of the victims’ families received settlements long ago. Most have also remained silent and are not taking part in the proceedings, although family members of pilot Christian Marty are civil parties, with their lawyer saying they want answers.

In the years after Concorde crashed, both French aviation and judicial investigators concluded that the Continental DC-10’s metal piece – known as a wear strip – gashed Concorde’s tyre, sending pieces of rubber into the fuel tanks, which caused a fire.

Continental lawyer Mr Metzner says he will produce evidence from about 20 witnesses who say they spotted a small fire on Concorde before it reached the metal strip. He says Concorde had trouble spots in general and that particular plane was overloaded and took off missing a piece to stabilise the wheels.

Continental mechanic John Taylor, 41, is accused of breaking guidelines by replacing the DC-10’s wear strip with titanium instead of the softer metal usually called for, aluminium. Maintenance chief Stanley Ford, 70, is on trial for approving the strip’s installation.

French aviation investigators deemed the chain of events that led to the crash unpredictable. But a French judicial inquiry determined that the plane’s fuel tanks lacked sufficient protection from shock, and that officials had been aware of the problem since a series of incidents in 1979.

The three other men accused of manslaughter in the case are Henri Perrier, 80, ex-chief of the Concorde program at plane maker Aerospatiale from 1978 to 1994; Jacques Herubel, 74, a top Aerospatiale engineer at Concorde from 1993-95; and Frantzen, 72, who handled the Concorde programme in various roles at the French civil aviation authority.

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