Concorde trial begins 10 years after crash

A four-month trial aiming to establish the definitive cause of the Air France Concorde crash 10 years ago is due to start tomorrow.

It will consider if an abandoned scrap of metal on the runway was really the main culprit, as French investigators insist.

Prosecutors argue that the plane would never have crashed in July 2000 - killing 113 - if a preceding Continental Airlines DC-10 had not dropped a piece of titanium onto the Charles de Gaulle airport runway.

Lawyers for Continental say the American airline is simply a scapegoat and that a fire broke out on the Concorde eight seconds before it even reached the titanium strip.

The case in Pontoise, north of Paris, marks the only crash of a Concorde. The trial is expected to pin down who should be held criminally responsible for the crash, which killed 109 people on the plane, mostly German tourists, and four people on the ground.

Continental and two of its US employees are on trial for manslaughter. Both aviation and judicial investigators have said the metal strip on the runway was the primary cause of the accident.

Three former French officials also face charges; judicial investigators say they had long failed to fix the Concorde's vulnerable spots.

Money is not a major issue, since the victims' families accepted settlements long ago. The plane's airworthiness is not at stake: the jet was retired by both Air France and British Airways in 2003. Concordes are now on display in museums, relics from a time when supersonic flight seemed like the future of air travel.

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

Continental mechanic John Taylor is accused of building and installing the titanium strip without following guidelines. Maintenance chief Stanley Ford is on trial for validating the strip's installation.

The French judicial inquiry determined that the plane's fuel tanks lacked sufficient protection from shock, and that Concorde's makers had been aware of the problem since 1979.

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

They are accused of ignoring a host of problems, including "neglecting the risk of fires" on the supersonic jet.

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