February 1, 2010 8:49 pm

Continental Airlines faces Concorde crash charges

 

Flames leap from the Air France Concorde as it takes off from Charles de Gaulle in July 2000

Continental Airlines will face charges of manslaughter in a French court for allegedly causing the crash of an Air France Concorde near Paris a decade ago.

The US carrier, two of its ground staff and two retired engineers who helped build the supersonic jet are being prosecuted for the accident, which killed 113 people, including four on the ground.

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The New York-bound passenger jet took off from Charles de Gaulle airport shortly before 5pm on July 25 2000 with flames trailing from the underside of its port wing. Less than two minutes later, after an abortive emergency landing at nearby Le Bourget airport, the Concorde crashed into a hotel in a northern Paris suburb, killing all those on board.

The only crash of the delta-winged aircraft in 34 years of service hastened the end of supersonic travel. Concorde services resumed after safety modifications. But in 2003, British Airways and Air France, the only operators of the aircraft, announced they were taking it out of service.

A crash investigation and judicial probe concluded that the Concorde had struck a metal part on the runway that had fallen from a Continental Airlines DC10, which had taken off 26 minutes previously.

The titanium part shattered part of the Concorde’s undercarriage, releasing debris that punctured the fuel tank and caused a leak and a fire.

Prosecutors at the Pontoise criminal court will argue on Tuesday that Continental and its two ground staff were criminally negligent and guilty of manslaughter.

John Taylor, a Continental engineer, is accused of incorrectly manufacturing and installing the errant part. It was made of titanium, a very hard substance, when it should have been made out of softer aluminium, which was less likely to cause punctures, investigators argued. Stanley Ford, his boss, is accused of failing to check the work.

The US carrier denies responsibility and will argue that the fire was caused before the Concorde hit the DC10 part.

Olivier Metzner, lawyer for Continental, told Agence France Presse: “Several witnesses, including firemen and pilots, declare that the Concorde fire started around 800m before encountering this part”.

Also on trial are Henri Perrier and Jacques Herubel, two retired executives of Sud-Aviation, a state-owned aviation group that developed the Concorde design with Britain’s BAC.

Prosecutors will argue that puncturing the Concorde’s tyre would not have caused the crash had it not been for safety defects in the aircraft’s design, particularly the lack of leak-proofing in its fuel tanks. Lawyers for the two Concorde designers say that an accident of this nature was totally unforeseeable.

Claude Frantzen, a former senior official of the DGAC, France’s civil aviation authority, will also go on trial for failing to take action after safety incidents involving the Concorde.

The trial, which is expected to last for four months, is one of the largest corporate manslaughter cases in France in recent years. It follows nearly 10 years of inquiries by air-crash investigators and investigating magistrates.

It will also be followed closely in Germany. The Concorde had been chartered by a German tour operator and all 100 passengers were German.

Air France is not facing prosecution, but will be involved in the trial as a plaintiff.

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