Tomorrow Monday, December 6, the judge presiding over the trial of persons prosecuted for their alleged involvement in the crash of an Air France Concorde in Paris in July 2000 is expected to issue her decision months after the public hearings of the criminal proceedings ended. Determining where, if any, personal and corporate liability lay in such a complex environment as the operation of Concorde must have been a long and arduous task for the judge.
Criminal proceedings were initiated years after the fiery post-takeoff crash of the French airliner at Charles de Gaulle (CDG) Airport, just north of Paris. The technical accident investigation had to run its course first. It was late in releasing its findings about the contributing causes of the highly publicised accident.
The legal liability saga started when 113 persons, a few of them on the ground, lost their lives soon after fire erupted under the left wing of Concorde during take-off, causing the prestigious supersonic airliner, which was carrying mainly German tourists on a charter flight to North America, to crash 2 minutes after take-off.
Seconds after clearing Concorde for take-off, the tower controller saw flames streaming from the aircraft during the take-off run and immediately radioed the problem to Concorde’s captain. Unfortunately, the aircraft had already reached near take-off speed and Captain Marty, a pilot with unimpeachable flying credentials, decided quickly that it was safer to proceed with the take-off and then make an emergency landing at Le Bourget airport a few miles away. His decision was based, of course, on what he and his cockpit crew members knew about Concorde’s condition at the time. In their minds, aborting take-off at high speed with insufficient runway length to bring the fully loaded aircraft to a safe stop was not an option.
Concorde never made it to Le Bourget. Both engines underneath the left wing lost power gradually after fire broke out, making the aircraft roll slowly to the left and crash out-of-control in a ball of fire on a hotel property located 2 miles away from the runway.
What happened next is sad history for relatives and friends of the victims. Most of them were compensated all right, but the lingering doubt as to who was to blame for the awful mess remained unsolved. This was perhaps the hardest part for them to accept.
Now, more than ten years after the tragic loss of their loved ones, they might find out which person or persons, including corporate entities, are to be held criminally liable for the events leading to the crash, and why. Knowing ‘why’ is most important in that it will bring some comfort in knowing that such aviation accidents will never be allowed to happen again.
The long-awaited answer is expected to be handed down on Monday December 6, 2010, in the Justice buildings of Pontoise, north of Paris.
One can only hope the decision will bring final closure to those who need it 10 years after the fact and that it will also clarify the hinge-points of responsibility for those involved in the Concorde programme from its early start until the July 2000 crash, including a Continental Airline aircraft maintenance engineer who had nothing to do with Concorde’s operations. According to French prosecutors, he, his supervisor and his employer precipitated events underlying Concorde’s crash due to negligence.
Much attention will be focused on the decision when it is issued. It could take a day or two for reporters and the more cautious legal commentators to fully explain the four corners of the judgment.
One might seriously question the wisdom of having criminal proceedings take place after a technical investigation. The media is likely to raise issues of dysfunctionality and duplication of strained public resources in this regard. After all, ten years is a long time to pinpoint the technical and criminal causes of a major aviation accident, especially as the European Union is moving towards streamlining investigations and inquiries into accidents and incidents concerning the safety of public transportation.