The Concorde crash judicial saga goes on. In December 2010, more than ten years after the crash of the Air France supersonic Concorde at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, a lower court in France returned a verdict of guilty of manslaughter against Continental Airlines (renamed since “Continental-United Airlines”) and one of its aircraft maintenance employees. Accused persons on the French side involved in some way with the sad ending of Concorde’s glorious era were discharged by the lower court of all accusations.
Case NOT closed: that 2010 verdict did not sit well with French prosecutors and lawyers for Continental Airlines. They filed an appeal which is now scheduled to be heard in March of 2012 in Versailles, near Paris. The precise grounds of appeal are not readily available at this stage, but it can be assumed that they will be publicly disclosed shortly.
The unusual aspect of the upcoming appeal proceedings is that the appeal will involve issues of fact in addition to strict issues of law. This appeal has all the makings of a new trial. Experts will be called again to testify possibly about fresh evidence related to the crash that claimed 113 lives just short of 12 years ago.
Another unusual aspect of the first trial and the upcoming appeal proceedings is that the joint French-British Concorde venture did not lead to charges being laid against British entities and personnel that participated in the design of the supersonic aircraft. As a matter of fact, despite similar incidents (i.e.: a blown tire on take-off) in the operation of Concorde aircraft by British Airways before the Paris crash of an Air France sister aircraft, the focus of the judicial proceedings has always been so far on French legal entities or individuals, and more so on Continental Airlines for its responsibility in the fateful dropping on the runway of a small metal strip from one of its aircraft immediately ahead of Concorde’s take-off on the same runway.
The question that has arisen in many people’s mind is whether Continental Airlines was scape-goated during the technical investigation of the crash and the subsequent legal proceedings.
Will the whole case be reopened in an attempt to counter allegations that there was an agreement of sorts among parties involved in the technical investigation of the crash or named in the judicial proceedings to lean one way to the detriment of Continental?
A number of experts still maintain that it takes more than a small strip of metal and the consenquent blow-up of a single tire to bring down an airliner in light of strict airworthiness standards and related service bulletins. Or, as others question, was it wise on the part of Concorde’s engineers to design the underside of the delta wing in a way that a strike by a piece of a blown tire on take-off could send a powerful shock wave through the fuel cells within Concorde’s wing, leading to a fuel leak that was possibly ignited by arcing electrical wires beneath the stricken supersonic?
It does seem as if the magnificent speed bird had a peculiar Achilles’ Heel. Technical assumptions abound about causal factors of of the crash. Rumours have been circulated to the effect that the doomed Concorde exceeded its maximum take-off weight by six tons and that it took off with a tail wind component. Who is to know for sure? Lawyers for Continental also argued in the lower court that ignited fuel started to escape from Concorde before its main landing gear overran the piece of metal dropped by the preceding Continental airliner. For the average Joe, such allegations are confusing and it’s not easy to find out how they were dealt with by the presiding judge in the lower court.
The surprising finding by the lower court that the aircraft maintenance mechanic who installed the unsteady metal strip on the Continental jet that took-off ahead of Concorde must have forseen the catastrophic consequences of his shoddy workmanship. In fact, that point might very well be raised on appeal. (Please note that your diligent blogger here can only make an approximation about the ‘manslaughter’ or ‘negligence causing death’ charge for lack or knowledge of French law.)
At any rate, the period from March to May of 2012 will generate much attention amongst the commercial aviation community and, to some extent, the public at large.
Concorde was an iconic supersonic aircraft in France. Some may have turned their attention to other topics of interest over the last 12 years, while others still seek closure on the prestigious era of a French-designed marvel of an airliner, not to forget similarly concerned people on the British side.
To what extent has French pride obscured technical and legal reasoning during the proceedings held by the lower court in Pontoise two years ago, if any connection at all? What lessons can the whole civil aviation community derive from the Paris crash and the demise of the supersonic Concorde program? We are likely to find out in 2012.
Meanwhile, the French technical investigation authorities (known as the “BEA”) are to release their final investigation report also in the course of 2012, regarding the causes of the downing of Air France flight 447 in June of 2009, in the middle of the Atlantic ocean, also with no survivors.
Air travellers’ confidence in the overall safety of airline transport remains strong. And it should remain strong after the final judicial outcome of the Air France Concorde crash as well as the more recent crash of the Air France Airbus 330 en route from Rio to Paris, provided the judicial outcome of both tragedies is clear, all-encompassing and entirely justified.
On a side-note, there remains a demand for public supersonic air transport. In order to respond to such demand, a radically new generation of supersonic aircraft will need to be designed. According to aviation media, that new step in supersonic transport is not around the corner. Launching a new aircraft capable of carrying paying passengers at Mach 2 or 3 over long distances appears for now to be beyond the financial reach of aircraft manufacturers.