A tale of two views on the present Concorde trial



   Ah, the wonderful world of aviation together with a volcano eruption in Iceland have me delayed in Europe and unable to provide a proper follow-up on the Concorde crash proceedings in Pontoise (Paris) or any other interesting aviation matters!

   The one point worth sharing on this blog, for now at any rate, is a recent comment made to me by a Belgian lawyer who regularly represents clients in the U.S. and has a broader perspective on the present Concorde trial near Paris, as a result of dealing with the Civil Law system and the American Law system.

   It would seem that if the crash of Concorde had occurred in the U.S. for instance, most, if not all, issues surrounding the crash, whether civil or criminal in nature, would have been settled out-of-court or dealt with through plea-bargaining, or possibly also through a judicial inquiry with recommendation powers only. Although current criminal proceedings in Pontoise seem tedious, the same lawyer stated that Justice would not have been publicly visible without them, contrary to out-of-court settlement and plea-bargaining processes that typically do not result in full public disclosure and debate.

   Well, food for thought…So far, I was inclined to think the current criminal proceedings were not suitable for an aviation crash of such magnitude and in light of the irreparable damage to supersonic transport known so far.

   As a side-comment, I was struck in the last month by the number of references in public media to the so-called Concorde trial. Concorde is not on trial, of course; it is just a way of expressing the significance of the crash that brought a legend to a sudden stop. The trial is aimed more specifically at key figures involved in the French/British Concorde project since 1960.  It is open to debate whether or not the right figures were picked out by judicial authorities on the French side of the joint Concorde project and why the U.K. was left out.

   It was stated in a previous posting on this blog that the Concorde program was prestige-driven. This was certainly a major factor, to the point where major decisions about the continuation of the Concorde program were admittedly taken at a political level. Whether this situation had any impact on the necessary airworthiness upgrades for Concorde remains to be seen.

   In fact, he Concorde program was not entirely prestige-driven. Up to the early 1990s, there was still hope that the program might keep the U.K. and France at the forefront of knowledge and experience in SST technology while, across the Atlantic, their Americans counterparts were pursuing the same objective. More precisely, a second generation Concorde was unofficially in the offing. In addition, the words “prestige-driven” do not necessarily apply to the pragmatic desire for passengers to fly at twice the speed of sound, provided they could afford it. However, such words do capture the ‘magic’ of supersonic flight for some passengers and public figures, and also the need to maintain the public image of France and the U.K. as leading countries in aeronautical technology.

   Are such considerations material to the current Concorde trial in Pontoise? I submit they are, as these factual elements point to the highest political levels in matters concerning large expenditures of public funds to finance the upkeep and perceived safety requirements of Concorde, on the French side of the channel anyway. This was, in my opinion, the overall framework of the Concorde program until disaster struck quite unfortunately for 113 innocent lives, not counting the number of affected relatives and friends, and witnesses at the crash scene.

   Had there been no public criminal proceedings or other transparent venues related to the crash of Concorde in July 2000, how could have the aviation community, concerned airline passengers and interested members of the public  become aware that Concorde was a unique transport aircraft to the point of being certified under a separate set of rules, and operated under separate continuing airworthiness rules as well, quite apart from those applicable to popular subsonic airliners? This question begs another: is the safety level of an airliner dependent on its pedigree? Concorde had no pedigree, except perhaps for the application of military supersonic technology and experience to a much larger an demanding civilian aircraft.* Furthermore, few units of Concorde were built and operated. The result is that Concorde was operated for decades as a public transport aircraft, with limited engineering and technical feedback derived from operational experience. Both British Airways and Air France made the best of such limited feedback. That much we know, to their credit.

   With respect, however, as dedicated, knowledgeable and safety-minded the designers, engineers, manufacturers and operators of Concorde aircraft were in their times, the whole Anglo-French SST program was conducted in some sort of vacuum. In fact, Concorde kept on transporting paying passengers for decades with patchwork engineering solutions being applied from one “incident” to the next until the “accident” occurred. Furthermore, concerned civil authorities and Concorde programme managers had not set, as far as we can tell,  a gradual retirement plan for Concorde, despite its increasingly obsolete technology.  As a matter of fact, much of the current Pontoise proceedings hinge upon the issue of foreseeability of a catastrophic failure of Concorde, such as the crash that occurred near Paris in July 2000.

   Which way was the Concorde programme heading just before one of its units crashed near Paris? This is one question that should be answered in the context of the current criminal responsibility hearings in Pontoise (France). The lone judge presiding over the hearings is expected to issue publicly her findings and decision in December 2010.

   In fairness, she might also put Concorde’s 27 years of accident-free commercial operations in the balance. After all, the civil aviation community will be looking at the important outcome of a very public – yet belated – trial of civil aviation past and modern practices.

*PS:  Concorde’s limited lineage or pedigree, as a public transport aircraft, will be addressed in a posting to follow.

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