The concept of the Concorde supersonic aircraft started in the late 1950s with the merger of French and British programs and was one of the most prestigious aeronautic challenges of the last century. Fifty years later, on July 25, 2000, the crash of the Air France flight was the only fatal crash of a Concorde in the entire history of the supersonic. It was also the beginning of the end for the Concorde.
The first flight of the Concorde occurred on March 2, 1969, and the certificate of navigability was issued on October 10, 1975. It was operated by two European airlines companies: Air France and British Airways. However, on July 25, 2000, Concorde flight number 4590 crashed into a hotel located in Gonesse, France, shortly after taking off from Charles de Gaulle Airport outside Paris. This tragic accident killed 109 passengers.
A few days after the crash, all Concorde's aircrafts were grounded, pending an investigation related to the cause of the crash and possible remedies. That marked the beginning of long criminal and public investigations as well as court proceedings brought by the victims' families. The official accident report of the crash was released in 2004 by the French BEA (Bureau of Enquiry and Analysis for Civil Aviation Safety), which is the French authority responsible for safety investigations into accidents or incidents in civil aviation. The report showed that the aircraft hit debris on the runway during its takeoff roll. The supersonic airliner's tire burst, causing rubber to fly up and rupture a fuel tank. The ruptured fuel tank subsequently caused a major fire from which the aircraft never recovered.1
Following the official report, the French authorities began a criminal investigation in March 2005 that raised the difficult question of Foreign Objects Damages. Eventually, court proceedings were brought before the Criminal Court of Pontoise on February 2, 2010, after almost 10 years of investigations and proceedings. Following expert testimony, the case was referred to the Criminal Court in order to assess each defendant's individual liabilities in the accident.
The Criminal Court of Pontoise ruled that Continental Airlines was "criminally responsible" for the crash, and it was fined €200,000. Furthermore, the court ordered Continental Airlines to pay US$1 million to Air France as damages and interest for its civil responsibility. In its judgment, the Criminal Court upheld the investigators' findings regarding the fact that titanium debris dropped by the Continental Airlines plane onto the runway was to blame in the accident. In addition, John Taylor, the Continental mechanic who allegedly fitted the metal strip, was given a 15-month suspended prison sentence over the crash and was fined €2,000.
Two years later, on November 29, 2012, the Appeal Court of Versailles overturned manslaughter convictions against Continental Airlines and the mechanic.
Court-appointed experts asserted before the Appeal Court that officials were aware of the design problem with the Concorde, which left it vulnerable to shock. The experts added that the plane should not have been allowed to fly. The Appeal Court upheld Continental Airlines' civil responsibility and ordered it to pay €1 million to Air France as damages. However, the court decided to clear Continental Airlines from any criminal charge.
After more than 10 years of court proceedings, such a ruling gives victims' families a feeling of powerlessness since the court was unable to identify any precise liability. On the other hand, discharging Continental Airlines is a victory for those who are involved in aviation safety as the decision may lead to greater disclosure.
The Concorde crash highlights how unfortunate it is that authorities—instead of ensuring the flow of information in order to understand precisely the causes of the air accident and prevent its recurrence—often focus on conducting criminal investigations in order to punish the offender. Everyone involved in the aviation industry knows how valuable the information given by persons interviewed during the course of safety investigations is to piecing together the accident. Using such information for the purpose of criminal punishment discourages persons from providing accident information and thereby potentially prevents disclosure that may lead to increased flight safety.
Clearly, a criminal prosecution may well foreclose further investigation for safety purposes. Furthermore, the arrests of the pilots are in opposition to International Civil Aviation Organization principles, which hold that there should be no criminal liability without intent to do harm. The eagerness to press charges is a growing threat to flight safety, and the aviation industry hopes that with this judgment, the current trend toward criminalization, which negatively affects flight safety and industry safety efforts, will stop.
1. Accident on July 25, 2000 at La Patte d'Oie in Gonesse (95) to the Concorde registered F-BTSC operated by Air France; REPORT translation f-sc000725a.
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