US airline Continental and five individuals go on trial today charged with causing the Air France Concorde crash near Paris ten years ago. All 109 people on board died along with four people on the ground.
It is alleged that a 43-centimetre titanium repair strip burst the Concorde’s tyre on take off, sending tyre debris crashing into the jet’s fuel tank. The repair strip had fallen from a Continental plane as it took off from the same runway four minutes earlier. Titanium, which is harder than other metals such as aluminium or steel, is not meant to be used for temporary repairs on aircraft.
Leaking kerosene then caught fire, causing the supersonic jet to crash into a motel two minutes after take-off.
Stéphane Gicquel, representing a French victims’ association, says:
“For four months things are going to be said that some people want kept quiet, especially on the titanium strip, on Continental. What we’ll find is that maintenance practised by a big company like Continental is truly alarming and definitely not reassuring for passengers.”
But Continental says around 20 people saw a fire on the supersonic jet well before it hit the titanium strip. It also maintains that debris on runways is not uncommon and can not be the lone cause of such a catastrophe. The company’s lawyer, Olivier Metzner, said:
“We will prove what the experts refused to see and determine: that a fire broke out on the Concorde well before the debris, the metal plate, comes into contact with the Concorde.”
Continental also points to the fact that an element was missing from the wheels, causing them to lose their bearing and explode when they hit a bump in the runway. Air France admits the piece was missing from the wheel but denies this could have caused the crash.
Two Continental engineers are charged with breaking safety rules by fitting the banned titanium strip.
And three retired French engineers, two from Concorde and one from the civil aviation authority, also find themselves in the dock. They are accused of knowing about existing weaknesses in Concorde’s tyre and fuel tank design but failing to act.
The entire fleet of Concordes were taken out of service after the crash in July 2000. They returned one and a half years later with reinforced fuel tanks.
But the highly uneconomical supersonic jet, which had been commercially disappointing even before the crash, was abandoned by its operators British Airways and Air France in April 2003.