Concorde crash trial concludes

The defence lawyer for Continental Airlines challenged court experts, the prosecutor, the judge and the plaintiff – Air France – today as a French court wrapped up a trial into the crash of a Concorde supersonic jet 10 years ago.

Olivier Metzner claimed the court’s independent experts were “paid by Air France” and were “laughed at” by aviation specialists.

Mr Metzner also questioned the prosecutor’s intellectual aptitude and accused Air France, the partially state-owned French national carrier, of being overbearing during the trial.

Houston-based Continental and two of its employees are accused of manslaughter in the June 2000 Concorde crash, which happened just after the plane took off from Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport.

It killed 109 people on board and four people on the ground and devastated the reputation of the Concorde, which was capable of flying at twice the speed of sound.

The court said it would make its ruling in December.

The four-month trial in the Paris suburb of Pontoise has focused on investigators’ reports that a Continental jet dropped a metal strip on to the runway before the Concorde took off. The prosecution says the debris gashed one of the Concorde’s tyres, sending pieces of rubber into the fuel tanks and sparking a fire.

Continental denies any responsibility, saying fire broke out on the Concorde before the plane reached the debris on the runway.

During the trial, tensions mounted between Continental and Air France, which operated the crashed jet, with the airlines trading lawsuits outside the current trial.

The trial’s main goal is to assign responsibility, as most of the victims’ families received settlements years ago.

Prosecutor Bernard Farret has asked the court to fine Continental €175,000 and requested 18-month suspended prison sentences for two American employees of Continental, mechanic John Taylor and his supervisor, Stanley Ford.

Taylor, who did not come to France for the trial, is accused of violating guidelines by replacing a wear strip on the DC-10 with titanium instead of a softer metal. The wear strip was attached to an engine.

His one-time supervisor, 70-year-old retired maintenance chief Ford, is also facing manslaughter charges for validating the strip’s installation. Ford argued in court that his job was mainly administrative and that he had to have confidence in mechanics’ ability to perform their jobs.

The prosecution also accuses three French officials of underestimating trouble spots on the Concorde itself, and they are also charged with manslaughter.

The prosecutor requested a two-year suspended sentence for 80-year-old Henri Perrier, who headed the Concorde programme from 1978-1994, and argued for acquitting French engineer Jacques Herubel and Claude Frantzen, former chief of France’s civil aviation authority.

While France’s aviation authority concluded that the crash could not have been predicted, a judicial inquiry determined that the plane’s fuel tanks lacked sufficient protection from shock and said officials had been aware of the problem since a series of incidents in 1979.

Early in the trial, lawyers for Continental argued that investigators had failed to follow up leads from 23 witnesses who said a fire broke out on the Concorde eight seconds before it even reached the metal debris.

Continental filed a suit last week accusing Air France of obstructing justice, saying that a document in the case file went missing and suggesting Air France was at fault.

Fernand Garnault, the lawyer for Air France, said today that the document was not missing. Mr Metzner alleges the document on file is a fake.

Air France has responded to the claim by filing its own suit yesterday accusing Continental of slander.

The Concorde, which whisked passengers across the Atlantic in three hours, was taken out of service in 2003.

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