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Concorde Crash Update: French Court Overturns Manslaughter Conviction

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The ConcordeToday, a French appeals court overturned a manslaughter conviction against Continental Airlines, Inc., for the 2000 crash of an Air France Concorde that killed 113 people.

For 12 years, Peter investigated the crash, talking to numerous credible eyewitnesses, reading the French accident report, and studying everything about the Concorde’s design, piecing together the series of events that led up to the crash. His conclusions were at odds with both the French accident report as well as the original verdict, noting that the Concorde’s fate was sealed before it ever pushed back from the gate that July afternoon.

Let’s look at the facts in the case, says Peter:

Did a Continental DC 10 drop a strip of titanium from an engine cowling upon takeoff from Charles de Gaulle immediately prior to the Concorde taking off? Yes. Did one of the Concorde’s tires hit that piece of metal? Yes

Did that piece of metal cause the crash? I have consistently argued that it did not, and today’s verdict supports my reporting and the evidence.

The original 2010 ruling by a French court convicted Continental and one of its mechanics, imposing a $2.7 million fine.  The charges against Continental stemmed from the fact that prior to the Concorde taking off, a Continental Airlines DC-10 roared down the same runway, and on take-off, a small piece of titanium dropped from one of its engines. When the Concorde started its takeoff roll, one of the tires hit that small strip of metal, the tire exploded, ripped into one of the fuel tanks on the wing, and launched a chain of events that led to the crash of the supersonic plane.

Today’s verdict determined that mistakes made by the Continental mechanics were not legally enough to make them responsible for the deaths.

As Peter reports, there were some surprising findings:

The evidence in this case speaks volumes against the French: Air France, for loading the Concorde to the point where it was overweight and for putting too much fuel on the plane to the point where it was overfueled. And the tire manufacturer, for making tires that were inadequate to handle the loads and stresses associated with the Concorde. (There were multiple incidents of tire disintegration over a period of many years).

But this case was more about French sovereignty and commerce than accepting not only the physical evidence, but perhaps the most credible testimony possible. The French accident investigators chose to ignore the four eyewitnesses: ttwo French firemen at the airport, who reported seeing fire and smoke from the Concorde way before the plane could have ever hit the metal strip; an American Airlines pilot, who also saw smoke and flames from the plane before it ever could have hit the metal strip; and, the chief pilot for then-French President Jacques Chirac, who was sitting in the cockpit of the presidential 747 waiting for the Concorde to take off, and who also witnessed the entire series of events.

According to reports, as the Concorde veered off the runway, and onto the grass, trailing 150 feet of flame, it headed straight for the presidential plane. At the last second, the Concorde pilot realized he was going too fast to stop and too slow to take off. He pulled back on the yoke and the plane jerked into the sky, barely missing President Chirac’s plane by about 30 feet.

When part of the tire slammed into one of the fuel tanks, it created a sonic wave that caused the tank to explode and send fuel gushing into one of the engine air intakes, igniting a fire.  Translation: the plane was doomed before the tire impacted the piece of metal.

Inside the cockpit, as fire warning lights flashed and alarms rang, the flight engineer did the unthinkable. Without asking the pilot for permission, he shut down one of the engines — an engine that was still producing essential thrust.

At this point, the plane became unflyable. Seconds later, it pitched up, stalled and basically pancaked into a hotel, killing four on the ground. Ironically, the supersonic plane hit the hotel at just 74 mph.

It is sad that this crash effectively sealed the fate of the supersonic Concorde. But it is heartening that today’s verdict points all the right fingers in all the right directions. Justice may have been delayed, but at least it has not in the end been denied. The verdict is vindication for Continental (now United) and its own staff and employees. And now, the real questions remain: what will the aviation industry learn from this tragic crash, and perhaps most important, will they apply those lessons?

For more on the crash of the Concorde, see Peter’s one-hour Dateline special, Black Box Mystery: The Crash of the Concorde.

For additional reading on the case, check out:

By Sarika Chawla for