Paris: Was an abandoned scrap of metal on the runway really the main culprit in the fiery crash of an Air France Concorde shortly after takeoff?
That finding, insisted upon by French investigators for a decade, will be scrutinized and debated in a long-awaited trial starting Tuesday. Prosecutors argue that the supersonic passenger jet never would have crashed in July 2000 — killing 113 — if a Continental Airlines DC-10 hadn`t dropped a piece of titanium onto the Charles de Gaulle airport runway just minutes before the Concorde soared into the summer sky.
Continental lawyer Olivier Metzner says the American airline is simply a convenient scapegoat. He will argue that a fire broke out on the Concorde eight seconds before it even reached the titanium strip, he says.
The case marks the only crash ever of a Concorde, an accident that brought heartache and humiliation to a nation proud of its aviation marvel, a jet that could fly across the Atlantic in half the time of other airliners.
The trial is expected to last four months as the court in Pontoise, north of Paris, tries to pin down who should be held criminally responsible for the crash, which killed 109 people on the plane, mostly German tourists, and four people on the ground.
Houston-headquartered Continental Airlines, Inc. and two of its US employees are on trial for manslaughter. Both aviation and judicial investigators have said the metal strip on the runway was the primary cause of the accident.
Three former French officials also face charges; judicial investigators say they had long failed to fix the Concorde`s vulnerable spots.
Money is not a major issue, since the victims` families accepted settlements long ago. The plane`s airworthiness is not at stake: The jet was retired by both Air France and British Airways in 2003. Concordes are now on display in museums, relics from a time when supersonic flight seemed like the future of air travel.
Aviation officials will nonetheless watch the trial closely. The Alexandria, Virginia-based Flight Safety Foundation argues that criminal trials such as this one — standard practice in France for such accidents — are harmful because they discourage industry officials from sharing important safety information, fearful that what they disclose could be used later on to prosecute them.
"I see absolutely no useful purpose served in bringing a criminal prosecution a decade later on a set of facts that suggests nothing more than an aviation tragedy that has multiple mistakes and human errors, like so many others," said Kenneth P. Quinn, the Flight Safety Foundation`s general counsel.
In the years after the Concorde crashed, both French aviation and judicial investigators concluded that the DC-10`s titanium piece — known as a wear strip — gashed the Concorde`s tire, sending pieces of rubber into the fuel tanks, which caused a fire.
Continental lawyer Metzner says he plans to present testimony from about 20 witnesses who say they spotted a small fire aboard the Concorde before it reached the titanium strip, but that investigators remained stubbornly fixated on the DC-10`s debris.
Metzner says he will ask for the proceedings to be called off, arguing that the document ordering the trial did not provide counterweights to the accusations against Continental, as is required.
Investigators "preferred not to call the Concorde into question, not to call Air France into question, that`s why they were satisfied with the ideal culprit, which was Continental Airlines," Metzner said to a news agency. He argues the supersonic jet was generally fragile and says that particular Concorde was in no condition to fly that day because it was overloaded and lacked a piece to stabilize its wheels.
Air France confirmed the piece was missing but says neither that nor extra weight were factors in the crash.
The French carrier is not accused of wrongdoing and has joined the case as a civil party: It considers itself a victim because of expenses stemming from the accident and damage to its image, lawyer Fernard Garnault said. He said the company hoped to obtain damages from Continental.
Continental mechanic John Taylor is accused of building and installing the titanium strip without respecting guidelines. Maintenance chief Stanley Ford is on trial for validating the strip`s installation.
The French judicial inquiry determined that the plane`s fuel tanks lacked sufficient protection from shock, and that Concorde`s makers had been aware of the problem since 1979.
The three other men accused of manslaughter in the case are Henri Perrier, ex-chief of the Concorde program at plane maker Aerospatiale from 1978 to 1994; Jacques Herubel, a top Aerospatiale engineer at Concorde from 1993-95; and Claude Frantzen, who handled the Concorde program in various roles at the French civil aviation authority.
They are accused of ignoring a host of problems, including "neglecting the risk of fires" on the supersonic jet, according to the prosecutor`s office. Lawyers for the three Frenchmen, all retired, say they will argue that that the men were not to blame and that the accident was unpredictable.
FENVAC, a French federation representing the victims` interests, alleges that generous financial settlements with most families "apparently were intended to buy (their) silence" — though lawyers for Air France and Continental say they have the right to speak out at the trial.
Family members of pilot Christian Marty hope the court will state that the crash could have been avoided if officials had heeded warning signs about the plane`s vulnerabilities, said their lawyer, Roland Rappaport. He argues that runway debris is a common problem and that "an exploding tire should not provoke a plane crash.
"If it did, we`d have to stop aviation," he said.