Nailing the Concorde “criminals”

Today in Pontoise, north of Paris, the French judiciary began to examine who, if anyone, was criminally guilty of causing the Air France Concorde crash.

There is no obligation under French law to launch a criminal prosecution following an aviation accident. An accident could be presumed to be just that: an unintended, unforseen occurrence.

This compulsion to prosecute following aviation accidents in France seems to be embedded in the way the establishment works in the country, but it’s about time somebody in authority questioned the procedure. The trouble is that it seems to be considered sacrilege to criticise or interfere with the French judicial system. The judiciary’s independence is sacred to the extent that they can write their own rules. So that’s what they do.

In this blog about 18 months ago I reported an encounter with a senior French lawyer who specialises in aviation, and she gave me a cryptic insight into why the French judiciary act as they do. I quote briefly from that report: “The French judiciary are not obliged to prosecute following accidents, any more than the British judiciary are, but in France they always choose to go for prosecution, while in the UK they hardly ever do.”

Let’s look at what this Pontoise court has to do if it is to convict any of the five accused of manslaughter.

For the charge against the Aerospatiale engineers/designers to stand, the prosecution has to be able to prove that Concorde was designed negligently, that the design’s vulnerability to wing fuel tank damage was known, and it could have been forseen that there was a risk that this vulnerability could lead to the loss of the aircraft so as to cause harm to those on board.

That will be difficult to prove.

The Continental Airlines mechanics are alleged to have departed from proper engineering procedures when they prepared a titanium strip to carry out a repair to the DC-10 that took off from the same runway shortly before Concorde began its take-off roll, and that the strip detached from the aircraft during the roll. The accident investigators’ report says the probable cause of the accident is that the titanium strip on the runway cut one of the Concorde’s tyres in such a way that a large chunk of the exploding tyre pierced the wing skin and released a stream of fuel that caught fire, causing the crash.

It may be that the alleged departure from standard engineering procedures could be established, but whether a connection between the engineering procedure and the accident can be proven is not certain. The technical investigation does not deal in legal proof, its purpose is to establish a “probable cause” for an accident purely so that future events of the same type can be prevented. A probable cause is not a proof. The court may be unable to prove the connection.

This court case is pointless. Concorde itself will never fly again, and in the unlikely event that any new technical facts emerge that had not already been examined by the accident investigators, they are unlikely to provide lessons that are transferable to in-service types because so much about Concorde’s design is unique. If the argument is that the prosecution is being pursued “pour encourager les autres”, or to see justice served by jailing some individuals on the grounds they are guilty of manslaughter through criminal negligence, which group of people will welcome this judicial revenge against five individuals? There has been no baying for blood over this accident, merely sadness.

In previous cases where a prosecution was mounted following air accidents in France, the normal outcome has been the acquittal of all involved. On the rare occasion that a person has been found guilty, the sentence has been suspended.

What makes the Concorde case particularly distasteful is how much time and money have been wasted on preparing it for court over the nine years since the accident, and how much more is going to be wasted in court during the next four months. Add to that the harm and delay always imposed on the technical investigation by the French judiciary’s meddling which, in this case, drove the UK Air Accident Investigation Branch – a partner in the investigation – to distraction while they were trying to get on with the job.

The French judiciary in this case are acting like a peculiar sect with strange beliefs pursuing an eccentric ritual that has no relevance to anyone except the participants.  

As usual, this case will be won or lost on legal technicalities. It is certainly not about aviation, it is more about legal egos, if my French lawyer friend is to be believed. And about lining their pockets. 

14 Responses to Nailing the Concorde “criminals”

  1. Stephen Wolf 4 February, 2010 at 12:10 pm #

    Congratulations David on hitting the “Nail on the head”. What a complete waste of time this trial is. Lining pockets is definitely the raison d’être.

    Interestingly, the trial may end up publicizing what I believe were major disagreements between the UK’s CAA and the French BEA, regarding the string of events contributing to this terrible accident.

    If the Continental strip was where it was on the CDG runway, the Concorde should never have hit it during a normal take-off. This take-off was far from normal even before the fire…..

    What is disturbing about all this, is the number of tyre exploding incidents that have now come to light, which the Concorde fleet experienced before 2000. A picture of a Concorde landing with fuel streaming from one of its wings, should have set off alarm bells…. But as far as I can tell little was done to study how to minimise the effect of tyre bursts. The knowledge of the importance of impact induced shockwaves in the fuel came later, after the loss of an entire aircraft and its full load of passengers. So if we learn nothing else from this sad accident, it should be not to ignore warning of impending disaster for the sake of keeping an aircraft’s design on a pedistal of engineering perfection.

    Dr. Stephen Wolf

  2. David Connolly 4 February, 2010 at 1:24 pm #

    Le Pointless Pontoise “Process Concorde 02-02-10″ avec morte subite et violente. When the melted spar lets down the grinding span the blame for loss incurred confers upon a man, men or anyone expedient and convenient, even after 10 -40 years.

    As David L says, legal proof is not probable cause, thankfully in normal jurisprudence that is so to enable contextual interpretation. Napoleonic jurisprudence is imprudent at best in assuming some guilt initially, which can only impede the technical investigation, as it did in Concorde’s case. It has legally proved itself to be demonstrably a secular religion of absolute truth ,found to be as hollow as all promulgated absolute truths are upon informed questioning.
    The Continental DC-10′s titanium wear strip which, according to the BEA’s report scalped the Concorde’s tyre will be contested and has the potential to be a JFK-like “magic bullet” or silver bullet or silver shrapnel.
    Concorde, like the Space Shuttle was always a flying souffle without a meaningful damage safety margin. And probability being a function of frequency, a loss was inevetable eventually, as many other similiar tyre/wheel shrapnel incidents had previously occured resulting in fuel leaks different from the accident only in volume.
    What probably tipped the balance against the Concorde on it’s accident flight was an expedited taxi, resulting in a TOW a couple of tons above Max, a tailwind, a soft touch on the rudder to maintain centreline an early rotation below VR-11kts to avoid drifting off the runway and T-boning a waiting AF B-744 from Tokyo and the F/E’s shutdown of #2 at VR upon receipt of a fire-warning instead of waiting for some altitude insurance. These parameters in isolation are managable, but in combination with, margins were shrunk to 200kts and 200ft,(Min drag was 400kt) so that it never got out of it’s second segment coffin corner. The conflaguration induced snuffing out of the #1 put the final nail in the coffin.
    If the B-744 containing Jacques Chirac was hit, the human cost would have been enormous, but there would have been a political dividend in irony as Concorde was a political prestige project from the start.
    What won’t be mentioned in the Cour de Kangeroo is the impact of political prestige in driving aircraft design.

  3. Dave 4 February, 2010 at 3:16 pm #

    There needs to be more talk about the missing wheel spacer.The wheel spacer was left off and as a result did the tyre burst.

  4. David Learmount 4 February, 2010 at 3:36 pm #

    The Judge in the court case has been presented with 80,000 pages of evidence, including evidence about the missing spacer, but the Prosecution has decided not to charge Air France or any of its employees for a failure of maintenance, so they have obviously concluded the spacer was either not relevant to this accident, or could not be proven as a cause and therefore that prosecution would be pointless.

    Remember this blog item is about the court case and whether or not it serves a useful purpose, not about what caused the aircraft to crash.

  5. TL 4 February, 2010 at 10:48 pm #

    I just came across Charles Bremner’s post on this in El Times:

    http://timescorrespondents.typepad.com/charles_bremner/2010/02/the-concorde-crash-reaches-court-amid-doubts.html

    Two interesting points, one actually directly related:

    1: In a comment to the article by ‘Romain’, I learned something new.. “The explosive destruction of the tyre was more due to a combination of being grossly overweight, the front wheels on the Left Undercarriage skewing badly from true (due to the missing spacer) and running over a very rough (awaiting repair) initial runway surface….This overweight aircraft veered hard along the L/H side of the runway, took out a taxi light which in turn seriously damaged an engine.
    It then took off on 3 1/2 engines, way below V2 and in flames. A good, thrust producing engine was then shut down leaving 2 1/2 engines.”

    2: In his footnote about flying on Tu-144 “No westerners had flown on it before so I was debriefed by British “officals” who were trying to find out how much the Russians had nicked from the Concorde design.”

  6. David Learmount 5 February, 2010 at 10:29 am #

    What Charlie Bremner says may have some validity, but like I said this blog entry was set up to be an examination of the court case and whether mounting the trial will serve any useful purpose. It was not intended to be yet another examination of details of the accident itself and the technical investigation – although of course you are free to do that here if you wish.

    But if Bremner’s case has validity, the organisation which should be in the dock at court is Air France. But Air France has not been called, and no Air France employees have been charged.

    Remember this court case is not an accident investigation. Its purpose is to determine whether any of the five accused was criminally negligent to the extent of being guilty of manslaughter, and to sentence them if they are found guilty. This is not about enlightenment, it is about punishment or, as the judge would say, about justice.

  7. TL 5 February, 2010 at 6:43 pm #

    There were some interesting comments on the above on PPRUNE (http://www.pprune.org/rumours-news/333608-five-people-face-concorde-crash-trial.html), which I eventually headed over to once I saw it referenced by Bremner where I assume he got his theory from. In particular, some interesting points about the difference between the relatively ‘new’ introduction of a corporate manslaughter law in the UK and the reason the frenchies do what they do, not to mention incidents that reached the ears of G. d’Estang and nothing being done despite Concorde’s weakness’ being known and reported fairly early on and alleged sloppy practice by AF.

  8. Anselm Kuhn 6 February, 2010 at 3:34 pm #

    I certainly disagree with DL. This Court hearing is necessary and provides a forum where the findings of the BEA can be challenged. The 197 page long BEA report (avail. on-line) is extremely thorough, and yet rather odd. It notes that at T/O, the plane was 6 tonnes overweight (not “a couple” as one comment above stated). Should have been 180 T, was actually 186T. The crew knew this – but went ahead anyway. The BEA Report accepts that the wheel bogie was wrongly dismantled (extractors not used) and assembled with shim disc omitted, but rejects a suggestion that this played a role. Several former Concorde pilots and others strongly disagree, basing their views on location and form of runway skid marks. They believe that high friction on the wheels caused a yaw (and the BEA Report acknowledges the plane hit and damaged a landing strip light, so far off centre was it). High friction in the bogie also allegedly slowed T/O acceleration. The BEA Report does not comment, as I recall, on the record of prev. tyre-blow incidents, notably that at Washington DC Airport, where damaged wing tanks leaked fuel, thankfully without ignition. Last but not least, if, as Continental argue, there was a fire BEFORE the whel hit the titanium strip, the entire BEA report collapses. Concorde is a closed book – but in terms of procedures, there are many lessons to be learned. There is a lingering suspiction of a culture of “gung-ho”. 6 T overweight ? Tant-pis! Major stormcloud ? (AF447), fly through it, what the hell. Appalling weather conditions (landing at Toronto). Third time lucky – let’s go for it. I salute Christian Marty’s solo windsurf across the Atlantic – but not sure that courage is what I’d be looking for in my pilot. Pointoise, or its outcome, could serve many beneficial purposes.

  9. Phil 8 February, 2010 at 4:25 pm #

    Your kowledge of french criminal law is so poor that it leads you to speedy and false conclusions.

    The reason why this case went to a criminal court has nothing to do with french judges but with the victims.

    If you remember well the Concorde crashed on an hotel close to the airport killing a dozen persons on the ground. These people (or should I say their family) did not recieve any compensation for their damage because we did not (and still don’t) know who’s fault it was. Other victims (passengers) have been offered compensation by AF.

    Therefore they engaged legal action. They brought their claim before a criminal court because expertise fees are paid by the state. In this sort of cases, you can imagine how much they saved with this process. Once they have a decision handed out by the criminal court, they can recieve compensation by the civil court. But since they will know for sure (at least legally) who is responsible, the civil trial is quick and very cheap. There is nothing else to argue about except on the amount.
    The prosecution office was forced to investigate because of the victims’complaints. This rule (article 1 Criminal procedure code if you want to check) ensures that a case is not buried by the prosecution (they take orders from the goverment).

    If someone is found guilty, no one will go to jail. The french judiciary is certainly not doing it for the fun. Believe the french judge writing this comment and not a lawyer specialized in aviation law that certainly doesn’t really master the basics rules in criminal law.

  10. andreas 10 February, 2010 at 3:45 am #

    France just like the USA. It is not about justice but about the terror of the law. It is used to keep the pressure up on the regular citizen, to keep us under control. Here in the US the prosecution attorneys are out of hand. 80% of the cases are settle because the ‘accused’ settles for less,not for justice, because they, the STATE, has always the upper hand, thanks to our tax dollars which pay for their salaries to terrorize us. Please do not talk of JUSTICE, it is an illusion,. The process is just there to nail someone, and normally it is the one who has the most to loose and has the least money, the scapegoat.
    Do not complain about the French justice system. It does the same the US ‘justice’ system does, it justifies it own existence, nothing more or less.
    They do this in the US, China, Russia, etc., no different.

  11. Joseph Spiteri 19 March, 2010 at 9:00 am #

    I agree with Anselm Kuhn that although Concorde is now dead, worthwhile lessons can still be drawn from its saga. In particular, Continental’s claim that Concorde was on fire before hitting the metal strip needs to be looked into, and possibly settled once and for all. So the Paris trial may yet not be a complete waste of time. You state that Concorde was unique – certainly true, but most of its uniqueness followed from its unique cruise speed of M2. On the other hand, the accident happened at just about M 0.3 – nothing very unique about that. It does look to me that the integrity of fuel tanks needs more attention in aircraft design. We all remember the TWA 747 and the BA 737 destroyed on the ground in Naples.

  12. David Learmount 19 March, 2010 at 9:48 am #

    Mr Spiteri, I take your point, but don’t lose sight of the fact that the purpose of this trial is to convict the accused of criminality. This is a court of law, not another board of inquiry.

  13. KEN 16 April, 2010 at 12:06 pm #

    So, 6 tons over weight a quick taxi so as not to keep president waiting (while over weight)would increase the temp of the tyres add to this the missing spacer making the wheel run out of track,the heat build up would make a failure of the tyre more likly. Now he takes off over weight down wind, and AIR FRANCE are not in the dock, the case should never go to court as the aircraft should have never taken off anyway, the flight was illegal from the time it left the gate.
    Also the action of the flight engineer in shutting down the engine when he did make a bad situation worse. I heard it said when things go bang do nothing for 10 sec’s to make sure you get the action right first time if not it might be your last time as in this case.

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