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.