Unfazed by pressure from various aviation alphabet groups concerned about the “criminalization” of aircraft accidents, a French court this week found a Continental Airlines mechanic guilty of involuntary manslaughter for his role in the July 25, 2000, crash of an Air France Concorde outside Paris. Judge Dominique Andreassier also found Continental Airlines civilly and criminally responsible for the accident, which killed 109 on board and four people on the ground. The judge ordered Continental to pay a €200,000 ($268,000) fine and €1 million ($1.34 million) in damages to Air France, while the mechanic, John Taylor, received a 15-month suspended prison sentence and a €2,000 ($2,682) fine. The court found Taylor’s former supervisor, Stanley Ford, along with three French officials, not guilty of the manslaughter charges filed against them.
Crash investigators determined that during its takeoff roll from Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport, the airplane hit a titanium wear strip that had fallen off a Continental McDonnell Douglas DC-10 minutes before. The strip burst one of the Concorde’s tires, pieces of which created a pressure shock wave in the left main fuel tank, causing it to rupture at its weakest point and leak fuel, which caught fire due to an electrical arc or through contact with cut electrical cables. After the crew shut down engine Number 2 in response to a fire warning, engine Number 1 eventually stalled and the fire partially melted the left wing. After reducing power on the remaining two engines in an attempt to correct for an asymmetric thrust condition, the crew lost control and crashed into a hotel near the airport. The court found that Taylor welded the unapproved strip of titanium to the DC-10 two weeks before the accident occurred.
Considered largely symbolic, the relatively modest fines and damages assessed no doubt meant less to Continental than the harm to its reputation the ruling stands to effect and the precedent it potentially sets. The airline, now part of United Continental Holdings, has vowed a vigorous appeal.
“While we agree with the court’s decision that Stanley Ford was innocent of the charges he faced and we share his relief that his decade-long nightmare is over, we strongly disagree with the court’s verdict regarding Continental Airlines and John Taylor and will of course appeal this absurd finding,” said Continental in a statement. “Portraying the metal strip as the cause of the accident and Continental and one of its employees as the sole guilty parties shows the determination of the French authorities to shift attention and blame away from Air France, which was government-owned at the time and operated and maintained the aircraft, as well as from the French authorities responsible for the Concorde’s airworthiness and safety. To find that any crime was committed in this tragic accident is not supported either by the evidence at trial or by aviation authorities and experts around the world.”