Concorde Crash Trial Begins

The three other men accused of manslaughter are Henri Perrier, 80, the chief of the Concorde program at plane maker Aerospatiale from 1978 to 1994; Jacques Herubel, 74, a top Aerospatiale engineer at Concorde from 1993 to 95; and Claude Frantzen, 72, who handled the Concorde program in various roles at the French civil aviation authority DGAC. The the Frenchmen are on trial for having underestimated previous incidents involving Concorde.

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.

In June of that year, while taking off from Washington, two tires on the left hand main gear blew up, sending debris into the air, damaging the wing and causing a fuel and hydraulic leak. Miraculously, the aircraft was able to land safely back in Washington.

Most Crash Victims' Families Not Present in Court

Over the years, several other incidents involving the supersonic tires were reported, some of them resulting in structural damages. A few of these incidents even led to holes in the fuel tanks.

A battle of experts is thus expected to take place during the trial, and about 60 witnesses are scheduled to take the stand.

Most victims' families have received financial settlements, reportedly 153 million euros ($213 million) in total, and signed a confidentiality clause, and are not expected to be in court.

Though investigators noticed maintenance issues, Air France is not accused of any wrongdoing. The French carrier has joined the case as civil plaintiff: it considers itself a victim because of expenses stemming from the accident and damage to its image. The company hopes to obtain damages from Continental.

Other civil plaintiffs include families of victims on the ground who never received any compensation.

Concorde jets were retired by both Air France and British Airways in 2003. The jets are now on display in museums around the world.

The Associated Press contributed to the reporting of this story.

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