Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Manslaughter Case Opens Against Concorde

PARIS (Sept. 27) - France opened a manslaughter case against the former head of the Concorde program in connection with the 2000 crash of the supersonic jet at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, judicial officials said Tuesday. [The Air France Concorde burst into flames just after takeoff on July 25, 2000, killing 113 people].

Henri Perrier is the first of four former executives of Aerospatiale -- a French plane maker now part of the European Aeronautic Defence & Space Co. -- summoned by investigating judge Christophe Regnard.
Three other officials from France's civil aviation agency have also been called. [...]

Two investigations [...] concluded that a titanium "wear strip" that fell from a Continental Airlines DC-10 onto the runway caused a Concorde tire to burst, propelling rubber debris that perforated the supersonic plane's fuel tanks.
Continental was placed under investigation in March for alleged manslaughter and involuntary injury. French prosecutors contended that the carrier violated U.S. aviation rules by using titanium in a part of the plane that normally called for use of aluminum, which is softer.
However, the judicial inquiry, made public last year, also determined that the jet's fuel tanks lacked sufficient protection from shock -- a risk known since 1979. The planes [were] retired in 2003.


See also the comments in "Faux News" below.

Manslaughter seems excessive, but some consequence for those who decided that "good enough" was good enough seems fair.

8 Comments:

Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Both charges, against Continental and the Aerospatiale executives, are nuts.

In the case of Continental, whinging over the choice of wear strip material is to completely avoid the problem -- that the Concorde's design was amounted to a time bomb with a definite, but unknown, time remaining.

With regard to the Aerospatiale executives, whinging over personal blame is to avoid the problem -- an essentially socialist government decision to build the airplane, no matter the design compromises required.

Having government in the position of certifying what flies doesn't yield perfect results, but they are a heck of a lot better than when government both decides what to fly, then certifies the result.

September 28, 2005 4:10 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Are you then saying that Aerospatiale should bear NO responsibility for the design flaw, and the twenty-year-long failure to correct it ?

Surely there were techniques and materials available in 1999 that were not available, or perhaps not affordable, in 1979, that could have averted catastrophe.

September 28, 2005 6:02 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Oroborous:

Yes, that is what I am saying. And it is a line of reasoning, that, if followed, would eliminate a great deal of burdensome lawsuits in the US. It is also a line of reasoning that points out (as if it wasn't already obvious enough) one of many serious problems attending socialism.

The government certified the airplane as safe to fly. It also was the driving force, and the sole source of funding, behind the development.

Whenever this conflict of interests exists in a government entity, political considerations will always trump human considerations. A governmental organization solely concerned with safety issues would be less likely to have ever certified the design in the first place. See Shuttle, Space.

The failure, then, is in large part systemic, and not due solely, or even in part, to negligent actions on the part of a few people.

The other contributor is human nature. It is astonishingly easy to accept risks that are low but certain as part of normal operations (see Shuttle, Space; also, Orleans, New). It is often easy to justify those risks on material terms, based upon the likelihood of a certain event over a limited time span.

For instance, it is certain that a civilization ending meteorite will strike the Earth. On the face of it, that would justify any expense now, short of so burdening civilization as to end it, in order to defeat the threat.

But if the likelihood of a certain event happening in the next, say, 500 years, is near zero, then what?

It only makes sense to put these executives on trial if a case can be made that a hypothetical prudent, competent and ethical person in the same set of circumstances would have acted differently.

I don't think that case can be made.

With regard to lawsuits, no vehicle manufacturer should ever be subject to a lawsuit for a design that met gov't standards at the time of production.

Instead, lawsuits in effect force manufacturers to remember the future.

September 28, 2005 8:49 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

It only makes sense to put these executives on trial if a case can be made that a hypothetical prudent, competent and ethical person in the same set of circumstances would have acted differently.

Well, that's what I'm saying - it seems likely that by 2000 the fuel tanks, known to be vulnerable since 1979, could have been better-protected, and that it's reasonable to expect that it SHOULD have been done.

I don't think that case can be made.

You may well be right, but I don't agree that we should excuse the executives from having to explain why they didn't fix the problem.

It's entirely possible that if everyone is forced to explain under oath what they did, or did not do, and why, a surprise will emerge.

It's happened in several lawsuits against auto makers in the U.S.

[N]o vehicle manufacturer should ever be subject to a lawsuit for a design that met gov't standards at the time of production.

I agree, unless the standards are changed, and I believe that the gov't has the right to change the standards.

One example would be smog standards.
Vehicles made in the 70s may have met the standards of the day, but if they can't pass a 21st century smog-check, they can't be registered in most urban areas, and some entire states.

September 28, 2005 6:12 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Oroborous:

it seems likely that by 2000 the fuel tanks, known to be vulnerable since 1979, could have been better-protected, and that it's reasonable to expect that it SHOULD have been done.

That is exactly correct.

But given the way organizations and humans behave, is and ought are often separated by a gulf that does not include criminal behavior.

By the time Kevlar was available, the Concorde had been successfully operating (as in zero mishaps) in its vulnerable state for over twenty years.

In other words, the aircraft, as it stood, was considered "normal."

This exactly analagous to the Columbia disaster. For years, the main fuel tank had been shedding foam. While we now perceive that as a recipe for eventual disaster, at the time it was a part of normal operations.

This sort of failure isn't criminal, it is human and organizational.

Therefore, criminal or civil prosecution doesn't seem, to me anyway, appropriate. (I am insufficiently familiar to know whether any part of the organization was pestering the executives for such a change; that would change everything.)

At one time I flew the F-111. In the summer we often had Oil Hot warnings; the procedure was to shut the engine down, for fear of a hot-air duct leak being the cause.

It never was -- it was always just oil reaching a temperature to trigger the sensor.

So we became habituated to routinely giving away perfectly good engines.

Additionally, the wing commander had decided practicing single engine heavy weight (lots of fuel on board) approaches was too risky, and prohibited them.

Important plot note: Any emergency procedure involving a suspected hot air duct leak meant dumping fuel was out of the question.

So on a midsummer day we had yet another oil hot light just after takeoff. The pilot gave away a perfectly good engine, could not dump fuel, and configured just as he had practiced.

Being heavy, the airplane didn't have sufficient thrust to maintain airspeed and altitude without afterburner.

Which, this time, didn't work.

Nor did the ejection system, due to a previously suspected flaw deemed to expensive to fix.

Results: 1 destroyed airplane. Two dead (including my closest friend on the base). Revised the emergency procedure to leave the suspect engine in idle, rather than shut it down. Changed the oil temp sensor. Changed single engine approaches to configure on the glide path rather than in level flight prior. Resumed practicing single engine heavyweight approaches.

This was an accident waiting to happen; it was one afterburner failure away any number of times.

But we were all operating in a zone that was both dangerous and comfortable.

Should the Wing Commander have been prosecuted?

September 29, 2005 4:26 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Your point about complacency and habit is well-taken.

I don't know enough to say whether or not the Wing Commander should have been prosecuted.

IF it should have been obvious that not practicing a certain class of emergency maneuvers would lead to catastrophe in the event of the additional failure of another system, AND if that system was known to be prone to failure, then yes.

However, it sounds as though your friends were victims of an unusual cascade of systems failures, and that if any single failure had not occurred, then they would have survived.

September 29, 2005 5:22 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Oroborous:

You are exactly on point about a chain of circumstances.

In this particular case, we were just one afterburner failure away from disaster. In the case of the Concorde, they were just one tire faiure away.

After all, what were the odds of running over a piece of metal on a runway?

I doubt these executives acted in any way that could be considered criminal.

Consider if they are tried and found guilty: it means everyone in a decision making capacity is a hostage to fortune.

Damned if a decision is somehow linked to an accident; damned if the lack of a decision does the same.

That is a recipe for paralysis.

September 29, 2005 5:40 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

Great discussion, chaps.

I naturally tended to Oroborous’s view on casually reading the story, but Skipper has changed my mind. What a great thing the web is for widening your horizons.

I suppose that this highlights the extremely difficult balancing act we have to make in many areas of life between workable decision-making and accountability.

On the one hand, paying passengers on the Concorde could reasonably feel that they have a right to expect that everything that could possibly be done to make the plane safe had been done.

On the other hand, if everybody who is charged with making positive decisions - and thereby taking some sort of risk, however calculated or low – is treated as a criminal when that decision goes wrong, then decision-making becomes undesirable or impossible, and we have, as Skipper says: “a recipe for paralysis”.

I don’t envy those who have to make the judgements.

Skipper’s guideline is sound: “It only makes sense to put these executives on trial if a case can be made that a hypothetical prudent, competent and ethical person in the same set of circumstances would have acted differently.”

The problem is that there’s no definitive formula even for that.

September 30, 2005 4:03 AM  

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