UNDATED (CBS) - The Concorde was the ultimate in international travel for more than 30 years. That supersonic age ended in 2003 after one of the Concordes crashed. Two years ago, a French court found Continental Airlines criminally responsible for that tragedy. But that ruling has just been thrown out.
By the time the Air France Concorde lifted off in Paris, its left wing was already on fire. It was July 25th, 2000 and 109 passengers and crew had only minutes to live.
The plane crashed into a hotel, killing four more people on the ground. Turns out, a sixteen inch metal strip, lying on the runway, brought down the Concorde. Mark Rosenker says, "When the Concorde went over it, it hit the tire like shrapnel; parts of the tire went into the tank like shrapnel."
Mark Rosenker, the former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, is the CBS News Transportation Analyst.
The flying debris exploded the Concorde's fuel tanks. The metal piece that triggered the accident had fallen off a Continental DC 10, and had been mistakenly installed by a Continental mechanic. Rosenker says, "This was an accident. Why the French courts got involved and tired to make a criminal case out of this I will never understand."
French courts held Continental Airlines criminally responsible, and convicted its mechanic of manslaughter. But now a French appeals court has overturned that ruling, saying the mistake made by the Continental mechanic did not amount to a crime.
The Concorde had safety design flaws with its landing gear and wings, issues known before the crash. Its fuel tanks also had too little protection against flying debris.
The French appeals court said "political pressure" had kept the Concorde flying too long. Rosenker says, "Accidents are never one thing. They're a chain."
The Air France crash also killed the era of supersonic commercial air travel. In 2003, the entire Concorde fleet was retired.