The consequences of a bad day at work

The crash of the Concorde in Paris in 2000, killing 113 people, was an obvious tragedy, but in the end, common sense won out. In the aftermath of tragedy, we often want someone to pay. But sometimes, an unfortunate accident is just an unfortunate accident.

Today in Paris, an appeals court threw out the manslaughter conviction of a mechanic for Continental Airlines in Houston .

Mechanic John Taylor worked on a DC-10 in Houston and he fitted a metal strip on the plane that looked like this:


When the DC-10 went to Paris, the strip fell off on the runway.

Coincidentally, the Concorde’s tire hit the strip, the tire blew into bits, one of the bits hit the Concorde’s fuel tank, the fuel tank caught fire… and the Concorde was traveling too fast to abort the takeoff. So the pilots launched into the air.

A terrible situation. But criminal?

“He could never have imagined a scenario where this simple titanium blade could cause such a disaster,” the French judge said of the mechanic, who had improperly used a titanium strip instead of a softer aluminum one.

“It reminds us that human error, regardless of the tragic outcome, is different from a crime,” William R. Voss, president of the Flight Safety Foundation in Alexandria, Virginia, told the New York Times.

As for the mechanic, news organizations have been unable to reach him today. But two years ago he told the Associated Press the case caused him “mental anguish” and “destroyed my life.”

“I’ve been nothing but wronged since this started,” said Taylor.

He said the case also prevented him from gaining U.S. citizenship. He’s a Danish citizen, but has lived in the U.S. since he was 3.

All because of one small mistake at work.

  • Tyler

    I dunno Bob…I can’t quite agree with the title of your post. Granted, our actions on a daily basis can affect the lives of other people (distracted/drunk driving, for example), but if my job title is “Airplane Mechanic,” I would not consider myself having “just another job.” There’s a reason that job is/was highly regulated, documented, and paid – there’s a lot of responsibility on every part of an airplane. I don’t disagree with the court’s action in the case (between not getting his citizenship and the personal anguish, I’d say he’s paid several times over for the mistake), but I think you’re understating the role of an aircraft mechanic.

  • BJ

    Why not make the airport liable, shouldn’t they ‘clean’ the runway.

  • Bob Collins

    // but I think you’re understating the role of an aircraft mechanic.

    Trust me. I know a little something about airplane mechanics and nowhere do I indicate that this is “just” an airplane mechanic.

    What he is is a human and humans make mistakes in their jobs. The degree to which his mistake is a matter of criminal negligence is highly questionable. I’m not it’s proven that the aluminum strip wouldn’t have also fallen off (from what I can tell in the picture, the rivets broke).

    What happened here is the French courts looked for the first person not from France to pin the cause on. Going back far enough required them to ignore the airport, the pilots, the Concorde, the tire makers, the fuel tank makers, heck, why not nail the air traffic controllers while we’re at it.

    The point is that sometimes an accident happens and it’s a damn shame.

  • Erik Granse

    Tangential to the post, but for what it’s worth Bob, I believe the issue isn’t that the aluminum strip wouldn’t have fallen off, but that it wouldn’t have destroyed the Concorde’s tire as the titanium did.

  • Jeff Johnsen

    It’s my understanding that the French airport authorities had a policy to sweep the runway, in which before each Concorde departure, a ground vehicle would race down the runway to check for any FOD (debris). And in this case, for time constraints or other reasons, the FOD check had been cancelled. But I’ve never been able to confirm that rumor. I don’t mean to absolve the mechanics responsibility, but only to agree that this was an unfortunate accident with many contributors.

  • Tim Purcell

    I was never told what procedures and data Mr. Taylor used to do this, or what inspector bought this off, or how long the strip had been inplace before coming adrift in that inopportune spot. Seems there were a lot of people involved to make it a “bad day at work”