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The Concorde Redemption

Can the superplane make a comeback?

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As Concorde Prototype 001 swiftly accelerated and rotated off the runway at Toulouse-Blagnac airfield, an odd scene was taking place just outside the perimeter fence: Many in the crowd were not just watching the Concorde’s maiden flight, they were cheering “Allez France! Allez France!” as if they were watching France score a goal in an international soccer game. When the airplane landed 35 minutes later after a subsonic flight, it was clear not only that aviation history had been made on March 2, 1969, but also that France had a proud new symbol. As the Paris newspaper Le Monde once noted, Concorde “was created largely to serve the prestige of France. [It was] the expression of political will, founded on a certain idea of national grandeur.”

Thus the national trauma that gripped France last summer. At 4:44 p.m. Paris time on July 25, 2000, with pilot Christian Marty and copilot Jean Marcot at the controls, Air France Flight 4590 blew a tire on its left main gear on takeoff from Charles de Gaulle airport. As the crew fought to keep the airplane under control, it began drifting left on Runway 26R with a long sheet of flames trailing from its left wing. The alarm gong sounded in the cockpit, and engines one and two, of four, lost power. “Watch the airspeed, the airspeed, the airspeed!” Marcot yelled to Marty as the airplane continued heading left, in the general direction of a taxiing Air France 747 bringing President Jacques Chirac back from a summit in Tokyo.

Marty tugged on the controls and tried for liftoff at 188 knots, 11 knots below normal rotation speed. With thrust coming from only its two right engines, Flight 4590 struggled barely 200 feet into the air, then suddenly went nose up, rolled over, and crashed onto a hotel. All 100 passengers, mainly German tourists heading for a rendezvous with a cruise ship in New York, were killed, along with the three flight crew members, six flight attendants, and four people on the ground.

Said France’s largest newspaper, Le Figaro, “Without doubt, Concorde died yesterday at the age of 31. All that will remain is the myth of a beautiful white bird.” Comparing the crash to the sinking of the Titanic, the Hindenburg bursting into flames, and the Challenger space shuttle exploding, London’s The Times lamented, “Nothing will ever be quite the same again…. This was the superplane, the symbol of progress, the icon of invention, a totem.”

Air France president Jean-Cyril Spinetta, standing in his office by a picture window overlooking Charles de Gaulle’s runways, watched, horrified, as Concorde F-BTSC trailed flames and crashed. He immediately grounded the company’s Concorde fleet until further notice.

Like many, Spinetta thought he knew what went wrong. “For all of those who were eyewitnesses to this catastrophe, and I am one of them,” he said later, “the cause was an engine fire on takeoff.” But was it?

British Airways initially followed Air France’s lead and grounded its Concordes, then resumed service the next day. But the French company heeded Transport Minister Jean-Claude Gayssot, who declared that the airplane would not fly again until the accident was fully explained. Franco-British discord continued until August 16, when France’s Bureau Enquêtes Accidents (BEA) declared that, contrary to Spinetta’s impression, a tire blowout caused the crash.

It also took the rare step of recommending suspension of Concorde’s certificate of airworthiness. France’s Direction Générale de l’Aviation Civile (DGAC), the equivalent of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, pulled the certificate, and Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority went along. CAA Chairman Sir Malcolm Field explained: “What is uniquely different in this case is that tire debris alone is thought to have led to this catastrophic accident.” With that, BA stopped one Concorde as it was about to take off from Heathrow, and ferried another back from New York without passengers.

Two official French inquiries were set in motion. The BEA searched for causes, while a judicial investigation headed by three magistrates tried to determine legal responsibilities. As the investigation dragged on for months, Britain’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch, which participated in the inquiry under terms of a long-standing Franco-British agreement on Concorde safety incidents and was eager to keep the investigation moving, officially protested against “unacceptable procedural delays” in France, to no avail.

The first puzzle to solve was a piece of the number five fuel tank found on the runway that somehow had been torn loose from the inside out. Researchers from European Aeronautic Defense and Space Co. (EADS), successor to the original French Concorde builder, Sud-Aviation, ran a computer simulation that came up with the answer: When a large piece of tire weighing about nine pounds struck the underside of the left wing, the impact generated a shock wave, propagated through the full tank of jet fuel, that moved first up, then down, exploding outward. The resulting one-square-foot hole created a massive kerosene leak—on the order of 20 gallons per second—that somehow ignited.

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