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Concorde and one of the deadliest plane crashes in history

What is the Concorde?

Concorde, the first supersonic passenger-carrying commercial airplane (or supersonic transport, SST), built jointly by aircraft manufacturers in Great Britain and France. The Concorde made its first transatlantic crossing on September 26, 1973, and it inaugurated the world’s first scheduled supersonic passenger service on January 21, 1976—British Airways initially flying the aircraft from London to Bahrain and Air France flying it from Paris to Rio de Janeiro. Both airlines added regular service to Washington, D.C., in May 1976 and to New York City in November 1977. Other routes were added temporarily or seasonally, and the Concorde was flown on chartered flights to destinations all over the world. However, the aircraft’s noise and operating expense limited its service. Financial losses led both airlines to cut routes, eventually leaving New York City as their only regular destination. Concorde operations were finally ceased by Air France in May 2003 and by British Airways in October 2003. Only 14 of the aircraft actually went into service.

The Concorde was the first major cooperative venture of European countries to design and build an aircraft. On November 29, 1962, Britain and France signed a treaty to share costs and risks in producing an SST. British Aerospace and the French firm Aérospatiale were responsible for the airframe, while Britain’s Rolls-Royce and France’s SNECMA (Société Nationale d’Étude et de Construction de Moteurs d’Aviation) developed the jet engines. The result was a technological masterpiece, the delta-wing Concorde, which made its first flight on March 2, 1969. The Concorde had a maximum cruising speed of 2,179 km (1,354 miles) per hour, or Mach 2.04 (more than twice the speed of sound), allowing the aircraft to reduce the flight time between London and New York to about three hours. The development costs of the Concorde were so great that they could never be recovered from operations, and the aircraft was never financially profitable. Nevertheless, it proved that European governments and manufacturers could cooperate in complex ventures, and it helped to ensure that Europe would remain at the technical forefront of aerospace development.

Air France Flight 4590 Accident

Air France flight 4590

On 25 July 2000, Air France Flight 4590, registration F-BTSC, crashed in Gonesse, France, after departing from Charles de Gaulle Airport en route to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City, killing all 100 passengers and nine crew members on board as well as four people on the ground. It was the only fatal accident involving Concorde. This crash also damaged Concorde’s reputation and caused both British Airways and Air France to temporarily ground their fleets until modifications that involved strengthening the affected areas of the aircraft had been made.

According to the official investigation conducted by the Bureau of Enquiry and Analysis for Civil Aviation Safety (BEA), the crash was caused by a metallic strip that had fallen from a Continental Airlines DC-10 that had taken off minutes earlier. This fragment punctured a tyre on Concorde’s left main wheel bogie during take-off. The tyre exploded, and a piece of rubber hit the fuel tank, which caused a fuel leak and led to a fire. The crew shut down engine number 2 in response to a fire warning, and with engine number 1 surging and producing little power, the aircraft was unable to gain altitude or speed. The aircraft entered a rapid pitch-up then a sudden descent, rolling left and crashing tail-low into the Hôtelissimo Les Relais Bleus Hotel in Gonesse.

The claim that a metallic strip caused the crash was disputed during the trial both by witnesses (including the pilot of then French President Jacques Chirac’s aircraft that had just landed on an adjacent runway when Flight 4590 caught fire) and by an independent French TV investigation that found a wheel spacer had not been installed in the left-side main gear and that the plane caught fire some 1,000 feet from where the metallic strip lay.British investigators and former French Concorde pilots looked at several other possibilities that the BEA report ignored, including an unbalanced weight distribution in the fuel tanks and loose landing gear. They came to the conclusion that the Concorde veered off course on the runway, which reduced takeoff speed below the crucial minimum. John Hutchinson, who had served as a Concorde captain for 15 years with British Airways, said “the fire on its own should have been ’eminently survivable; the pilot should have been able to fly his way out of trouble'”, had it not been for a “lethal combination of operational error and ‘negligence’ by the maintenance department of Air France” that “nobody wants to talk about”.

However some of Hutchinson’s claims are disputed and are directly contradicted by the Cockpit Voice Recording (CVR) (BEA Report pp. 46-48) and the Air France procedures manuals which differed from those of British Airways in several key but crucial aspects. The BEA accident report did explore in detail, the undercarriage bogey spacer issue and concluded that it did not contribute in any significant way to the accident. It also confirmed the titanium strip was the initiating cause by examining and matching it and the damage to the tyre.

On 6 December 2010, Continental Airlines and John Taylor, a mechanic who installed the metal strip, were found guilty of involuntary manslaughter; however, on 30 November 2012, a French court overturned the conviction, saying mistakes by Continental and Taylor did not make them criminally responsible.

Before the accident, Concorde had been arguably the safest operational passenger airliner in the world with zero passenger deaths-per-kilometres travelled; but there had been two prior non-fatal accidents and a rate of tyre damage some 30 times higher than subsonic airliners from 1995 to 2000. Safety improvements were made in the wake of the crash, including more secure electrical controls, Kevlar lining on the fuel tanks and specially developed burst-resistant tyres. The first flight with the modifications departed from London Heathrow on 17 July 2001, piloted by BA Chief Concorde Pilot Mike Bannister. During the 3-hour 20-minute flight over the mid-Atlantic towards Iceland, Bannister attained Mach 2.02 and 60,000 ft (18,000 m) before returning to RAF Brize Norton. The test flight, intended to resemble the London–New York route, was declared a success and was watched on live TV, and by crowds on the ground at both locations.

The first flight with passengers after the 2000 grounding for safety modifications landed shortly before the World Trade Center attacks in the United States. This was not a commercial flight: all the passengers were BA employees. Normal commercial operations resumed on 7 November 2001 by BA and AF (aircraft G-BOAE and F-BTSD), with service to New York JFK, where Mayor Rudy Giuliani greeted the passengers.

 

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