Concorde: one year on
On the outskirts of northern Paris, where the bungalows and blocks of flats peter out into the countryside, a wall of white metal marks the spot where 113 people died when an Air France Concorde crashed in July 2000. Hugh Schofield reports.
The curious are barred from entry, but there is in any case little to see: bare, brown earth the size of a football pitch, and to one side a flat piece of asphalt that is all that remains of the Hotelissimo – the hotel into which Air France flight 4590 crashed just before 5:00 pm (1500 GMT) on 25 July, 2000.
A short distance away on that hot afternoon, the Concorde's charter flight to New York began like any other, with the all-clear from the control tower at Charles de Gaulle airport, then the roar of the engines and the sleek silhouette beginning its gradual ascent into the west.
But already something was wrong.
The controller called out: "4590, you have flames ... you have flames behind you." A motorist heading out of Paris caught the startling image on videocam. And the pilot fought vainly to steer the stricken aircraft back to land.
A few seconds later, there was a vast explosion and a mushroom cloud of fire and smoke rose into the sky.
An English student staying at the Hotelissimo jumped from a first-floor window onto the asphalt and ran for her life. Local people stared in disbelief.
Before them – spread over what is now the bare, ploughed earth – was the smouldering wreckage of the world's first supersonic airliner. Here and there were recognisable sections of aircraft – a piece of fuselage with part of the Air France logo, for example – but elsewhere, just twisted chunks of metal.
And those bundles, curiously multi-coloured through the grey of the smoke: those were human beings.
At the time, the shock was all the harder to bear because Concorde had always seemed invincible. It was a technological marvel, an awe-inspiring marriage of technology and aesthetics, the flagship of the Air France and British Airways (BA) fleets.
Economically, it might have made no sense – only a handful of the very rich could ever afford to fly it - but anyone who saw it take off felt the same thrill.
Now suddenly it was a plane like any other.
"What crashed at Gonesse," said France's Liberation daily newspaper, "was a beautiful dream."
A year later, the judicial and industry investigations rumble on, but it has been established with certainty what caused the plane to come down. It was a 16-inch piece of metal lying on the runway which shattered a tyre and sent up debris into the aircraft's left wing.
This in turn sent reverberations through the fuel tanks strong enough to blow out an A4 size hole, through which poured a stream of ignited aviation kerosene.
Air France and BA, both anxious to keep aloft so powerful and prestigious a symbol, have spent millions of dollars on correcting the design faults that allowed the crash to happen.
The fuel tanks have been reinforced with kevlar – the synthetic material used in bullet-proof vests; electric cabling in the wheel assemblies has been armour-plated to prevent it sending out sparks in the event of an accident; and tougher NZG (near zero growth) tyres have been fitted.
Test flights have been made successfully from France and Britain and both countries expect a resumption of supersonic passenger services in the autumn.
Back at Gonesse, no one is certain what will happen to the crash site. As long as the judicial inquest continues, it will remain under seal. At some point the municipal authorities plan to erect a memorial plaque.
But on the 25 July this year – the anniversary of the disaster – the white metal walls were opened for the first time to allow in relatives of the 96 German tourists who died. There, on the asphalt and the earth, they were remembered.