Concorde: the last witness

29th July 2003, Comments 0 comments

We present a telling insight into the last, dying moments of the Air France Concorde which crashed near Paris on 25 July 2000, killing all 113 passengers and crew on board. Air traffic controller Gilles Logelin talked to the Concorde crew as they desperately tried to control the plane, to which he had just moments earlier given permisssion for take off, as flames, fired by hundreds of tonnes of ignited fuel, began pouring from under one of its wings. In this extract from an interview with French inter

At 4.50pm on the afternoon of 25 July 2000, Gilles Logellin was on duty in the "southern" control tower of Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport.

"I gave authorisation to flight Air France 4590 to begin take-off." This was the flight number attributed to the Concorde charter taking 96 German tourists to New York for the start of a luxury holiday package.

"Because I'm someone who admires this plane," recalled Logelin, "like, I think, many of my colleagues, we watched it as it began manouevres. That's not the case of other planes - we don't watch all the planes as they begin take-off. But Concorde is a wonderful spectacle every time."

"I remember that day I was standing up as I watched the aircarft building all its power."

Here, Logelin paused, trying to contain his emotion.

"I said, 'Air France 4590 - you have flames shooting out behind you."

"I remember that the crew, or rather the voice of the pilot, answered me in a very clear voice. 'Roger', he said, which meant simply: understood."

"We continued to watch the plane. I should point out here that in the control tower we have a lot of work going on at any one time, and I wasn't only in charge of the Concorde takeoff but also that of other planes, which means assuring the safety of so many. But I shall always remember at that moment the vision of the fire engines rushing alongside the runway as the Concorde, spouting flames, continued with its movement."

"After a certain time, I saw the plane had built up so much speed that it was bound to take off - like any plane, there comes a time when the take off process cannot be aborted. So the plane took off, with difficulty, despite the flames which were burning, streaming ever longer behind."

"I decided to warn the crew that the situation was getting worse. It seemed necessary to warn them of this. So I contacted them again."

"'Air France 4590', I said, 'you have flames stretching out longer and longer behind you'. The crew replied in a very calm manner. 'Roger' was again their return message. I think that I sounded very calm too, as I tried to control my heartbeat - my heart was pumping very fast indeed.

"I always thought that, in any case, to do my job properly I needed to keep up my hope, right up until the last. I needed to believe that they'd get over the problem, while I tried to disengage the rest of the air traffic."

"I'd already begun to think about how the crew would react, as soon as I saw the flames: like where they would try and land the plane - either in rounding back to the opposite route of take-off or elsewhere entirely. It was my job to clear everything out of the way."

"It's true, it was a very difficult moment. I sent the Concorde crew a message saying that they had absolute priority for landing."

Logelin said there was no discussion, as the disaster loomed, between him and the supersonic's crew.

"They again simply, very calmly replied 'Roger'. I knew what was going on. I fly planes and I've had the chance to use the Concorde cockpit simulator - so I could imagine how complex the whole situation was for the crew just then."

"I wasn't expecting them to talk to me and I knew that it wasn't my place to talk to them further either.I needed to concentrate on everything else I was doing."

"I didn't see the plane at the very moment it crashed - in fact I learnt of the crash when a voice came over the multi-link radio - I don't know who it was - a voice which said 'that's it, he's hit the carpet.' I think it must have been another aircraft pilot who said that."

"For a split second, at the moment of impact, my eyes weren't watching the plane, and that's how I suddenly realised what had happened - that it was all over."

"Everything that happened next did so in less than a minute. I don't know why I did it, but afterwards, when I saw the cloud of smoke rising, I sent two messages across the airwaves."

Logelin choked as he remembered that final moment.

"Adressing the Concorde, I asked, 'Air France 4590, are you receiving me?'"

Close to tears, he recalled: "I said it twice, and there was no answer."

"When I saw the extent of the cloud of smoke rising I realised that the impossible had happened. I think that I wasn't able to believe it, even though it was in front of my eyes."

"I contacted the controller at Le Bourget [a nearby airfield] to ask him where the crash took place. I received the precise geographical location which I passed on as quickly as posible to the firebrigade and then I just tried to hold myself together while I waited to be relieved from my service - which was as long as the time it took for the controllers from the North contol tower to come to our help, if I can put it that way."

"I've still got the clear impression that I was with them during the accident. Somehow, somewhere inside me, I feel like the one who survived."

Interview reproduced with thanks to Radio France International.

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