The return of Concorde: phoenix or lame duck?

29th July 2003, Comments 0 comments

On 5 September the first of the refit Concordes in the British Airways and Air France fleets were given airworthiness certificates. Who would have believed this possible just one year ago, after Air France Concorde flight AF 4590 dropped from the sky in a ball of flames near Paris-Charles de Gaulle airport, killing all 113 passengers and crew?

In this report Expatica France details the twelve months which marked the phoenix-like return of one of the most remarkable aircraft in the history of aviation, but we begin with a reminder of the sobering, and revealing details which emerged just after the crash.

"The heat generated by high-altitude supersonic flight means that when you land the plane on the other side of the Atlantic, the fuel inside the tanks, under the wing, reach 80 degrees Celsius and can go up to 100 degrees Celsius!"

François Grangier, an Air France airline pilot and aircrash accident expert who has sat on a number of French aircrash investigation committees, was talking to Expatica France's editor Graham Tearse just hours after the plane crashed.

"That means you're almost a flying bomb," said Grangier, who was also a friend of Christian Marty, the crashed Concorde's pilot.

"All this makes the scares about other aircraft almost laughable. But these are all part of the enormous technical feat which is Concorde, which in itself means a regular trail of problems," Grangier said.

The Franco-British supersonic airliner won conditional clearance to resume passenger flights as British and French officials approved an aircraft refit carried out after last year's accident near Paris, in which 113 people died.

The enormous effort – dedication, brilliance, man hours – which has resulted in The Bird's return is a feat which Grangier, along with many other aircraft experts, now rejoice over. But Grangier's comments about the plane's overall safety, although made in 2000, are just as valid now.

"There have been numerous technical problems on Concorde. Having said that the Concorde crews know about this and are prepared for it – and a pilot who is forewarned is worth two who aren't," said Grangier on 26 July, 2000.

"There have been many engine fires, and there have been a number of mechanical problems during flights: a British Airways Concorde even lost pieces of the plane in flight. These are not benign incidents – but none has ever led to a crash," Grangier continued.

"An electrical fire broke out on an Air France Concorde flight some 15 years ago and the flight engineer had to smash, with an axe, the panel covering an electrical circuit board to put it out," he said.

"There have been many recorded incidents aboard but it is a plane upon which all those who work know how to deal with.

"People don't realise the technical extremes of the plane, which is the only aircraft in the world capable of flying at supersonic speeds for three hours and more," Grangier concluded.

The events:

25 July 2000:: Air France flight AF4590 crashes at Gonesse shortly after taking off from Charles de Gaulle airport north of Paris, killing 113 people, including four in a hotel on the ground. Most of the victims are German tourists.

French Transport Minister Jean-Claude Gayssot grounds the remaining five Air France Concorde jets. British Airways cancels two transatlantic Concorde flights immediately on learning of the crash.

26 July: British Airways resumes Concorde flights, expressing "every confidence" in the aircraft's safety.

28 July: Air France says it is suspending its supersonic service until further notice after official reports indicate that the doomed Concorde had suffered technical malfunctions just before crashing. BA insists it will continue flying its Concordes.

30 July A British Airways Concorde on a flight from London to John F. Kennedy airport, New York, is diverted to a Canadian airport after the captain notices a smell of fuel. At London's Heathrow Airport a "refuelling problem" prevents a British Airways Concorde from taking off.

1 August: A British Airways Concorde is taken out of service for "minor adjustments" shortly before it is due to leave Heathrow for New York. The plane's 33 passengers are switched to a back-up Concorde. The French civil aviation authority (DGAC) says the Air France Concordes are to remain grounded after British and French aircraft experts fail to decide on new safety measures.

4 August: News of the discovery of a 43cm long metal strip on the runway after the crash, but which did not come from the Concorde itself, gives the first indication that the accident may have been due to external factors.

10 August: Crash investigators refer for the first time to the theory that the metal strip may have punctured a tyre and sent slivers of rubber into a fuel tank, causing it to catch fire.

16 August: Concorde's certificate of airworthiness is withdrawn by British and French civil aviation authorities and all 12 planes are grounded.

31 August: Preliminary crash report endorses the theory of a metal strip being responsible for the accident, but the actual chain of events remains a mystery.

4 September: Discovery that a Continental Airlines DC10 which took off from Paris shortly before the Concorde is missing a metal strip which corresponds to that now blamed for the crash. Air France begins legal action against the American company over the crash.

5 January 2001: In their second interim report, investigators endorse the theory that the metal strip punctured the Concorde tyre, sending slivers of rubber into the petrol tank and causing the fire which resulted in the crash.

18 January: An Air France Concorde takes to the skies again, on a test flight to a military base in Istres, near Marseilles, where it undergoes rigorous tests.

May: Air France and the lawyers of the families of the victims reach a general agreement on compensation, with payments due to begin in July. No figure is disclosed for the amount the company is to pay out, but experts assess the total damages as being in the region of USD 100 million.

17 July: After technical modifications to the petrol tank and the tyres, a BA Concorde makes the first long-distance test flight since the accident.

24 August: An overhauled Air France Concorde undertakes an initial test flight.

5 September: Concorde given conditional go-ahead to resume commercial flights by British and French civil aviation authorities.

September 2001

Additional reporting by AFP

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