Concorde Crash Kills 113 – On this day in 2000

Air France Flight 4590

Air France Flight 4590 was an Aérospatiale-BAC Concorde, registration F-BTSC, on a scheduled international flight from Paris, France, to New York City, on 25 July 2000, local time 16:43 CET. While taking off, the aircraft ran over debris on the runway, blowing a tyre and puncturing a fuel tank, leading to fire and engine failure. All 100 passengers and nine crew members aboard the Concorde died when it crashed into a hotel in nearby Gonesse, while on the ground four people were killed and one was critically injured.

The flight was chartered by German company Peter Deilmann Cruises; the passengers were on their way to board the cruise ship MS Deutschland in New York City for a 16-day cruise to Manta, Ecuador. This was the only fatal Concorde accident during its 27-year operational history.

Event summary

Post-accident investigation revealed that the aircraft was at or over the maximum takeoff weight for ambient temperature and other conditions, and 810 kilograms (1,790 lb) over the maximum structural weight.  As it left the gate, it was loaded such that the centre of gravity was aft of the take-off limit.mFuel transfer during taxiing left the number five wing tank 94% full.

A 12-inch spacer that normally keeps the left main landing gear in alignment had not been replaced after recent maintenance; however, the French Bureau for Accident Investigation concluded that this did not contribute to the accident.The wind at the airport was light and variable that day, and was reported to the cockpit crew as an eight knot tailwind as they lined up on runway 26R.

Five minutes before the Concorde departed, a Continental Airlines DC-10 heading for Newark, New Jersey took off from the same runway and had lost a titanium alloy strip (part of the engine cowl, identified as a wear strip) that was about 435 millimetres (17.1 in) long, 29 to 34 millimetres (1.1 to 1.3 in) wide and 1.4 millimetres (0.055 in) thick. A runway inspection, scheduled for an hour and a half before the Continental airplane took off, had not been carried out.

During the Concorde’s takeoff run, it ran over this piece of debris, cutting a tyre and sending a large chunk of tyre debris (4.5 kilograms or 9.9 pounds) into the underside of the aircraft’s wing at an estimated speed of 140 metres per second (310 mph). Although it did not directly puncture any of the fuel tanks, it sent out a pressure shockwave that ruptured the number five fuel tank at the weakest point, just above the undercarriage. Leaking fuel gushing out from the bottom of the wing was most likely ignited by an electric arc in the landing gear bay or through contact with hot parts of the engine. At the point of ignition, engines one and two both surged and lost all power, but engine one slowly recovered over the next few seconds.A large plume of flame developed; the flight engineer then shut down engine two, in response to a fire warning and the captain’s command.

Air traffic controller Gilles Logelin noticed the flames before the Concorde was airborne, however with only 2 km (1.2 mi) of runway remaining and travelling at a speed of 328 km/h (204 mph), its only option was to take off. The Concorde would have needed at least 3 km (1.9 mi) of runway to abort safely.

Having passed V1 speed, the crew continued the takeoff, but the plane did not gain enough airspeed with the three remaining engines, because damage to the landing gear bay door prevented the retraction of the undercarriage. The aircraft was unable to climb or accelerate, maintaining a speed of 200 knots (370 km/h; 230 mph) at an altitude of 60 metres (200 ft). The fire caused damage to the port wing, which began to disintegrate—melted by the extremely high temperatures. Engine number one surged again, but this time failed to recover. Due to the asymmetric thrust, the starboard wing lifted, banking the aircraft to over 100 degrees. The crew reduced the power on engines three and four in an attempt to level the aircraft, but with falling airspeed they lost control and the aircraft stalled, crashing into the Hôtelissimo Les Relais Bleus Hotel near the airport.

The crew was trying to divert to nearby Le Bourget Airport, but accident investigators stated that a safe landing, given the aircraft’s flight path, would have been highly unlikely.

As the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) transcript recorded it, the last intelligible words in the cockpit (translated into English) were:

Co-pilot: “Le Bourget, Le Bourget, Le Bourget.”
Pilot: “Too late (unclear).”
Control tower: “Fire service leader, correction, the Concorde is returning to runway zero nine in the opposite direction.”
Pilot: “No time, no (unclear).”
Co-pilot: “Negative, we’re trying Le Bourget” (four switching sounds).
Co-pilot: “No (unclear).”

Fatalities

Passenger and crew

All the passengers and crew were killed in the incident. Most of the passengers were German tourists en route to New York for a cruise.

The cockpit crew consisted of pilot Captain Christian Marty, 54, First Officer Jean Marcot, 50, and Flight Engineer Gilles Jardinaud, 58.

Nationality Passengers Crew Total
 Germany 96 1 97
 France 0 8 8
 Denmark 2 0 2
 Austria 1 0 1
 United States 1 0 1
Total 100 9 109

On ground

Four employees of the Hotelissimo hotel were killed in the incident.

Nationality Total
 Poland 2
Flag of Mauritius.svg Mauritius 1
 Algeria 1
Total 4

Concorde grounded

Up until the crash of Air France Flight 4590 in 2000, the Concorde SST had been considered among the world’s safest planes.  The crash of the Concorde contributed to the end of the aircraft’s career.

A few days after the crash, all Concordes were grounded, pending an investigation into the cause of the crash and possible remedies.

Air France’s Concorde operation had been a money-losing venture, but it is claimed that the airplane had been kept in service as a matter of national pride; British Airways, however, claimed to make a profit on its Concorde operations. According to Jack Lowe, a Concorde pilot, up until the crash of Air France Flight 4590 at Paris, the British Airways Concorde operation made a net average profit of about £30m a year.

Commercial service was resumed in November 2001 after a £17m safety improvement service, until the remaining aircraft were retired in 2003.

Accident investigation

A DC-10 similar to the one that dropped the metal piece

The official investigation was conducted by France’s accident investigation bureau, the BEA, and it was published on 16 January 2002.

Conclusions

The investigators concluded that:

  • The aircraft was overloaded by 810 kilograms (1,790 lb) above the maximum safe takeoff weight. Any effect on takeoff performance from this excess weight was negligible.
  • After reaching takeoff speed, the tyre of the number 2 wheel was cut by a metal strip (a wear strip) lying on the runway, which had fallen from the thrust reverser cowl door of the number 3 engine of a Continental Airlines DC-10 which had taken off from the same runway five minutes previously.  This wear strip had been replaced at Tel Aviv, Israel, during a C check on 11 June 2000. Further maintenance work had been performed at Houston, Texas, but the strip had been neither manufactured nor installed in accordance with the procedures as defined by the manufacturer.
  • The aircraft was airworthy and the crew were qualified. The landing gear that later failed to retract had not shown serious problems in the past. Despite the crew being trained and certified, no plan existed for the simultaneous failure of two engines on the runway, as it was considered highly unlikely.
  • Aborting the takeoff would have led to a high-speed runway excursion and collapse of the landing gear, which also would have caused the aircraft to crash.
  • While two of the engines had problems and one of them was shut down, the damage to the plane’s structure was so severe that the crash would have been inevitable, even with the engines operating normally.

Previous tyre incidents

The DC-10 involved, N13067, was scrapped at Mojave, California in 2002

In November 1981, the American National Transportation Safety Board sent a letter of concern to the French BEA that included safety recommendations for Concorde. This communiqué was the result of the NTSB’s investigations of four Air France Concorde incidents during a 20-month period from July 1979 through to February 1981. The NTSB described those incidents as “potentially catastrophic,” because they were caused by blown tyres during takeoff. The NTSB also expressed concern about the lack of adequate remedies on the part of the French, as well as improper crew responses to those incidents. During its 27 years in service, Concorde had about 70 tyre- or wheel-related incidents, 7 of which caused serious damage to the aircraft or were potentially catastrophic.

  • 13 June 1979: The number 5 and 6 tyres blew out during a takeoff from Washington Dulles International Airport. Fragments thrown from the tyres and rims damaged number 2 engine, punctured three fuel tanks, severed several hydraulic lines and electrical wires, and tore a large hole on the top of the wing over the wheel well area
  • 21 July 1979: Another blown tyre incident during takeoff from Dulles Airport. After that second incident the “French director general of civil aviation issued an air worthiness directive and Air France issued a Technical Information Update, each calling for revised procedures. These included required inspection of each wheel and tyre for condition, pressure and temperature prior to each takeoff. In addition, crews were advised that landing gear should not be raised when a wheel/tyre problem is suspected.”
  • October 1979: Tyres number 7 and 8 failed during a takeoff from New York’s JFK Airport. In spite of the well-publicized danger from the previous incidents, the crew ignored the new safety recommendations and raised the landing gear and continued to Paris. There was no subsequent investigation by the French BEA or the NTSB of that incident.
  • February 1981: While en route from Mexico City to Paris, Air France (F-BTSD) blew more tyres during another takeoff at Dulles Airport. Once again, the crew disregarded the new procedures by raising the landing gear. The blown tyre caused engine damage that forced the flight to land at New York JFK Airport. The NTSB’s investigation found that there had been no preparation of the passengers for a possible emergency landing and evacuation. The CVR was also found to have been inoperative for several flights, including one which followed a layover in Paris.
  • August 1981: British Airways (BA) plane taking off from New York suffered a blow-out, damaging landing gear door, engine and fuel tank.
  • November 1985: Tyre burst on a BA plane leaving Heathrow, causing damage to the landing gear door and fuel tank. Two engines were damaged as a result of the accident.
  • January 1988: BA plane leaving Heathrow lost 10 bolts from its landing gear wheel. A fuel tank was punctured.
  • July 1993: Tyre burst on a BA plane during takeoff  at Heathrow, damaging the landing gear, wing, fuselage and wiring.
  • October 1993: Tyre burst on a BA plane during taxi at Heathrow, puncturing wing, damaging fuel tanks and causing a major fuel leak.

Because it is a tailless delta-wing aircraft, Concorde cannot use the normal flaps or slats to assist takeoff and landing, and requires a significantly higher air and tyre speed during the takeoff roll than the average airliner. That higher speed increased the risk of tyre explosion during takeoff. When the tyres did explode, much greater kinetic energy was carried by the resulting fragments, increasing the risk of serious damage to the aircraft. A thicker skin on the bottom side of the wings could have prevented serious damage from an exploding tyre, but that would have added too much weight, therefore requiring an even higher speed to become airborne.

Modifications and revival

The accident led to modifications being made to Concorde, including more secure electrical controls, Kevlar lining to the fuel tanks, and specially developed, burst-resistant tyres.

The new-style tyres would be another contribution to future aircraft development.

The crash of the Air France Concorde nonetheless proved to be the beginning of the end for the type. Just before service resumed, the 11 September attacks took place, resulting in a marked drop in passenger numbers, and contributing to the eventual end of Concorde flights. Air France stopped flights in May 2003, while British Airways ended its Concorde flights in October 2003.

In June 2010, two groups attempted, unsuccessfully, to revive Concorde for “Heritage” flights in time for the 2012 Olympics. The British Save Concorde Group, SCG, and French group Olympus 593 were attempting to get four Rolls-Royce Olympus engines at Le Bourget Air and Space Museum in France.

Criminal investigation

French authorities began a criminal investigation of Continental Airlines, whose plane dropped the debris on the runway, in March 2005, and in September of that year, Henri Perrier, the former chief engineer of the Concorde division at Aérospatiale at the time of the first test flight in 1969 and the programme director in the 1980s and early 90s, was placed under formal investigation.

In March 2008, Bernard Farret, a deputy prosecutor in Pontoise, outside Paris, asked judges to bring manslaughter charges against Continental Airlines and two of its employees – John Taylor, the mechanic who replaced the wear strip on the DC-10, and his manager Stanley Ford – alleging negligence in the way the repair was carried out. Continental denied the charges, and claimed in court that the aircraft was already on fire when it passed over the titanium strip.

At the same time charges were laid against Henri Perrier, head of the Concorde program at Aérospatiale, Jacques Hérubel, Concorde’s chief engineer, and Claude Frantzen, head of DGAC, the French airline regulator.  It was alleged that Perrier, Hérubel and Frantzen knew that the plane’s fuel tanks could be susceptible to damage from foreign objects, but nonetheless allowed it to fly.

The trial ran from February to December 2010. Continental Airlines was found criminally responsible for the disaster by a Parisian court and was fined €200,000 ($271,628) and ordered to pay Air France €1 million. Taylor was given a 15-month suspended sentence, while Ford, Perrier, Hérubel and Frantzen were cleared of all charges. The court ruled that the crash resulted from a piece of metal from a Continental jet that was left on the runway; the object punctured a tyre on the Concorde and then ruptured a fuel tank. The convictions were overturned by a French appeals court in November 2012, thereby clearing Continental and Taylor of criminal responsibility.

The Parisian court also ruled that Continental would have to pay 70% of any compensation claims. As Air France has paid out €100 million to the families of the victims, Continental could be made to pay its share of that compensation payout. The French appeals court, while overturning the criminal rulings by the Parisian court, affirmed the civil ruling and left Continental liable for the compensation claims.

Legacy

Gonesse memorial

One monument in honour of the crash victims was established at Gonesse. The Gonesse monument consists of a piece of transparent glass with a piece of an aircraft wing jutting through.Another monument, a 6,000-square-metre (65,000 sq ft) memorial topiary in the shape of a Concorde, was established in 2006 at Mitry-Mory.

In media

  • The timeline and causes of the crash were profiled in the premiere episode of the National Geographic documentary series, Seconds From Disaster.
  • NBC aired a Dateline NBC documentary on the crash, its causes, and its legacy on 22 February, 2009.
  • Channel 4 and Discovery Channel Canada aired a documentary called Concorde’s Last Flight.
  • Smithsonian Channel aired a 90-minute documentary Concorde: Flying Supersonic in 2010.
  • The aircraft that crashed had previously been used in the making of the movie The Concorde … Airport ’79.
  • The accident and subsequent investigation were featured in the 14th season episode of documentary series Mayday (also known as Air Crash Investigation) entitled “Concorde – Up In Flames”, first broadcast in January 2015.[
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