Air France flight 4590 lasted less than two minutes. But when the supersonic Concorde crashed into a hotel near Charles de Gaulle airport last week, killing 114 people, an additional victim was the glamorous plane's reputation. Though it was the first fatal accident in the Franco-British Concorde's 31-year history a record unmatched by any other commercial aircraft the tragedy raised questions about the future of the almost mythical plane. Critics had long attacked needle-nosed Concorde as a noisy, polluting toy for multimillionaires and a money loser to boot. Now, even its most loyal supporters, like retired Air France pilot Claude Hetru, had to admit that "the myth is shattered."
The ill-fated Concorde f-btsc, a 25-year old craft with only 11,980 hours of flying time, had been overhauled in September 1999 and passed an inspection only three days before the crash. Investigators initially focused on catastrophic engine failure as the probable cause of the crash a conclusion that seemed obvious to the dozens of witnesses who saw the plane spewing a 60-m-long flame from one of its wing-mounted turbines as it roared down the runway. But as the probe progressed late last week, it seemed that a bizarre chain of events including an apparent tire blowout, the failure of a second engine and the pilot's inability to retract the landing gear had contributed to the disaster.
Following the discovery of tiny fissures in the wings of several British and French Concordes (a flaw apparently unrelated to the crash), the fatal mechanical problem shook public confidence in the safety of the fleet. When British Airways resumed its Concorde flights the morning after the accident, only 49 of the 78 passengers who had booked seats showed up. BA said this was a normal percentage of no-shows; three passengers asked to switch to subsonic planes. Air France suspended its flights indefinitely.
The 100 passengers who took their seats in the 4590's cramped but elegant cabin and sipped complimentary champagne were almost all German vacationers, headed to a New York rendezvous with the luxury liner MS Deutschland for a Caribbean cruise. The ship's owner, Peter Deilmann Ltd., had chartered a Concorde as part of a package deal.
The plane's departure was delayed by late baggage arriving from Germany. Then there was a further wait as maintenance workers made a repair on the No.2 engine under the left wing. According to investigators and Air France officials, the engine's thrust reverser used to slow the plane during landing was "inoperable" when the plane arrived from New York the previous day. Britain's Rolls-Royce and France's Snecma, co-manufacturers of the Concorde's Olympus 593 engines, certify that the craft may safely fly without the reverser. But pilot Christian Marty, 54, a respected 32-year veteran, insisted that it be replaced. No spare part was available, so mechanics cannibalized one from a backup Concorde. Within 30 minutes, the plane was ready to go.
At 4:42 pm the control tower cleared 4590 for takeoff. Fifty-six seconds later, as it hurtled down the runway with its full load of passengers and 100 tons of fuel, the tower radioed the crew that flames were shooting from a port-side engine. According to investigators, Marty replied that there was a "failure of engine No. 2" the one that had just been repaired but he was already going too fast to abort takeoff. He said he would try to get airborne and make an emergency landing at Le Bourget airport, some 3 km away.
Horrified witnesses watched as the plane streaked down the runway trailing flames and thick black smoke. It lumbered into the air but could not gain altitude. At this point, as the Concorde's onboard data recorder later revealed, there was a loss of thrust in the second port-side engine. To make matters worse, Marty reported that he was unable to retract the landing gear, which put an additional drag on the plane. As the destabilized craft swerved to the left, apparently seeking to head for Le Bourget, it flipped on its back and crashed into a hotel. The explosion virtually obliterated both plane and building and sent a dark gray cloud towering above the impact zone.
"It clipped off the tops of those trees and headed to the ground," said Samir Hossein, 15, who was playing tennis nearby. "The pilot tried to bank but the plane rolled over and smacked into the hotel, nose first, and then turned over." Willy Corenthins, 29, an electrician with an airport service company, was driving on the highway that parallels the runway. "I saw the engine explode and heard a detonation," he said. "The plane lifted its nose, then started to fall on its side. There was a huge conflagration when it hit the hotel. A woman came running out of the hotel with her hair and arm burned." That may have been hotel manager Michele Fricheteau, who later told reporters she had received a "burst of flame right in the face" before fleeing with an employee. An expert eyewitness was Sid Hare, a pilot for Federal Express, who saw the crash from his hotel room. Attracted by an abnormally loud takeoff, Hare told cnn that he went to the window to see the Concorde "probably 200 feet above the ground, and I knew it was in trouble. One [engine] obviously had a catastrophic failure. It was trailing flames 200 to 300 feet behind the airplane." At the moment of impact, Hare reported seeing "a huge fireball, like a mini atomic bomb. It was just really a sickening sight."
Another witness was French President Jacques Chirac, who had just returned from Tokyo on an Air France flight. Chirac's plane had been taxiing toward the terminal but paused to let the Concorde take off. As Chirac and his wife Bernadette watched the pride of French technology speed down the runway, they were appalled to see the flames shooting from its left side. Chirac's first instinct was to rush to the crash scene but he decided that his presence would only add a security complication to the rescue effort. He returned to the Elysee, where he telephoned his condolences to German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder.
Residents of Gonesse, some 6 km from the end of the runway, said the pilot had been heroic in avoiding their densely populated town. In fact, Marty had apparently lost control of the craft as it flipped and fell onto the Hotelissimo, a 72-room wooden structure surrounded by wheat and cornfields. Four staffers were killed immediately. One British guest, Alice Brooking, a 21-year-old Cambridge University student, was talking to her sister on the phone when the Concorde hit the building. "I ran to the door but the landing was covered in flames," she recounted. "I just jumped [out of the window] and ran and ran and ran. I just keep saying to myself, 'I'm alive, I'm alive, I'm alive.'"
The violence of the impact left a tangled mess of mostly unrecognizable debris. It took three days to recover the remains of all 114 victims. "Germany is shaken. Germany is stunned," said Schrooder in a brief speech at an ecumenical service in Hanover. Josef Homeyer, the city's Catholic bishop, asked: "God, where were you in Paris?"
In Monchengladbach, 20 km west of Dosseldorf, flags flew at half-mast in memory of the 13 local victims. "The Concorde was supposed to be a special tidbit for the travelers," said travel agent Christian Stattrop. There had been so much demand for the limited number of tickets that local customers drew lots. The 20 "losers" flew to New York on other airliners. Many relatives of the German victims flew to Paris to take part in memorial services and begin the grim work of identifying their loved ones' bodies.
French authorities opened three separate probes including one into the possibility of human error resulting in accidental death. Officials said the preliminary report would not be published before the end of August, but the early information that filtered out focused on engine No. 2. Experts tended to agree that the fire itself was not the initial cause but was the consequence of some other malfunction.
Unlike conventional jet engines, the Olympus 593 uses an afterburn system to increase thrust by injecting fuel into the superheated exhaust and re-igniting the mixture. Normally this controlled explosion produces a blue flame like a Bunsen burner's. But the long trail of yellow flame from the stricken engine suggests that massive amounts of fuel were gushing into the afterburner area possibly because of severed fuel injector lines or a rupture of the fuel tanks in the wings. Says former Concorde pilot Glenn Shoop: "There is so much fuel pouring into that area it looks like the engine had already essentially disintegrated by the time the plane was off the ground."
Speculation over what might have caused that kind of damage ranged from a flock of birds, to a flawed repair job on the thrust reverser, to an intake of foreign matter by one or both of the failed engines. Most experts were focusing on the latter theory after investigators revealed that tire fragments and other debris littered the runway and flight path of the Concorde. "We can surmise that a tire or several tires on the landing gear exploded," said former pilot and aviation expert Germain Chambost, "and that the debris from the tires got into the air duct of one of the engines." At week's end, the French Transport Ministry announced, "From the information available at the present time, it emerges that at least one tire burst, something that could have triggered a chain of events, damage to the plane's structure, a fire and engine failure."
Air France officials favor the foreign object theory, which could account for both port-side engines taking in debris and failing independently. They adamantly reject the notion, widely repeated last week, that a fire in one engine could destroy the neighboring engine that is closely paired with it under each wing. That is a key point, for Concorde is certified to take off with only three engines functioning, but not two. "If one motor can destroy another," says Francois Grangier, an Airbus 320 pilot and air crash investigator, "that means Concorde has to take off on two engines, and that's physically impossible. If it's proved that the fire spread [to the second engine], that's the end of Concorde."
That conclusion is certainly premature. But unless the official investigation provides clear answers about the cause of the spectacular crash of flight 4590, the future of what the French proudly call their big white bird will be cloudy indeed. With reporting by Sally Donnelly/ Washington, Nicholas Le Quesne and Scott MacLeod/Paris and Ursula Sautter/Bonn