Untold Story of the Concorde Disaster

December 9, 2012

LAST WEEK, A FRENCH APPEALS COURT overturned a manslaughter conviction against Continental Airlines for its role in the crash of an Air France Concorde outside Paris twelve years ago.

Flight 4590 was a charter destined for New York’s JFK airport on July 25th, 2000, carrying mostly German tourists headed to South America. As it neared takeoff speed, the Concorde struck a thin metal strip on the runway, causing one of its tires to burst. The strip had fallen from the underside of a Continental Airlines DC-10 that had departed minutes earlier, bound for Houston. Chunks of the burst tire impacted the Concorde’s wing at tremendous velocity, resulting in a powerful shock wave within the wing’s fuel tank that ultimately punctured it. Gases from the engines then ignited leaking fuel, touching off a huge fire.

The crew wrestled the crippled jet into the air, but lost control moments later, slamming into a hotel. All 109 passengers and crew perished, as did four people on the ground.

All along, conventional wisdom, bolstered by lethargic media coverage, has held that the fuel tank fire was the direct cause of the crash. This from the Associated Press a few days ago, is a typical example of what the public has been reading and hearing: “The burst tire sent bits of rubber flying, puncturing the fuel tanks, which started the fire that brought down the plane.”

But this isn’t so.

There’s no denying the jet ran over an errant piece of metal that caused a tire explosion and a resultant fire. But while the fire was visually spectacular — caught on camera, it trails behind the plane in a hellish rooster tail — experts say that aside from damaging the number 2 engine, it was very much survivable, and likely would have burned itself out in a matter of a few minutes. Not only was it survivable, but it was probably avoidable as well, had it not been for a chain of errors and oversights that, to date, nobody wants to talk about — particularly not European investigators.

The plane went down not because of any fire, directly, but because 1., it was flying too slowly; 2., it was several tons overweight and beyond its aft center of gravity limit; 3., two of its four engines were damaged or erroneously shut down.

It was flying too slowly because the pilot at the controls, Christian Marty, had pulled the jet into the air to avoid skidding sideways off the runway and colliding with another plane. Why it was skidding has been the subject of contention, but as we’ll see in a minute, many believe the skid was caused by an improperly repaired landing gear.

Under normal circumstances Marty still had enough speed to climb away safely; however, he no longer had enough power. One engine had been badly damaged due to ingestion of foreign material — not only pieces of exploded tire, but debris from a runway edge light the jet had run over during the skid. A second engine, meanwhile, was shut down completely by the cockpit flight engineer — at a time and altitude when he was not supposed to do this, when remaining thrust from that engine was desperately needed for survival.

All the while, the plane was an estimated six tons above its maximum allowable weight based on wind conditions at the time of the crash. At proper weight, the jet would have become airborne prior to the point when it ran over the metal strip.

The November 29th verdict was, if nothing else, fair. “France is one of a handful of countries that routinely seek criminal indictments in transportation accidents, regardless of whether there is clear evidence of criminal intent or negligence, “reported the New York Times. All along, aviation safety specialists were highly critical of the suit, believing (as I do), that such prosecutions set a dangerous and destructive precedent, undermining crash investigations and air safety in general. “The aviation safety community is going to view this verdict with great deal of relief,” said William R. Voss, president of the Flight Safety Foundation, speaking in the Times article. “It reminds us that human error, regardless of the tragic outcome, is different from a crime.”

Well and good. However, does the full and true story of the disaster remain untold?

I point you to a story that ran in the British newspaper The Observer in 2005. It’s seldom that I have flattering things to say about the press’s coverage of aviation accidents, but this particular piece, by reporter David Rose, is a gripping, startling story.

A link to the full article is here. In addition, below, is a version that I have edited and condensed for clarity…

 

Doomed: THE REAL STORY OF FLIGHT 4590

David Rose

It is an indelible image, heavy with symbolism: the photograph taken on 25 July 2000, at the moment Concorde became a technological Icarus. The great white bird rears up over runway 26 at Charles de Gaulle, immediately after takeoff. Already mortally wounded, flames bleed uncontrollably from beneath the left-hand wing. Less than two minutes later, the world’s only supersonic airliner will fling itself into the Paris suburb of Gonesse, killing all 109 on board and another five on the ground.

The official investigation has focused almost entirely on the fire. According to the French accident investigation bureau, the BEA, it broke out when the plane passed over a strip of metal on the runway. A tyre burst; a chunk of rubber thudded into a fuel tank inside the wing; jet fuel poured out of a hole and ignited.

The hot gases caused two of the engines to falter, and despite a valiant struggle by Captain Christian Marty, a daredevil skier who once crossed the Atlantic on a windsurf board, the loss of thrust made the crash inevitable.

An investigation by The Observer suggests the truth is much more complicated. In the words of John Hutchinson, a Concorde captain for 15 years, the fire on its own should have been “eminently survivable; the pilot should have been able to fly his way out of trouble.” The reason why he failed to do so, Hutchinson believes, was a lethal combination of operational error and negligence. This appears to have been a crash with more than one contributing factor, most of which were avoidable.

Go back to that photograph. An amazing picture: but where was it taken? The answer is: inside an Air France Boeing 747 which had just landed from Japan, and was waiting to cross Concorde’s runway on its way back to the terminal. Its passengers included Jacques Chirac and his wife, the President and first lady of France, returning from the G7 summit.

Concorde looks to be nearby because it had been close to hitting the 747, an event which would have turned both aircraft into a giant fireball. Veering wildly to the left, like a recalcitrant supermarket trolley with a jammed wheel, Concorde’s undercarriage had locked askew.

When Marty pulled back on the control column to raise the nose and take to the air — the process pilots call “rotation” — the plane’s airspeed was only 188 knots, 11 knots below the minimum recommended velocity required for this manoeuvre.

But he had no choice: the plane was about to leave the tarmac altogether and plough into the soft and bumpy grass at its side. That might have ripped off the landing gear, leaving Concorde to overturn and blow up on its own. If not, the 747 lay straight ahead. So he took to the air, although he knew he was travelling too slowly, which would impair the damaged plane’s chances of survival.

Shocking evidence now emerging suggests that the Air France Concorde F-BTSC had not been properly maintained. The airline’s ground staff had failed to replace a “spacer” — a vital component of the landing gear which keeps the wheels in proper alignment. Although the BEA disputes it, there is compelling evidence that it was the missing spacer which may have caused the plane to skew to the left, so forcing Marty to leave the ground too early.

At the same time, the plane was operating outside its legally certified limits. When it stood at the end of the runway, ready to roll, it was more than six tonnes over its approved maximum takeoff weight for the given conditions, with its centre of gravity pushed dangerously far to the rear. Even before the blowout, Marty was already pushing the envelope.

The stresses on Concorde’s landing gear are unusually severe. At regular intervals, the various load-bearing components become “lifed” and must be replaced. When the undercarriage bogeys are taken apart and reassembled, the work must be done according to a rigid formula, and rigorously inspected and assessed.

Concorde F-BTSC went into the hangar at Charles de Gaulle on 18 July, a week before the crash. The part which was lifed was the left undercarriage beam — the horizontal tube through which the two wheel axles pass at each end. In the middle is a low-friction pivot which connects the beam to the vertical leg extending down from inside the wing. The bits of the pivot which bear the load are two steel shear bushes. To keep them in position, they are separated by the spacer: a piece of grey, anodised aluminium about five inches in diameter and twelve inches long. When the plane left the hangar on 21 July, the spacer was missing. After the crash, it was found in the Air France workshop, still attached to the old beam which had been replaced.

In the days before the accident, the aircraft flew to New York and back twice. At first, the load-bearing shear bushes remained in the right positions. But the right-hand bush began to slip, down into the gap where there should have been a spacer. By the day of the crash, it had moved about seven inches, until the two washers were almost touching. Instead of being held firmly in a snug-fitting pivot, the beam and the wheels were wobbling, with about three degrees of movement possible in any direction. As the plane taxied to the start of the runway, there was nothing to keep the front wheels of the undercarriage in line with the back. The supermarket trolley was ready to jam.

Exactly when it started to do so is uncertain. Jean-Marie Chauve, who flew Concordes with Air France until his retirement, and Michel Suaud, for many years a Concorde flight engineer, believe the undercarriage was already out of alignment when the plane began to move down the runway.

They have spent the past six months preparing a 60-page report on the crash. Chauve said: “The acceleration was abnormally slow from the start. There was something retarding the aircraft, holding it back.” Chauve and Suaud’s report contains detailed calculations which conclude that without this retardation, the plane would have taken off 1,694 metres from the start of the runway — before reaching the fateful metal strip.

The BEA contests these findings, saying that the acceleration was normal until the tyre burst. It also maintains that even after the blowout, the missing spacer was insignificant.

The BEA’s critics say that once the tyre burst, the load on the three remaining tyres became uneven, and even if the wheels had been more or less straight before, they now twisted disastrously to the side. The smoking gun is a remarkable series of photographs in the BEA’s own preliminary report. They show unmistakably the skid marks of four tyres, heading off the runway on to its concrete shoulder, almost reaching the rough grass beyond.

In one picture, the foreground depicts a smashed yellow steel landing light on the very edge of the made-up surface, which was clipped by the aircraft as Marty tried to wrest it into the air. Industry sources have confirmed that this probably had further, damaging results. Until then the number one engine had been functioning almost normally but when the plane hit the landing light it ingested hard material which caused it to surge and fail. This hard material, the sources say, was probably parts of the broken light.

John Hutchinson said: “The blowout alone would not cause these marks. You’d get intermittent blobs from flapping rubber, but these are very clearly skids.”

In its interim report, and in a statement, the BEA said that the leftwards yaw was caused not by the faulty landing gear but by “the loss of thrust from engines one and two”.

There are several problems with this analysis. First, as the BEA’s own published data reveals, the thrust from engine one was almost normal until the end of the skid, when it took in the parts of the landing light. It is simply not true that the yaw began when both engines failed.

Second, those who fly the plane say that a loss of engine power will not cause an uncontrollable yaw. The Observer has spoken to five former and serving Concorde captains and flying officers. All have repeatedly experienced the loss of an engine shortly before takeoff in the computerised Concorde training simulator; one of them, twice, has done so for real. All agree, in John Hutchinson’s words, “It’s no big deal at all. You’re not using anything like the full amount of rudder to keep the plane straight; the yaw is totally containable.”

Other avoidable factors were further loading the dice, making it still more difficult to rescue the plane. When Marty paused at the start of the runway, his instruments told him that his Concorde had 1.2 tonnes of extra fuel which should have been burnt during the taxi. In addition, it contained 19 bags of luggage which were not included on the manifest, and had been loaded at the last minute, weighing a further 500 kg. These took the total mass to about 186 tonnes — a tonne above the aircraft’s certified maximum structural weight.

Meanwhile, in the interval between Concorde’s leaving the terminal and reaching the start of the runway, something very important had changed: the wind. It had been still. Now, as the control tower told Marty, he had an eight-knot tailwind. The first thing pilots learn is that one takes off against the wind. Yet as the voice record makes clear, Marty and his crew seemed not to react to this information at all.

Had they paused for a moment, they might have recomputed the data on which they had planned their takeoff. If they had, they would have learnt a very worrying fact. The tailwind meant that Concorde’s runway-allowable takeoff weight was just 180 tonnes — at least six tonnes less than the weight of Flight 4590.

[NOTE: What the reporter is saying here is that once the tailwind was accounted for, the plane was now six tons above the takeoff limit for that runway.]

John Hutchinson said: “The change in the wind was an incredible revelation, and no one says anything. Marty should have done the sums and told the tower, ‘Hang on, we’ve got to redo our calculations.'”

The extra weight had a further consequence beyond simply making it harder to get into the air. It shifted the centre of gravity backwards: the extra bags almost certainly went into the rear hold, and all the extra fuel was in the rearmost tank.

A plane’s centre of gravity is expressed as a percentage: so many per cent fore or aft. Brian Trubshaw and John Cochrane, Concorde’s two test pilots when the aircraft was being developed in the early 1970s, set the aft operating limit at 54 per cent — beyond that, they found, it risked becoming uncontrollable, likely to rear up backwards and crash, exactly as Flight 4590 did in its final moments over Gonesse.

The doomed plane’s centre of gravity went beyond 54 per cent. The BEA states a figure of 54.2 per cent. A senior industry source, who cannot be named for contractual reasons, says the true figure may have been worse: with the extra fuel and bags, it may have been up to 54.6 per cent. And as the fuel gushed from the hole in the forward tank, the centre of gravity moved still further back.

When the plane was just 25 feet off the ground, Gilles Jardinaud, the flight engineer, shut down the ailing number two engine. Both French and British pilots say it was another disastrous mistake, which breached all set procedures. The engine itself was not on fire, and as the tank emptied and the fire burnt itself out, it would probably have recovered. The fixed drill for shutting down an engine requires the crew to wait until the flight is stable at 400 feet, and to do so then only on a set of commands from the captain.

In a comment which might be applied to the whole unfolding tragedy, John Hutchinson said: “Discipline had broken down. The captain doesn’t know what’s happening; the co-pilot doesn’t know; it’s a shambles.”

Previous reports of the tragedy have described the crash as an act of God, a freak occurrence which exposed a fatal structural weakness in the aircraft which could have appeared at any time. The investigation by The Observer suggests the truth may not only be more complicated, but also sadder, more sordid. Men, not God, caused Concorde to crash, and their omissions and errors may have turned an escapable mishap into catastrophe.

The issues raised by David Rose, which at first were dismissed as so much conspiracy mongering, are now generally accepted facts within the aviation community, and have been more or less confirmed by investigators, however quietly. The November, 2012 court ruling does not explicitly says so, but it is, in its own way, a tacit acknowledgment of the full story — one in which Continental Airlines played at worst a supporting role. This accident is an outstanding example of something we’ve seen time and time again in airplane crashes: multiple errors, none of them necessarily fatal on their own accord, combining and compounding at the worst possible moment to precipitate a catastrophe. Rarely is the cause of disaster something simple and unambiguous.

Both British Airways and Air France, the only two operators of the Concorde, grounded their fleets following the 2000 disaster. The planes were reintroduced following a fuel-tank redesign, but both carriers withdrew them from service permanently in 2003, after 27 years of service, citing prohibitively expensive operating and upkeep costs. Only twenty Concordes had been built, four of which were prototypes or pre-production examples. The Air France crash marked its only fatal accident.

Concorde, as you may or may not know, was not the only supersonic passenger aircraft. There was also its Soviet cousin, the Tupolev Tu-144, which also suffered a single fatal accident over the brief course of its commercial tenure. In 1973 a Tu-144 crashed during a demonstration at the Paris Air Show. The Tupolev had taken off from Le Bourget airport, where Captain Marty and his crew were attempting an emergency landing when their Concorde went down in 2000.

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103 Responses to “Untold Story of the Concorde Disaster”
  1. flymike says:

    Yeah. We already knew all that. The real news is that the French court just realized it.

  2. JeremyMiles says:

    Awesome explanation – thanks.

  3. […] For more on this, see Patrick Smith’s Ask the Pilot blog post on the subject: THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE CONCORDE DISASTER […]

  4. Jay says:

    Thanks for the article, it certainly pointed out stuff that at least I didn’t know before.

  5. stablemate says:

    i think really that every one trys to hide the truth of this great plane….include this article

    • Jack Bunce says:

      I agree. I find the main premise of the story hard to believe. The nose wheel forces become overwhelmed by the rudder at speeds above V1 (the commitment point to take off instead of abort.) It’s far more likely a moment of distraction led to loss of control. As far as the fuel burn off from the wing tank, the plane would’ve been certainly out of limits with one full wing take and one empty. The flight was doomed the moment the captain attempted a tail wind takeoff.

  6. Siegfried says:

    Learned a lot of new things from this article.

    But it leaves me with two question:

    Given that all other parameters would have been within the operational limits (CG, landing gear, operational procedures etc.)would it be possible for a plane to survive a fire like this? And what would be the best way to deal with it?

    Given all the things that were not right, would the plane even have been able to take off and fly without the fuel tank fire? TOW beyond limits, CG beyond limits, tailwind, landing gear out of order, obviously something wrong with the airport operations (hence the close encounter with the 747); this all sounds like the perfect mixture for a disaster to me.

    • Patrick says:

      The fuel tank fire was visually spectacular (and terrifying), but experts say its direct effects on the actual crash were minimal, aside from damage caused to the number 2 engine, and it likely would have burned itself out in a matter of a few minutes.

      It’s hard to say exactly what would have happened had the plane actually made an emergency landing while the tank was still burning like that. There would have been fatalities, I’d wager, but it’s very likely there would have been survivors also, provided the crash trucks were ready and IMMEDIATELY began dousing the blaze.

      Without the fire at all, but with the other factors still present (two failed or failing engines, the weight issue, etc.), as I understand the dynamics of what happened, yes, the plane was still in danger of crashing.

    • Captain Yves R cellier (ret) says:

      Sir, (without prejudice)
      As you can see on the picture the fuel is burning, BURNING, not exploding
      With gaining speed the fire will have extinguished itself (Just like you, blowing on a match ) between 200 kts 250 kts IAS or way before the fuel being burnt or lost at a high rate.
      The Flight engineer should not have shut down the engine as he did without the captain order (command) which would have been by SOP at 400 feet above ground not before
      The flight engineer is the reason of the catastrophe ( Poor training at Air france ?? the mighty)
      Regards
      Yves R Cellier, “ret” (Overseas captain on Wide body aircraft for 15 years)

      • Pete Moffat says:

        Hi Yves,
        I flew with you several times while at CAIL, I was back seat on the DC10.
        I’ll never forget leaving Glenn at the gate in Rio for being “truly insubordinate.” You sure gave me some good stories to share over the years.
        I hope all is well in your world. I’ve been with Westjet now 10 years, 8 in left seat. Before that 320 Capt Canada 3000 after lay off from Canadian in ’92.
        Do you still have the Citroen SM?
        All the best!
        Pete Moffat
        Vancouver BC

      • Capt. Stephan Von Pramberger says:

        There is a word in the Aviation World that is slowly being forgotten call Airmanship!
        It is something not taught,but gained by Experience.
        Capt. 31yrs. 25yrs. Int.widebody ex.

  7. Doug says:

    Thanks, Patrick. Great article/post.

  8. Beauzeaux says:

    Thank you for this informative piece. I was a passenger on a NY/London flight in 2003. The Concorde was an amazing plane and I regret its passing.

  9. Elizabeth Matheson says:

    The Concorde was an amazing plane. Having flown in it myself, I, too, regret its passing.

    • Maryann Self says:

      I agree. My one dream in life was to fly on the Concorde and that dream was destroyed when they were retired. I still get chills looking at the Concorde and still tear up realizing that is one dream I never experienced.

  10. Dan Henderson says:

    Thanks for an excellent and informative article.

    I remember reading in Flight International magazine, in the early days of Concorde, that a wealthy older woman booked a Concorde trip, curious what all the fuss surrounding this exotic new plane was about. As she boarded her flight, the British captain was inside the door greeting passengers. The woman paused, looked around, and remarked, with obvious disappointment, “Why, it looks just like any other airliner inside.” The captain swelled up and exclaimed, “That, madam, was the difficult bit.”

    In the late 1970s I rented a Cessna 182 kept at Dulles airport, tied down at the center of the field in the space between the main runways. To catch a ride out to the plane I’d go to Page Aviation, and they happened to have the contract for cleaning the Concorde when it was in town. My route to boarding the van went right through their hangar, and on one occasion the Concorde was there. Nobody else was in the hangar and the portable staircase was in position, so I was tempted to have a look inside. I chickened out, though, when I saw the sign hanging from the chain across the end of the stairway, that said, “No tours; Don’t ask.” I contented myself with a gentle kick to the tires.

  11. […] I’d found an article about this, many years ago, and even mentioned it in passing in earlier commentaries on the accident, but lost the link and couldn’t find it again, no matter how hard I searched.  So great thanks to ‘Ask the Pilot’ blogger Patrick Smith, who now shares this excellent must-read article. […]

  12. […] and Notes from Around the Interweb: A fascinating story from Ask the Pilot on what really happened in the Air France Concorde crash in 2000 — faulty repair to a landing gear, overweight aircraft, error in shutting down an […]

  13. Rachel K says:

    Thank you for this informative article. I had always heard (and just assumed) that the metal strip from the Continental flight had punctured the fuel tank, causing a catastrophic emergency that simply could not be fixed. I did not know how much more to the story there was and appreciate you covering it. I’m forwarding this to a few others who might find it as Interesting as I.

  14. Greg says:

    I flew it (BA) Barbados to Gatwick in the mid-90’s. Awesome; you could FEEL the speed. And the plane stretched over a foot in flight, due to the extreme heat; the windows were warm to the touch. We have one (Alpha Echo) in a museum here at Barbados, since we were only one of 3 scheduled destinations it flew to. Yes, you CAN tour it, and there’s a great light-and-sound show. BTW, the captain shoved his cap into a space between a bulkheads on the last flight; now the cap is stuck there forever for all to see, caught immovably after the bulkheads locked back together as the plane cooled….a typical piece of British impishness.

    • John Douglas says:

      It wouldn’t have been the Captain’s hat, but the Flight Engineer’s. Concorde was the last aeroplane in BA service to carry a Flight Engineer, so the retirement of Concorde meant and end to the Flight Engineer in British Airways. Hence, on the last supersonic flight of each Concorde, the Flight Engineer insrted his hat into the gap that opened up between his instrument panel and the bulkhead….when the speed came down, the temperature of the aeroplane dropped and the gap closed, trapping the hat as a memorial to the ending of one of the flight deck disciplines.

  15. Jeff Latten says:

    I had read this article when you first put it up a few years ago, but it always makes for a gripping read. It just confirms what a sea of BS we live in. Thanks as always for the straight skinny. BTW, what’s your take on Youkilis going to NYY?

  16. Dick Waitt says:

    I’m wondering if the spacer problem would have resulted in a crash at an emergency landing attempt, especially if most of that fuel load was still aboard.

  17. chandelle says:

    That’s an excellent read, and exactly what I’ve come to expect of you, Patrick :)

  18. Matt says:

    Patrick-
    Can you give some insight into the thought process that resulted in the Captain flouting the rules which could ultimately have saved his aircraft? Is it possible that he didn’t hear the notice that he’d be departing with a tailwind? Is it possible that he was fully aware of both the tailwind and the overweight situation and decided to go ahead with the departure regardless, either because of schedule pressures (ie the 45 minute delay) or simply due to the confidence he had in Concorde? We see time and again that a chain of small events can coumpound themselves and lead to a crash. It is painfully obvious here that had Captain Marty simply taxied to the other end of the runway he would have eliminated 2 huge risk factors by burning extra fuel and eliminating the performance restrictions brought on by the tailwind.

    • Phil Perry says:

      Following the comment of another poster as th what on Earth was going throught the Concorde Captain’s mind by missing all these (apparent ) clues,… remember the disaster some time ago where two 747s collided on the runway at Tenerife in the Canary Islands, one report suggested that the Dutch Captain was irritable at the hold up, and ignored the voiced concerns of his First Officer, who questioned whether the reported “Other 747 traffic” had , in fact cleared the runway, before initiating a take-off into very bad RVR; with the result that this created.

      People DO make mistakes, and in some cases, these, coupled with other circumstances accumulate to produce a disaster waiting ( not very long) to happen. . .

    • Mike says:

      There are a couple of things that are not directly stated in the piece that trouble me. Firstly, the question as to whether the pilot might not have heard the wind direction message from ATC. If a pilot does not acknowledge an ATC radio comm, it is ATC’s responsibility to repeat it until the pilot acknowledges it or refuse to issue a clearence for takeoff. Also, in a wind shift situation it is ATC that directs a change in departure runways. If the tailwind was 8 knots (and that is significant especially in an over max weight situation) why didn’t ATC automatically change the departure runway (direction)? Just thinking about it…

      • Phil says:

        This is simply wrong. ATC will choose an operating runway and generally a pilot will use the runway offered, but it is solely the responsibility of the pilot to decide which runway they will use. It may be that the choice of a different runway will lead to a delay or even, as might have been the case here, a need to load more fuel to allow for the extra taxying time, but this is a safety issue and as such is entirely up to the pilot.
        More important is the light this throws on the French approach to the investigation of air accidents. It has been evident for a long time that the judicial process (not just in France) is slow and cumbersome and may inhibit witnesses from speaking out at an early stage, thus compromising the investigation and, most importantly, the prompt dissemination of safety information. This would be bad enough if the conclusions eventually reached were justified but it is clear that in this case that the conclusions reached by the court were faulty. We can have little confidence that this has not been so in other French air accident investigations.

        • Gordon Flygare says:

          Most of the time we are saved from downwind operations by good sipervision and luck.
          It is a real thrill to make the mistake of landing or taking off with only a few knots of wind.
          Makes one whale of a difference!

    • Iain Hart says:

      By taking off against the wind (from the other end of the runway or from another runway) wouldn’t the concorde also have missed hitting the metal strip?

  19. keith peers says:

    this is very good reading.

  20. Tom Henderson says:

    In 1968 I was visiting a friend in Bristol, England where the British Concorde prototype was being built in cooperation with the French. My friend was acquainted with an aeronautical engineer who was working on the project and he offered to take us to the hangar where the Concorde was being assembled. What a spectacle it was. How something so beautiful could be so airworthy at Mach 2.2.

    The British were in charge of the engines (Rolls Royce) while the French designed and developed the complicated nose gear which pointed downward during takeoff then straightened out during flight. Rumor had it that no sooner were the blueprints finished for these complicated mechanisms they magically appeared in the USSR where the Tu-144 was being developed. The resulting Russian version, to my untrained eye, looked identical to the Concorde. Perhaps if the Russians had not been so eager to have their own hurry up version of SST, the Paris Air Show crash of 1973 could have likely been avoided.

    • Patrick says:

      I’m not sure about that. As I understand it, the Tu-144 broke apart during a violent maneuver to avoid colliding with another plane.

      • Jan says:

        PBS’s NOVA had an excellent program which explored the reasons for the TU-144 crash in ’73.
        Yes, indeed, the TU-144 pilot executed a violent manoeuvre to avoid a Mirage which was shadowing the TU-144 in the broken cloud cover. That manoeuvre caused the -144’s engines to flame out. The pilot pointed the nose towards the ground to get the airspeed needed to restart the engines in the air. As the engines came back to life, the pilot realized he was too low and tried to pull the airplane out of its dive to avoid hitting the ground. That is the manouevre which caused the wings to break off.

    • Paul Docking says:

      I’m afraid that the nose was not a French design. It was British,subcontacted to Marshall of Cambridge. It built on the experience gained by Fairey on the Fairey Delta 2.

  21. transatlantic says:

    Excellent insight. Very little attention in the press.

  22. Jim Houghton says:

    I must be missing something. While Taylor was cleared, what about the mechanic who failed to install the spacer when the axle was replaced? Did the French court never hear this version of events?

  23. Josh says:

    Fascinating commentary, Patrick. But it again begs the question, why are governments so quick to lay blame rather than waiting for evidence? Seems like rarely is the first impression correct. I am reminded also of the all-too-quick arrest of the 2 American pilots whose private plane collided with a Brazilian airliner over the rainforest.

    • Eugene Haller says:

      Its all about CYA. In this case one govt agency covering for the other. Get a scape goat early because the public demands it, then later, dont confuse them with facts because they can not redetermine something which they set in stone. Afterall these agencies are not mortal they are God like. And God does not make mistakes.

      • Craig Ninneman says:

        Never was a truer word spoken, Eugene. It is just so much more expedient to find culprits than solutions – especially when those solutions entail that which should have been done anyway. Who would then be revealed as the real culprits, i wonder? It rarely turns out to be someone in the wreckage.

  24. Andrew Mundy says:

    Thank you for posting this article. I have read it before although the alternate view always makes interesting reading. My biggest concern with the story is how it impacts the credibility of the French BEA. An accident investigation is meant to establish what went wrong, so that a repeat can be avoided. As is often the case, that explanation is likely to be embarrassing to at least some of the parties involved from the operator, AMO, manufacturer to the regulators. If the BEA has chosen not to look at the explanation given in the story, what other omissions are there? What other lessons have we missed.

    On another side of this story, I have always felt that the Concord accident was dealt with very unfairly by the regulators. With only 13 aircraft in service it was clearly not an aviation workhorse. Has anyone got what it takes to suspend the type certificate of the current commercial fleet, especially three weeks after the accident?

    Final point, the last I saw of the Concord was it taking off from Johannesburg about 18 years back. We all stood along a fence along the side of the runway watching and listening. The local noise regulations were not too strict then and the crew could use full re-heat for a lot longer than at almost any other airport! The memory is seared into my brain.

  25. John says:

    As a retired airline pilot I have encountered the overweight takeoff problem many times. The choice is always between leaving payload (passengers or freight) or fuel behind necessitating a fuel stop. Always there are many people involved in the decision. Too many for one person to be able to dictate an overweight takeoff (or in some cases an over weight landing). That is a quick way to lose a job. In thirty years of flying for scheduled airlines I have never taken off overweight. There have been serious discussions and arguments about payload or fuel but never considerations of overweight take offs.

    I can’t imagine how these Concorde people could have let this thing go six tons overweight. That just isn’t done. Allowing that would border on criminality.

    • Roger Griggs says:

      The Capt. ALWAYS has the final word. There are other choices, a different configuration of flap, a different (possibly longer) runway, offloading baggage or fuel or both. The Capt is ALWAYS the final word,repeated again.

  26. Larry Seelig says:

    Thirty years + of flying, engine failure at or above V1 is a mandatiory go, assume pitch angle, climb at V2 or better to 400 feet before you do anything, engine fire, bird strike, etc., if pilot has lost control of aircraft, all bets are off, good luck. Even if you have a left or right yaw you are taught on takeoff to have positive foot pressure on the rudders to overcome this yaw. Most jets can use an active runway with up to 10 knows tailwind depending on the aircraft runway needs and runway conditions and this depends on the WAT (weight, altitude, temperature) limit. Sounds like a pilot with a Tenerife, Canary Island mentality.

  27. John Ochs says:

    As a retired Navy carrier pilot, passenger 727 & 747 freight pilot this rings true and does not surprise me! Many accidents are the result of “links in a chain” of events! Any one link can prevent the accident, but if left unchecked or handled incorrectly, will result in total destruction.

  28. Ted Davison says:

    First, from a non-pilot, thanks for an excellent presentation. I’m not qualified to comment on the technical details beyond ‘they ring true’ but I much enjoyed the read.
    However, knowledgable friends to whom I copied your article have suggested that there was another, probably extremely significant, contributory factor not mentioned. They tell me that ‘mudguards’, designed explicitly to reduce the risk of fuel tank damage by débris pick-up, had been fitted by BA but not by Air France.
    Can you comment?

  29. So sad. If blame had been properly placed, the Concorde fleet might have continued in service and we might now be in the supersonic age. Similarly, TWA might still be in service if blame had been properly placed on the missile that brought down TWA800 off Long Island, New York on July 17, 1996.

    As David Rose points out in his excellent article, an aircraft can’t fly when the enter of gravity gets completely out of its prescribed limits. Boeing provided the numbers for TWA800. When 80,000 lbs of nose was blown off, the center of gravity moved from about 25% MAC to 57.8% MAC. The operational limit is about 30% MAC. But the CIA needed to discredit the scores of eyewitnesses who saw a rising missile. So the CIA hypothesized a noseless B747 climbing from 13,800 feet to 17,000 feet trailing flames. Supposedly, the eyewitnesses mistook a crippled B747 for a missile. Never mind that eyewitnesses saw the red streak rising from near sea level, not a point two and a half miles in the sky. The zoom-climb was aerodynamically impossible, but this is what happens when politics gets into accident investigation.

  30. As a private pilot myself I know that the captain is the final authority on ehwthewr the plane flies or not. Unfortunately, too many other issues can cause a pilot to make an unwise decision. Think flight schedules, late departures, loss of revenue because of delays, reputation of the carries, ATC experience, etc., etc.

  31. A beautiful piece of writing describing a complex set of events, and very compelling evidence that politics was at play in the official enquiry.

  32. Avi8or says:

    Not surprising to hear it was pilot error. It almost always is.

    • Patrick says:

      Except that it wasn’t. Or, it PARTLY was. It was pilot error, mechanical error, maintenance error, a communications breakdown, and just plain bad luck.

      And I take offense to your claiming “It almost always is.” Sometimes, yes. Plenty of times, no. If you look at the ten worst crashes of all time for example, only three of them were attributed to crew error.

  33. nigel says:

    The “six tonnes overweight” headline needs to be put into context. The aircraft wasnt overweight when the take-off calculations were done by the crew (if I read the full article correctly) What had changed was the surface wind, such that if the calculations had been done again it may have been six tonnes overweight. However, we dont know if this is really true as we dont know how the calculations work. In my current aircraft type the computer calculation uses half the entered headwind, or double the entered tailwind, to give margin for wind changes, thus if the calc was done for the two cases of no wind of 8kt tailwind, the Max Take-off weight might be six tonnes different, but it would actually be taking into account 16kts tailwind. Even if this is the case, it might not have any effect on the aircraft taking off, the limiting factor may well be stopping the aircraft within the available runway after an engine failure just before V1. This is quite often the limiting case. Brakes werent so good in Concorde’s day and it was travelling a lot faster, so this is likely to be the case. This isnt saying that the Capt was correct to take-off with this discrepancy, just that it may well have had nothing to do with the crash.

    This is a well written report, but it also contains quite a lot of speculation, even if it is based on knowledgeable sources. Maybe reading the full BEA report would shed light onto some of this. I don’t know if a copy is available.

    Much of the work to get the Concorde back into service after this event was about strengthening the tanks against tyre bust, so it would seem that at least the manufacturers, operators and certification authorites thought that the rupturing of the tank due to tyre debris was a major cause of the crash.

    The spacer seems significant in that it caused loss of control on the runway, but the aircraft did get airborne and start climbing away, even if at too slow a speed. The slow speed probably was significant, together with the aft CG going further aft due to fuel escaping from the tank. The loss of engine power from the no 2 engine obviously didn’t help, of course it is speculation again that if they had waited until 400ft before looking to shut it down, whether the fire warning would still have been there or not. But they would have had power for a few more seconds.

    The CG at take-off was obviously marginal, but its not clear if the crew knew about these other bags. I seemed to remember BA aircraft sometimes waiting at the end of the runway to burn off that unused taxi fuel in the tail tank before take-off presumably to help wtih the CG, or reduce below max take-off weight.

    The article seems to be trying to say that the tyre bust didnt cause the crash, but these other mistakes did. I’m really not sure that is correct. I tend to think the other things didn’t help, but if the tank hadn’t been ruptured by the tyre debris, the aircraft wouldn’t have crashed. The CG wouldn’t have moved further aft due to the fuel leak and the fire wouldn’t have started which lead to the engine being shut down. Presumably they ran the scenario in the simulator, the aircraft taking off with a CG slightly aft of the limit and rotating 11 knots too early, was it really uncontrollable then??

    Certainly a sad day for aviation. Good that the court action was thrown out, this type of court case is always bad for aviation safety. Whether running over that bit of DC10 was the cause of the accident or not. That in itself was just an accident. This criminal case should never have been brought.

  34. Richard says:

    Concorde was a very different aircraft to operate in comparison to a subsonic aeroplane. Crews were always operating at the edge of the envelope. This included performance – range – weight and centre of gravity. It was one of the pleasures of flying this incredible icon but let’s not kid ourselves – it wasn’t a Boeing. Sadly the flight data recorder on Air France was an old model, compared to British Airways, and its sampling was limited. However, let’s go through some of the evidence.

    The aircraft was overweight because the time needed to transfer and burn fuel was too short. There was a constant need for fuel to keep the operation legal but also with Concorde you could take too much taxi fuel if ATC suddenly offered you a quick departure. This would have been easily covered if you knew exactly what the ATC delays for each departure would be. JFK would hold us on 31L for 20 minutes if landings were on 04 but not always. The E/O would therefore shift the fuel forward to move the C of G but by so doing he was filling the tank to capacity. What was essential was for him to shut those valves prior to take off. As we used 90 tons per hour on Take off, space in the tanks became rapidly available provided the valves were shut, otherwise fuel from tank 11 kept pouring in allowing no air space in the fuel tank. The E/O’s panel at the crash site shows the valves to be open but this is not proof that he forgot to close them. Huge impact forces during the crash event itself. Concorde fuel is a subject on its own and far too involved to mention the full implications here. What I will say is that any subject that starts with -“There are 13 fuel tanks on Concorde numbered 1 to 11,” tells you that an Irishmen was involved. To be honest, the design was a marvel of British (not French) engineering.

    The taxi part of the flight was very short and during all the preparatory checks for departure(considerable), the following events also took place. The E/O had to transfer hydraulics through the spill doors to balance their quantities. Hydraulics were a weak component but an excellent concept for a 1960’s designed aircraft. For those of us that flew the 747, we realised how a hydraulic system should be built but it was a much later design and weight was not the same problem. At the start of taxi the nosewheel was not engaged – fly by wire – and a reset had to be achieved by the F/O. Whilst taxying one of the two split rudders dropped its signalling mode from green to blue and a check list item had to be performed. It took off in blue – not a problem. Meanwhile take off checks were being performed and from the voice recorder transcript it has to be said that the flight deck was performing normally but the crew were very busy.

    During the Take off run the Captain did two things that need some explaining but are still a mystery. Why did he use only 20 degrees of rudder (max 30) and why did he rotate early? He was relatively inexperienced on the Concorde – after 3000 hours I was still learning – having been on the plane about a year. I do remember that on my first simulator check the call was made V1 – followed by engine failure – and I started to rotate only to realise very quickly my mistake. I had spent 8 years in shorthaul and the call was always V1 – engine failure – rotate. Is this what went through his mind under stress? Likewise did he actually think he had applied full rudder because he had not done a full flying control check from his chair? I am told that AF flying control checks were done by their ground crews but I cannot vouch for this. Forgive me if I am wrong. We in BA always did our own flying control checks and these were done by the pilot flying thus ensuring full and free. By the way, the checks were something that took over a minute by an experienced crew member.

    The wheel space bearing is another issue that did not come out of the initial investigation and may have been added through UK pressure. It was a BA engineering team that saw the first implications of this discovery at the Crash Hangar. Personally, doing a high speed taxi is not the same as doing several take offs and landings which require retracting the landing gear. More needs to be worked on this field, I feel.

    Finally – There but for the grace of God go I.

    Once the court case is settled you will hear more on this subject I am sure.

    • LEO BURGHOFFER says:

      A shortcoming of the fuel tanks had previously been exposed at KIAD when a tire blew and the aircraft was nearly lost. With so few departures and this knowledge it seems to me that the prudent thing to do would have been to do a runway sweep before a Concorde take off. The lost part would have been spotted and tragedy averted.

  35. Michael says:

    Much appreciation for the great and masterful article.
    I do not wish to be classified as a conspiracy theorist but sometimes the tools of that theorist are useful.

    Whenever you have many competing interests and politics, the potential for misdirection in the media and other official sources of information exists.

    Misdirection is an art. You must creates layers of truth. One as an initial statement for the press and reporters, the next as what will be discovered later by investigators, and another to be discovered by the analysts and experts. None of these layers are really the whole truth but they are all normally plausible and leave only minor discrepancies – the communication “risk” to be tolerated where the experts say, “This just doesn’t add up” to which you reply “We may never know…”

    It’s important to note that there is a layer for experts to discover later – this is always required because experts and analysts always spot discrepancies and are not satisfied with the simplest surface explanations.

    Two things you must do to really uncovered misdirection:

    1. consider early discoveries as “planted” or “created” for you to discover and don’t trust the information you receive because it is misdirection placed there to engage you.
    2. consider information provided as pieces of a carefully crafted plan to send you in a direction.

    Now use the above and explore what happens when you remove information that you consider to be factual.

    What if there was no metal strip on the end of the runway? How would you explain this whole incident if that one piece of information was gone?

    Remove other pieces of information you consider to be factual and ask yourself the same question. With that piece of information (fact) missing, how do I now explain this incident.

    It may cost a lot to retrofit wing tanks but what if the alternative is to admit that the landing gear failed?

    The problem with being an expert is that we trust our experience, logic, and analysis, and those feeding us information know that.

  36. […] AVweb Podcast: ELTs Examined Sukhoi SU95 Crash in Indonesia Final Report The Untold Story of the Concorde Disaster Teams Score Elite Service in the Sky TSA 2012 Holiday Travel Tips & […]

  37. afjose says:

    am enligthened

  38. afjose says:

    Enligthened!

  39. nigel says:

    having now read the full accident report
    http://www.concordesst.com/accident/report.html

    it is clear that there is more speculation and mis-information in this article that I originally thought. To me the accident report is very thorough, shows a very detailed analysis of the accident, considering all posibilites and comes to the right conclusions.
    There is clear criticism of Air France in several area as well as criticism of the oversight and regulation of Concorde operations. There is also criticism by the UK AAIB of the French judicial enquiry hampering them doing their part of the investigation as well as a couple of area of technical disagreement. However they do agree with the general findings and agree that the missing spacer on the landing gear was not significant.

    I dont know why people want to believe a journalists interpretation and speculation based on asking a few “experts” a few questions, maybe the wrong questions, rather than believing the detailed work of an investigation team, with many experts working over many months. Having attended a 2 week aircraft accident investigation course in the UK, I was amazed and very impressed by the quality of the investigators and the job that they do.
    I guess its a lot easier to read this article, which seems thorough and full of facts and assume it is correct, rather than take the time to read the full report.

    The article asks “experts” if the concorde is controllable with an engine failure on the runway, to which the answer is yes. But the accident report clearly shows loss of power in two engines due to surges between V1 and VR.
    The accident report mentions similator exercises with similar double engine surges resulting in the aircraft drifiting to the left, only after several attempts and knowing what was going to happen were the crews able to keep the aircraft straight.
    The accident report also clearly show the aircraft tracking straight up until after the tyre burst and shows more left rudder input required rather than right rudder to keep it straight- showing that the missing spacer had no effect on the aircraft’s directional control.

    The article suggests the flight engineer shut down engine 2 without the captains knowledge and too early, whereas the accident report shows that the Capt was involved in the decision and that the engine fire warning was only silenced momentarily after shutting down the engine, probably by the fire extinguishers cooling the area near to the fire detector briefly.
    The report shows that Air France had contradicting policies one was not to action the checklist until 400ft, the other in a different manual was to action any red warning immediately.
    With hindsight as we know that there was no engine fire, it would have been better to not have shut the engine down, but the crew didnt know that, there was a clear fire warning and the fire was burning throughout the brief flight. They never made it to 400ft. However with both engines surging maybe it wouldnt have made much difference.
    A table in the report shows the minimum speed to achieve any rate of climb with two engines and the gear down was in excess of 300kt and 205kt when on 3 engines.
    (the gear would not retract, presumed due to damage to the gear doors but the tyre burst- the door has to open before the gear can retract)

    Again a sad day for aviation, but good that the inappropriate judicial action was finally thrown out.

  40. jean-louis boudet says:

    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you flying people

    Thanks for y/article. I further comment on French Justice shortcommings regarding aviation crashes.

    Flight 148 Air Inter January 20 th :1992 crashed in control on Mont St Odile Alsace France in heavy winter weather. Dead 99 Injured 9.
    Airbus A320 is fitted at the time with Collins VOR LOC DME – whose readings are unreliable –due to misplacement of antennas nearby the thunderbolt protectors.

    Air Inter planes have no GPWS which is not compulsory in France.
    Lufthansa, British Airways & Iberia don’t fly Airbus A320 on VOR LOC DME.

    An In / Out pushbutton selects the functions VS or FPA to a rotating knob.
    A unique screen displays only two digits no hundred zeros, no point (+ or –tell VS)
    i.e.
    33 means either 3300ft/min VS or 3.3° FPA.
    Pilots know “who is what” reading the upper displays of the flight director from left to right

    Speed VS_FPA HDG_TRK CAT AP

    Both flight data and voice recorders stolen from the site –video and photos show man walking away with -were tampered.
    Compared with photos while boxes were stolen, the large white safety cello bands were misplaced on both tampered boxes before their delivery to BEA

    Computers Fly Better pretends Airbus

    Independent joysticks don’t tell the non flying pilot.

    September 22nd 2009 The French Cassation Court (US Supreme) closed the case

    PILOTS FAULTS as usual

  41. JOSSE says:

    Concorde was repaired and modified to fly again. It is often mentioned that Concorde had a supposidely bad impact on the ozone layer. Nobody mentions those people who acted to ground Concorde for good. This was the first accident of Concorde but not the first in aviation history. In the 50’s and in the 60’s, the aircraft drama were many and they did not stop the aviation industry.
    Concorde was a beatiful unique airplane. I deeply regret that it does no fly anymore.
    I am French and I apologize in advance for my non-perfect English.
    Michel JOSSE

  42. Mick says:

    As with many other complex accidents there are multiple causal factors and these have been debated at length regarding the AF Concorde. Regardless of the cause of the tyre burst I recall reading that there were many previous tyre bursts some of which caused lower wing skin damage. Indeed one ex-BA Captain who I once flew with told me that he had one which caused a fuel tank leak and he thought there had been others. Was the action taken to mitigate the risk sufficient. Did the Airline Safety System function well enough ? Did the regulators discharge their duties correctly ?
    Post accident modifications were too late.

  43. Mark says:

    Patrick, you wrote that the fire “likely would have burned itself out in a matter of a few minutes”. How do you know this would be likely?

    Concorde had at least one undiscovered in-wing fire due to fuel tank leakage into the wing. The Air Accidents Investigations Branch documented a fire on G-BOAC fed by fuel leaking from crack(s) in fuel tank expansion joints. Moreover, the report notes that Concorde was designed with allowable fuel leaks and seepages specific to tank location, up to 14 drops-per-minute for some areas without immediate repair. See: http://www.aaib.gov.uk/cms_resources/dft_avsafety_pdf_029047.pdf

    Given the crack(s), allowable in-wing fuel leakages, and at least one undiscovered in-flight fire that only by pure luck burned itself out before affecting flight controls, wouldn’t it be possible that the flames on flight 4590 could have ignited leaked fuel adjacent to other tanks and, given ambient pressures in the tanks and ample oxygen, set those tanks alight, too?

    Agreed with your assertion of the possibility of survivors had the pilots made Le Bourget or de Gaulle. The outcomes at Tenerife, Heathrow (British Airtours Flight 28M), and other accidents in which people escaped despite hull loss, support that. But I would characterize survivability as “possible”, not “very likely”, given the catastrophic nature of such accidents, in which so much of the outcome is due to chance.

    Nigel asked a good question: “I tend to think [that] if the tank hadn’t been ruptured… the CG wouldn’t have moved further aft due to the fuel leak…. Presumably they ran the scenario in the simulator, the aircraft taking off with a CG slightly aft of the limit and rotating 11 knots too early, was it really uncontrollable then??”.

    Does anyone know if the lost fuel’s effect on CG was simmed? About a 3 kg difference for each gallon, I’d think. I didn’t see this in the BEA’s reports.

    To Josse: Growing up in the U.S. during Apollo, I was in awe of and proud of my country’s ability to land people on and return them from the moon. I’m also in awe of the designers, engineers, pilots, cabin crew, mechanics and everyone in Britain and France who got Concorde into the air. What a magnificent achievement to be able to outrun almost all military aircraft with 100 pax in comfort across the Atlantic. Seems to me that BA and AF were shortsighted in terminating the program early and without a passenger SST replacement.

    • Patrick says:

      >> Patrick, you wrote that the fire “likely would have burned itself out in a matter of a few minutes”. How do you know this would be likely? <<

      This is what experts who studied the crash have said.

  44. Ross Aimer says:

    Great article, Patrick!
    Once again we learn accidents are caused by several factors, instead of just one major event!
    Pilots are always reminded to “FLY” the aircraft first! “Sit on your hands” until you reach a certain altitude!
    (Usually 400′ AGL for most multi engine commercial jets.)
    On the later model Boeing jets almost all visual and aural warnings are inhibited until reaching this safe altitude for a good reason. Majority of engine fire warnings are caused by a leaky hot air valve, duct or a source. (Almost all gone on the 787, thank you!) Even if the engine is fully inflamed, it is still producing power, when you need it the most. A cooked engine is far better than loosing the entire aircraft!
    The Concorde Captain could have gained enough airspeed to control his crippled aircraft even after his over grossed early rotation in a tail wind situation with a dragging wheel, had the Engineer not shut the engine down so quick and perhaps without his command!
    About 30 years ago I flew with an F/E on the “Rope Start” 747s who had unusually long arms and loved to reach and do things very quickly. We modified our memory items to include this phrase on the top, when we were in the Sim with him. “Bob, sit on your monkey hands, please!” :-)
    Captain Ross “Rusty” Aimer
    UAL Ret.
    CEO
    Aero Consulting Experts

  45. comatus says:

    Le Destin est le chasseur.

  46. Paul E Coyne says:

    Great result by the French Court to overturn the previous verdict, I along with a lot of other flying people knew all this information many years ago, I was amazed that this did not come out sooner,

  47. Mike says:

    There are a couple of things that are not directly stated in the piece that trouble me. Firstly, the question as to whether the pilot might not have heard the wind direction message from ATC. If a pilot does not acknowledge an ATC radio comm, it is ATC’s responsibility to repeat it until the pilot acknowledges it or refuse to issue a clearence for takeoff. Also, in a wind shift situation it is ATC that directs a change in departure runways. If the tailwind was 8 knots (and that is significant especially in an over max weight situation) why didn’t ATC automatically change the departure runway (direction)? Just thinking about it…

  48. Alastair says:

    Agreeing that uncommanded engine shut downs are a no-no. You do not mention the failure of the gear to retract – possibly due to damage. Could Concorde fly away with one thrust failure AND no gear retraction?

    • Duncan Stuart ex RAF Coastal Command says:

      I was waiting for someone to mention the failure of the gear to retract (as noted from the CVR transcript) I always vividly remember the incredible drag an unretracted landing gear produced when practising engine out landings – quite scary. So here we have the Concorde with two engines shut down, gear hanging down, and an aft CG, it seems that the only chance of survival would have been to have at least three engines at max thrust regardless of the flames behind. In any case the fire did not seem to be causing structural damage, it was simply like a man using a flame thrower – the fuel (from the flame thrower) is actually alight AFTER it leaves the nozzle and is not burning the man or gun, likewise thw Concorde fuel leak, though spectacular was actually slightly behind the wing.

  49. Mark says:

    Hmm. The Tu-144 was quite different to teh Concorde in one way, and that way was what led to the Paris Crash. Interestingly the difference also partly led to the Concorde crash too. Conical Vortex lift. Concorde at very slow speed has masive drag, and this reduces as speed increase. It’s vital not to get too slow on a Concorde or any aircraft that flies with Conical Vortex Lift- the wing is effectively always stalled and the vortexes controlled to produce the lift. Thus, lifting off below Vr was suicidal. However, you can’t stall it in the traditional sense, as the Tupelev crew did at the Air Show trying to pull out…

    Sad loss all round, of life, and a beautiful aircraft, with loads of life left in her.

  50. "The Adj" says:

    Well written David.

    Succinct and covers the assailant points without photos.

    All of us (on the site), during our presentations all over the world, cover the crash in great detail, with high quality slides and videos. While most will not make any direct comment, as to who/what caused the crash, they will leave the audience, the chance to make their own decision.

    It’s very difficult to be objective under such circumstances. The emotive responses of people on the various Facebook sites, really is not helpful, yet I do understand the feelings of emotion that are, in some cases, running high.

    Leaving emotion aside, which I find difficult, after reading the accident report, specially those inane comments by members of the investigating group, under the Mayor of Gonesse, let me consider another slant.

    CRM (Human Factors) is a damned good tool for getting crew members to work together. Good too, for the likes of pilots of my age, some of whom, have been poor in this area.

    However, company management, in many cases, think/believe, that having introduced proper courses, within their airline for such CRM annual training, believe their job to be done. Then they take “their eyes off the ball” – Complacency sets in, until such an incident/accident occurs. Then the shit should hit the fan and procedures introduced to ensure such things do not happen again.

    As an aside, did it happen within Air France? I have to assume that it did not, nor did they consider any investigation of their training procedures, so they lost AF447 over the South Atlantic (and damned near lost another Concorde in 2003, with a severe unnoticed fuel leak.

    This is clearly a matter of COMPLACENCY by many in the airline. The AF Board are responsible for the safe operation of their airline, they have to accept responsibility for this and should be judged accordingly.

    The last appeal, which gave a ‘sort of result’ in favour of Continental, should have dismissed the whole of the previous accident report(s), sacked and/or charged all those asinine people who, in my opinion, manipulated and distorted the facts and figures, for their own benefit and for trying to ensure that AF was to be privatised without stain! It’s a mockery of injustice!

    I am utterly disgusted by the whole thing and feel that justice has not been done for those poor families of the crew, passengers and the four in the hotel, who have to live with this stuff forever.

  51. Bob Bailey says:

    Why has an independent agency not been involved to uncover the truth with out any thing to loose or gain from the outcome of this investigation??? Seems to me that ALL involved ARE involved and have a stake in the outcome. Perhaps a UN of typed needs to be established to look into this and all future accidents so NO one can slant any findings or cover anything up so as NOT to loose face or to be involved in any way politically, economically or have anything to loose in any way???

  52. Maria says:

    Nigel’s and Richard’s responses are the only ones to acknowledge here and certainly not those of a journalist asking questions of so-called experts. A journalist usually looks for the sensationalism in any event in order to sell the paper. Imagine the strip above its name along the top of any newspaper: “Read what REALLY happened to the AF Concorde”. Instant sale. An an ex-BA cabin crew member, we have to put our trust in the boys at the sharp end but they are rarely wrong. Also European pilots generally are well-educated and articulate and not inclined to panic, either by nature or purely by good training. Read the full report of the AF Concorde accident. It was caused by Continental leaving its rubbish on the ground and the sooner the Americans stop their incessant, anti-French ranting and raving, the better for all concerned.

  53. Mick, first, normally, incidents occour before an accident happens.The reasons for the many tire bursts were because they continuously used re-tread tyres. As far as I know, a new tyre never bursted.Why did they not stop using re-tread tyres?(Right after the first incident!)This, I could not understand! With the use of new tyres, the problem would have been solved immediately.. Stupid people in regulators positions!
    An other thing, which I could not understand, was the decision to reinforce the rubber tanks. They said then the holes would be smaller, if a tyre would burst! And not so much fuel would flow out! Again: What a poor solution. Why did they not redesign and install a solid and strong protection to prevent 100% any cut in the tank, should any tyre burst.And on top,also reenforce the rubber tank skin.

  54. Chris Orlebar says:

    On Concorde for least drag following an engine failure at V1, the instruction is to fly with zero side slip. To keep straight a small (2◦) angle of bank is required – lowering the wing with the working engines. Marty rotated early possibly because he “reverted to type (of airliner)”. On every simulator check the pilot must cope with an engine failure at V1. On a twin engined airliner V1 is usually at Vr. Here a simultaneous application of rudder and elevator is required. Such a routine learnt early in a pilot’s career, can become reflex.

    On Concorde the runway cannot be seen once 13 degrees of pitch is achieved. Without visual reference the side slip indicator becomes the reference. Less rudder angle is required for zero side slip than for “ball in the middle” – hence the reduction of right rudder. The bank angle to the right cannot be applied on the ground, so AF 4690 veered to the left.

    Some smoke emission may have been seen prior to AF 4590 encountering the metal strip. Could this have been a trail of fuel venting from the orifice under the fin on the port side of Concorde.

  55. Concorder was technologically fantastic and ahead of its time; unfortunately, it was both a commercial & marketing disaster, and as so many European government funded programs more than six times the projected cost…. So kudos for the engineering feat, thumbs down for the sales/marketing team. I flew it to NYC and found the trip itself a let-down: small aisle, cramped economy seats, continual parade of food carts as there was insufficient time to serve properly, and most of the passengers arriving at JFK around 08:00AM plastered on expensive wine & cognac… Short 3 1/2 hour flight, only to wait for lugage and then sit for another 2-3hours in NYCs morning rush hour. Total time CDG-NYC was again 6-7 hours but at a cost of about 5 times a regular air ticket…. No wonder it was a commercial flop. Sadly Concord died in a tragic accident, whereas the real blame for commercial its demise lies elsewhere.

    • Chris Orlebar says:

      If Concorde was the commercial failure that Decook George claims, why was it kept in service for over 25 years?

      The real tragedy was the failure to build on the expertise that was so expensively acquired. The really difficult part of the Concorde project was getting to work at all especially in the pre-digital computer era. Was it “American jealousy” as claimed by Harold Macmillan, that killed it?

      • Concorde as a scheduled passenger aircraft never made any money compared to the investment that was made; and the fact that ONLY the two major countries that invested in it actually bought it shows that it was a money loser in the eyes of other airlines in the rest of the world. The USSR tried (jealousy?)to match it but never could make any profit from it either. The USA aircraft industry saw no profit in it and declined to make their own or even buy a single one. Pride funded by the tax payer kept it flying for 25years – pride for a technological feat was fully justified; pride for an economic and profit-making solution never was. To prove it, no country in the world (including the two Concorde investors) never were able to produce a new follow-on commercially-viable supersonic design for scheduled passenger flights; in fact after the last Concorde production aircraft (1979) the losses were so great that not a single Concorde was ever produced again. While I belief Concorde was a great technological undertaking, its real longterm benefit lies in the fact that it proved to Europe that they could overcome political and national differences and set the stage for one of the greatest international industrial cooperations ever achieved: Airbus! And I tip my hat to both the present Airbus engineers and their sales/marketing women and men of today!

  56. Barry Graham says:

    Very informative article. Whatever the cause, it’s too bad that this great aircraft no longer flies. I was privileged, using frequent flyer miles, to fly 4 times on this aircraft (since I could never have afforded to do so using real money). Each flight was an experience to remember.

  57. Duncan Truro says:

    No mention in this summary of the Fire Service evidence offered at enquiry that fire personnel, from their mid airport location, nearest the active runway, noted flames from Concorde approximately one kilometre before the Continental Airline’s lost metal strip would have been encountered on the runway. Seems the tire broke up due to left main gear slewing and creating drag and swing towards the waiting AF B747 (see photograph)

  58. John Hutchinson (retired BA Concorde Captain) says:

    Very interesting for me to see that this is becoming a live issue once again; I have been banging on about it for years. One significant point I should like to make. When the tyre blew and threw debris onto the underside of the wing by tank number 5 it did NOT penetrate the tank. Tank 5 was full of fuel because the normal refuelling protections had been overridden and, furthermore & contrary to correct procedure, fuel was being pumped forward from tank 11 during the takeoff run. So at the time of tyre burst tank 5 was FULL with no airspace in it. When the debris impacted the wing it caused a shockwave in that tank and there was nowhere for the energy in that shockwave to go. That resulted in a burst of fuel out of the tank and the evidence is in the BEA accident report. The metal at point of burst is all petalled outwards not inwards. I regard this as the defining error (amongst many other errors) on that terrible day.

  59. Russ W says:

    As I recall, a B A Concorde suffered a similar incident on take-off from New York two or three years before the French Concorde accident where a tyre burst on take-off, fuel was leaking/gushing out, but did not (fortunately) catch fire and the crew flew the circuit to a safe but overweight landing. There was then much discussion within the aviation industry with reference to improving the fuel tank integrity to prevent such punctures, but that was going to be very expensive and never took place. Had a fuel tank modification been made following the BA Incident, then the French accident would most probably not have happened. The other puzzle that I seem to have heard (as per comment Number 58) is that the ATC called the aircraft to inform them of the engine fire several hundred metres BEFORE they hit the metal strip on the runway. Was that true?? So, if it was, then what caused the fire in the first place – rumour has it the flight was delayed whilst one of the reverse thrusts on one of the engines was being checked or worked on. The apparent reason I heard for the downwind take-off was they were running late and had to keep to their slot time or face a much longer delay still. So, a whole host of apparent commercial pressures for both the engineers and the flight crew to handle to get the aircraft airborne ‘on time’.

    • Mick says:

      I guess your comment ties in with what I was told about tyre bursts which had occurred prior to the Paris accident and the lack of effective action to prevent another incident of the same kind. If it was uneconomic to modify the aircraft properly prior to Paris, then that consideration must have featured in the risk analysis. As I understand it, there were numerous tyre bursts so there was plenty of data. Did national prestige affect the decision not to modify the wings because in so doing it may have dealt a terminal blow to the commercial viability of what was already a loss maker. I hope that today, politics do not interfere with objective safety decisions.

      • Arthur_Dent says:

        National pride ….. not unlike launching a space shuttle when the temperature is below minimum operating temperature for the O-rings.

  60. Ron MacGarvey says:

    As we learned at Safety School in the Navy, every accident has many links in the chain of events which are all contributing factors. If you remove one link, the chain is broken, and most likely you do not have a catastrophic result. Politics should not have a place in the investigative process so that the truth can be known and we learn from our mistakes and do not repeat them. Your article is textbook and makes the point beautifully.

  61. John Williams says:

    Good to read officially what happened to Concorde. Captains like John
    Hutchinson and Chris Orlebar have been saying for years what has now been proved. I flew as a Cabin Service Director on Concorde for 6 years and will never forget my experience. One wonders if DeCook George is American as we all knew that they were jealous that Europe was the instigator of Concorde but it was good to see so many Americans using Concorde so regularly. It might have been non profitable but it brought so much satisfaction to both charter and regular airline passengers and it was a great experience to fly on it.

  62. Al Hauff says:

    Thank you for an excellent article and comments. I have never seen an undercarriage on an aircraft where the forward bogey could swivel; it is always the rear bogey which is supposed to trail naturally. I would like to see a picture of a forward swinging bogey but until then I am a sceptic as to it being a factor. It is likely the fire would have got worse rather than go out giving them time to bring the aircraft in for a landing with two engines at their heavy weight, especially considering the high drag characteristics of the delta at low slow speed which has been mentioned. I always enjoyed seeing the Concord on the ground and in the air and I am saddened by its demise.

  63. MikeS says:

    Sadly, the trial is not yet over and one man, a “Chief Designer” appointed long after the original teams had been disbanded, is still under sentence. Also, Henri Perrier Chief of Concorde Flight Test (and layer Airbus) from well before the first flight of 001 was also accused and sentenced, but sadly died last year aged 83 after 10 years of bravely borne stress. A disgraceful end to a highly distinguished career.

  64. chris keller says:

    Great article and awesome responses. I worked as a security screener and ground crew at S.B.A for 15 years. I once saw a 737-200 experience what looked like a flame out at what must have been very close to v1. The plane managed to stop well before the end of the runway and all passengers were disembarked. As I was the one to let them back in the building I was told by passengers that they were told the reason for the abort was tire failure. Why do airlines always lie? It seems like the truth is better. Anyhow they re-boarded the flight about 3 hours later and on they went.

  65. aviation girl says:

    it was actually a severed wire that started the fire

  66. Greg says:

    There was a very interesting Discovery Channel documentary on the AF Concorde accident, titled “Concorde – The Anatomy Of A Disaster”. I believe I watched this on You-tube a couple of years after the accident. Around five or six years ago I tried to find this again, and it has completely disappeared from the internet (I’m not very good with the IT, so if anyone could tell me where to find this it will be much appreciated).

    The most memorable parts for me were an interview with some firemen who reported seeing fuel pouring from the wing hundreds of meters before the metal strip dropped from the American aircraft (they were told to keep quiet and not mention this again), along with a computer generated simulation of the “wobbling” main wheel assembly after a bushing migrated due to the missing spacer, subsequently found in the AF Maintenance facility where the aircraft had just been serviced.

    I have been able to find the documentary, but over-dubbed in the Russian language, and I was sad enough to watch it in its entirety to confirm it was exactly the same. One wonders how any person or entity can be powerful enough to suppress such a film, and I have to say its version of events seems far more plausible, to me, than the official BEA Accident Report. I emailed the Discovery Channel requesting a copy, and got a standard “B–ger Off” auto generated email in reply,…

    Accident investigations are rarely as transparent and impartial as the authorities would have us believe, in my opinion. Take for example AF 447. There is no mention of the side sticks used on all the later Airbus aeroplanes, yet nearly all pilots I’ve discussed this with agree that the PNF not realizing that the PF was pulling back on his stick almost throughout the accident was a significant element leading to the loss of the flight.

    I believe that a truly independent entity to take over these investigations would be a major contribution to flight safety. I’m sure it’ll never happen though,…

  67. […] bold; } My bad looks like the giant ball of fire had little to do with the crash Untold Story of the Concorde Disaster Reply With […]

  68. Kelli says:

    I completely agree with you about the weight and the safety precautions. I agree that delay’s and bureaucratic pressure can give safety a back seat. However, it is easy ‘after’ events to look at it (especially now, as everything is caught on video), to say, “They should have done it this way…….”. Well, in most of these cases, when you have literally seconds to make decisions, most all of us do the very best we can. Should of, Could of, Would of does nothing to bring these poor souls back or honor their memories. Sadly, there was much to learn from this tragedy and in the end the fleet was grounded. I always wanted to fly aboard one of these grand birds and see the curve of the earth and the blue sky turn dark. But that is not happening now. In 27 years 1 accident is too many when precious lives are lost, but I think it is unfair to criticize when I know in my heart of hearts, those in the cockpit were not wanting to die that day anymore than anyone else aboard that plane. So to criticize…so easy when watching, not so easy if put in their place. Again, not trying to be disagreeable, because many mistakes were made…. but have to agree to disagree on some of it. Thank you!

  69. What should be of more concern to us all is that, if we were mislead by the powers that be over this, a non- political matter, what lies are we being told about things that really matter!

  70. […] UFO sightings were said to have been reported at a number of these. Also the Challenger shuttle disaster (86?). Not for the Concorde crash but there is more to that than we’ve been told […]

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  72. Andre Morris says:

    WRT comments about the flames not causing structural damage, being aft of the craft or likely to burn out soon…
    There was major structural damage discovered on the port wing. It was found to be disintegrating especially at the rear control surfaces (note this is prior to impact and subsequent fire as the scorch marks align with the wing components in their flight configuration rather then where they ended up after impact). Sadly, flight 4590 dropped a burnt armrest over a service station it pased over, on the outskirts of the town in crashed into.
    It’s pretty horrible to imagine what it must have been like for the passengers involved. Perhaps they would have been unconscious already from fumes. Seems more likely, and I certainly hope it was the case.

  73. dave says:

    cover up on a major scale….production of the concorde begins in controversy….its final flight ends in controversy. Why didn’t the control tower operator turn up for his shift?? it happens everyday….but when a plane such as the concorde goes down in a ball of flames….with over a hundred people aboard – eye brows should raise!!!! i would investigate anyone who did not turn up for work that day. maybe the engineers didn’t turn up for work the entire week considering the concorde had parts that should have been fitted to the plane….just sitting inside the warehouse. The other plane that the metal strip fell off of, (the strip that caused the tire blow out), wasn’t even realised missing until weeks after the concorde incident. Negligence !!!!! how many other planes are flying around our skies under serviced?? they not speaking about the Malaysian flight anymore either!! RIP the passengers, and prayers to the families. God nah sleep!!!

  74. John says:

    The Discovery has a show, “Chaos in the Skies”, that features major air plane accidents and this was one of them. The show gives the findings of the investigations into each accident.750