20 years ago today, the world was stunned by news from Paris. Air France Flight 4590 had crashed moments after take-off from Charles De Gaulle Airport killing all passengers and crew, as well as four others on the ground. But what made the crash all the more surprising was the plane involved: Concorde. A national icon for both France and the UK, it had boasted a very good operational history since its launch in 1976, and was at the very high-end of air travel – an era which came abruptly to an end.
The first flight of Concorde took place in March 1969. Originally a British ambition, leaked documents found their way to the French – and when both governments realised that they were both really trying to develop the same plane, they eventually combined efforts to produce the ultimate supersonic passenger aircraft. There were twenty Concordes in total, which are now on display across various museums worldwide. And Concorde completely changed our perspective of what was possible, with the London-New York route possible to be flown in a ridiculously short time of less than 3 hours! Some passengers reported on a flight that they had watched the sun set out of the windows, only for the pilot to then accelerate towards it, causing them to see the sun rise back above the horizon again.
So far, so good. But there were a few issues with Concorde. It had initially come under intense scrutiny for thick black smoke billowing out the back of its four Rolls-Royce engines. It was also very expensive, both to fly on and to run – and the latter played a large part in its eventual retirement. Its unique wing design and coned nose also made take-off difficult. Despite it requiring a far higher take-off speed than a standard commercial airliner, they successfully designed a droop nose which could be lowered during taxiing, so the pilot could actually see the ground and where they were going – an important feature!
But, despite these minor issues, there had been no catastrophic accidents in Concorde’s history on the morning of July 25th 2000. And, as often is the case with plane crashes, it was primarily a combination of coincidence and bad luck which resulted in the accident. A McDonnell Douglas DC-10 took off five minutes before Concorde, shedding a titanium alloy strip onto the runway. Then, when Concorde sped down the runway minutes later, this strip punctured a hole in the right-front tyre – rupturing the tyre, from which debris then shot up and hit a fuel tank in the left wing. Whilst not directly punching a hole in the unusually-full fuel tank (investigators found that it had ruptured from the inside outwards), the associated pressure shockwave tore it open. The leaking fuel then ignited, and the plane (which had passed V1, the point of no return) took off, but lacking enough airspeed to maintain any kind of stable flight. The igniting fuel resulted in the two left engines surging and then losing all power. Whilst one slowly regained thrust, the other was shut down due to a fire warning, meaning that the former provided insufficient thrust to keep the plane balanced in the air. It lasted just 120 seconds before crashing into a hotel.
Undoubtedly, many factors contributed to the accident. The delta wing design of the Concorde meant that it required a far higher take-off speed than other aircraft with ‘normal’ wings. Then, it was found that Air France employees had not replaced a spacer in one of the rear tyres, causing minor veering as the plane accelerated down the runway. This causes the plane to travel further down the runway than normal, and it happened to be beyond its normal take-off point that the collision occurred. However, BEA’s actions were found to have “negligible consequence” in the crash.
There had been certain issues exposed by Concorde’s tyres in the past, which led to accusations of not being thick enough to be as safe as they should be. Following the accident, flights were suspended for over a year in which a £17 million “safety improvement service” was carried out on the planes. However, by the time they returned to the skies, the aviation world had suffered a huge blow.
The day of September 11th 2001 was hugely significant for a number of reasons, but one of its largest impacts was on the aviation sector. Leading to a sizeable drop in passenger numbers, Concordes were flying over the Atlantic half-full. And they had to be full to get close to making any kind of profit (in fact, Air France reported their operation to be a “money-losing” venture – even at full capacity). And, without enough demand, the money generated was simply not enough. The Concorde fleet was eventually retired in October 2003.
I think people, particularly those who aren’t old enough to have remembered Concorde, should perhaps give the aircraft more credit than it gets. The fact of the matter is, this one aircraft on its own practically rewrote the limits of commercial air travel; limits which have not been reached since. So, 20 years later, let’s remember both the 113 people who tragically lost their lives in this horrific crash, but also the legacy of the most spectacular feat of engineering in aviation history.