On a Tuesday in 2000, an Air France Concorde supersonic jet crashed. The disaster resulted in the death of 113 people. In addition to the casualties from the flight itself, the Concorde crash left a major dent in aviation history. The crash was not like any other airline crash. This crash resulted in the entire dismantling of the Concorde program, which had been one of the most romantic eras in aviation history. Since 1969, the Concorde had been dazzling onlookers and aviation buffs. Its characteristic downturned nose made the Concorde unique, and it was the only commercial airline ever to fly supersonically.
What went wrong on that fateful day in 2000? It took ten full years to find out, and it appears that some mystery surrounding the Concorde crash still remains. In 2010, a French court ruled that Continental airlines were to blame for the Concorde crash. The verdict seemed strange to many who were following the case. The courts made the ruling based on evidence that a Continental mechanic “improperly monitored and maintained aircraft, resulting in a piece of titanium falling from a plane onto a runway at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport a few minutes before the ill-fated Concorde took off July 25, 2000,” (Lauter, 2010).
The ruling raised some questions about culpability in airline crashes. In this case, Concord and Air France, as well as the Charles de Gaulle airport, were completely cleared of any wrongdoing. This sent a strange message about who is responsible for maintaining the runways at airports, as well as who was responsible for the possible underlying structural issues that might have predisposed the Concorde to crash. According to the courts, “the roughly 16-inch piece of metal known as a wear strip punctured a tire on the Air France jet as it sped down the runway for takeoff, and that debris perforated the jet’s low-lying fuel tank, causing a leak and a fire,” (Lauter, 2010). Yet the Concorde had been besieged with a number of mechanical and technical difficulties prior to the 2000 crash. There were previous incidents of tires bursting on the Concorde, in 1979, and a fire caused by fuel leakage occurred later in 1993 (Lauter, 2010).
As of late 2000, the causes of the crash were still a great mystery to investigators. According to the BBC News, it was known that the tires of the plane were implicated somehow. At that time, investigators also knew that “a 40cm (16in) metal strip, probably from another plane, had been found on the runway at Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport,” (“Concorde: What Went Wrong? 2000). Interestingly, Continental already admitted that its plane, a DC-10, was the one missing the piece of metal found on the runway. This led investigators to compare the shrapnel with the cut on the Concorde tires to figure out if it fit; and it did.
The question was not just about the tires on the Concorde, which themselves did not cause the supersonic jet to crash. Early in the investigation, it was believed that the tires might have caused the engine fires that ultimately caused the crash. The tire burst mid-flight due to the initial puncture. The burst led to a subsequent fuel tank puncture, leading to the kerosene leak. Indeed, this early evaluation seems to reflect the unfolding of events that led to the crash. Black box flight data recorders were used to help compile evidence in the investigation, which offered a patchwork of events until the 2010 decision was made.
The Concorde took off as scheduled at 4:44 PM, a time that many Chinese people around the world would have scoffed at due to the number 4 being considered highly inauspicious and signifying death. Almost as soon as the Concorde took off, the problems began in quick succession. First, the tire hit the piece of Continental shrapnel on the runway. The tire immediately blew. The black box report indicates the presence of smoke under the left wing. At this point, it was unfortunately “too late to abort take off,” (“Concorde: What Went Wrong?” 2000). The wing soon burst into flames, and one of the engine loses power. The pilot attempts stabilization, but the nose of the plane had already risen, causing airframe stall, “loss of control through lack of speed and lift,” (“Concorde: What Went Wrong?” 2000).
The Concorde crashed into a hotel just north of Paris in Gonesse. Four people on the ground were killed, along with 100 passengers and nine crew members. After the court’s ruling, Continental was deemed guilty of manslaughter and ordered to pay several hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages (Lauter, 2010). The mechanic was fined $2,650 and given a 15-month prison sentence (Lauter, 2010). The injunctions seem relatively light in comparison to the extent of the damage, which could suggest that Charles de Gaulle and/or Air France admitted culpability in private in exchange for Continental’s admission of guilt. However, some French entities did get ruled civilly, even though not criminally, liable in the case. EADS-France, the organization for which the French Concorde engineers work, “was held civilly liable and ordered to pay 30% of about $250,000 in damages to victims,” (Lauter, 2010).
Regardless of whether the court ruling was fair or not, the event marked the end of an era. The Concorde was an amazing feat of engineering that captured the imagination of millions. The dream of supersonic transport was finally fulfilled in the late 1960s. Ironically, Concorde’s first flight in 1969 was described as “faultless,” (“1969: Concorde flies for the first time,” n.d.). The plane flew from Toulouse, France for less than half an hour before landing. It would take nearly a decade before Concorde was ready for commercial enterprise.
The first commercial flight on the Concorde was on January 21, 1976, from London Heathrow to Bahrain. The same day, an Air France Concorde flew from Paris to Rio. Its launch into the commercial sector was not without controversy, as it was during the height of the fuel crisis and economic downturn in the 1970s. Initial investments from the British and French governments seemed steep and unnecessary, and were politically opposed. Moreover, the Concorde had a seriously limited reach. This was not just because of the expense of operating the supersonic jet, which required a much heavier fuel consumption than standard commercial airliners. It was also because of the supersonic boom. The United States prohibited the Concorde from landing or entering its airspace due to concerns about the noise pollution. Trans-Pacific flights were also uneconomical (“1969: Concorde flies for the first time,” n.d.). In spite of the financial and political obstacles to the success of the Concorde, it remained in the air for almost 25 years.
In 2003, the Concorde was officially retired after its final flight out of JFK New York. Several aircraft remain, grounded indefinitely, and scattered thoughout the world in hangars in Edinburgh, Seattle, and Barbados (British Airways). They are relics of a time long gone by. No new Concorde has been manufactured since 1980 (Walsh, 2000). It is uncertain whether or not a next-generation supersonic jet will emerge in the future, perhaps with the Virgin or Emirates icon behind it. Supersonic transport might simply not have any viable commercial purpose, making the Concorde a part of aviation history rather than aviation future.
“1969: Concorde flies for the first time,” (n.d). BBC. Retrieved onlinehttp://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/march/2/newsid_2514000/2514535.stm
British Airways (n.d.). Celebrating Concorde. Retrieved online: http://www.britishairways.com/travel/history-concorde/public/en_gb?cookiesAccepted=newvispop
“Concorde: What Went Wrong?” BBC News. 5 Sept, 2000. Retrieved online: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/851864.stm
Lauter, D. (2010). Continental, mechanic guilty of manslaughter in Concorde crash. Los Angeles Times. 7 Dec, 2010. Retrieved online: http://articles.latimes.com/2010/dec/07/world/la-fg-concorde-crash-ruling-20101207
Walsh, D. (2000). Concorde — its history and tragedy. World Socialist Website. Retrieved online: http://www.wsws.org/articles/2000/jul2000/con1-j28.shtml
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