Air France Flight 4590
Concorde F-BTSC – Charles de Gaulle (CDG Airport) – 5 July 1985
|Date||25 July 2000|
|Summary||Foreign object damage|
|Fatalities||113 (including 4 on ground)|
|Aircraft type||Aérospatiale-BAC Concorde|
|Flight origin||Charles de Gaulle International Airport|
|Destination||John F. Kennedy International Airport|
|Date||25 July 2000|
|Summary||Mechanical failure (source of foreign object)|
|Site||Paris (Charles de Gaulle Airport), France|
|Aircraft type||McDonnell Douglas DC-10-30|
|Flight origin||Charles de Gaulle Int'l Airport|
|Destination||Newark International Airport|
Air France Flight 4590 was a Concorde flight operated by Air France which was scheduled to fly from Charles de Gaulle International Airport near Paris, to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City. On 25 July 2000, it crashed into a hotel in Gonesse, France. All one hundred passengers and nine crew members on board the flight died. On the ground, four people were killed and one critically injured.
The flight was chartered by German company Peter Deilmann Cruises; the passengers were on their way to board the cruise ship MS Deutschland in New York City for a 16-day cruise to Manta, Ecuador. This was the only fatal Concorde accident during its 27-year operational history. It was the beginning of the end for Concorde as an airliner; the type was retired three years later.
Post-accident investigation revealed that the aircraft was at or over the maximum takeoff weight for ambient temperature and other conditions, and 810 kilograms (1,790 lb) over the maximum structural weight. As it left the gate, it was loaded such that the centre of gravity was excessively far aft. Fuel transfer during taxiing may have overfilled the number five wing tank. A twelve-inch spacer that normally keeps the left main landing gear in alignment had not been replaced after recent maintenance; however, the French Bureau for Accident Investigation concluded that this did not contribute to the accident. The wind at the airport was light and variable that day, and was reported to the cockpit crew as an eight knot tailwind as they lined up on runway 26R. Over an hour delayed, the crew proceeded with the tailwind takeoff rather than taking the time to taxi to the other end of the runway to make the takeoff into a headwind, as is normally done.
Five minutes before the Concorde, a Continental Airlines DC-10 departing for Newark, New Jersey, had lost a titanium alloy strip (part of the engine cowl, identified as a wear strip), 435 millimetres (17.1 in) long, 29 to 34 millimetres (1.1 to 1.3 in) wide and about 1.4 millimetres (0.055 in) thick, during takeoff from the same runway. French authorities acknowledged that a required runway inspection was not completed after the Continental takeoff, as was protocol for Concorde-takeoff preparation.
During the Concorde's subsequent takeoff run this piece of debris, still lying on the runway, cut a tyre, rupturing it. A large chunk of tyre debris (4.5 kilograms or 9.9 pounds) struck the underside of the aircraft's wing at an estimated speed of 140 metres per second (310 mph).[note 1] Although it did not directly puncture any of the fuel tanks, it sent out a pressure shockwave that ruptured the number five fuel tank at the weakest point, just above the undercarriage. Leaking fuel gushing out from the bottom of the wing was most likely ignited by an electric arc in the landing gear bay or through contact with severed electrical cables. At the point of ignition, engines one and two both surged and lost all power, but engine one slowly recovered over the next few seconds. A large plume of flame developed; the Flight Engineer then shut down engine two, in response to a fire warning and the Captain's command. Air traffic controller Gilles Logelin noticed the flames before the Concorde was airborne, however with only 2 km of runway remaining and travelling at a speed of 328 km/h, its only option was to take off. The Concorde would have needed at least 3 km of runway to abort safely.
Having passed V1 speed, the crew continued the takeoff, but the plane did not gain enough airspeed with the three remaining engines, because the severed electrical cables prevented the retraction of the undercarriage. The aircraft was unable to climb or accelerate, maintaining a speed of 200 knots (370 km/h; 230 mph) at an altitude of 60 metres (200 ft). The fire caused damage to the port wing, which began to disintegrate—melted by the extremely high temperatures. Engine number one surged again, but this time failed to recover. Due to the asymmetric thrust, the starboard wing lifted, banking the aircraft to over 100 degrees. The crew reduced the power on engines three and four in an attempt to level the aircraft, but with falling airspeed they lost control and the aircraft stalled, crashing into the Hôtelissimo Les Relais Bleus Hotel near the airport.
The crew was trying to divert to nearby Le Bourget Airport, but accident investigators stated that a safe landing, given the aircraft's flight path, would have been highly unlikely.
- Co-pilot: "Le Bourget, Le Bourget, Le Bourget."
- Pilot: "Too late (unclear)."
- Control tower: "Fire service leader, correction, the Concorde is returning to runway zero nine in the opposite direction."
- Pilot: "No time, no (unclear)."
- Co-pilot: "Negative, we're trying Le Bourget" (four switching sounds).
- Co-pilot: "No (unclear)."
Passenger and crew
The cockpit crew consisted of pilot Captain Christian Marty, 54, First Officer Jean Marcot, 50, and Flight Engineer Gilles Jardinaud, 58.
Up until the crash of Air France Flight 4590 in 2000, the Concorde SST had been considered among the world's safest planes. The crash of a Concorde contributed to the end of the aircraft's career.
A few days after the crash, all Concordes were grounded, pending an investigation into the cause of the crash and possible remedies.
Air France's Concorde operation had been a money-losing venture, but it is claimed that the airplane had been kept in service as a matter of national pride; British Airways , however, claimed to make a profit on its Concorde operations. According to Jack Lowe, a Concorde pilot, up until the crash of Air France Flight 4590 at Paris, the British Airways Concorde operation made a net average profit of about £30m a year.  Revenue service was resumed in 2001, until the remaining aircraft were retired in 2003.
The investigators concluded that:
- The aircraft was overloaded by 810 kilograms (1,790 lb) above the maximum safe takeoff weight. Any effect on takeoff performance from this excess weight was negligible.
- After reaching takeoff speed, the tyre of the number 2 wheel was cut by a metal strip (a wear strip) lying on the runway, which had fallen from the thrust reverser cowl door of the number 3 engine of a Continental Airlines DC-10 which had taken off from the same runway five minutes previously. This wear strip had been replaced at Tel Aviv, Israel, during a C check on 11 June 2000. Further maintenance work had been performed at Houston, Texas, but the strip had been neither manufactured nor installed in accordance with the procedures as defined by the manufacturer.
- The aircraft was airworthy and the crew were qualified. The landing gear that later failed to retract had not shown serious problems in the past. Despite the crew being trained and certified, no plan existed for the simultaneous failure of two engines on the runway, as it was considered highly unlikely.
- Aborting the takeoff would have led to a high-speed runway excursion and collapse of the landing gear, which also would have caused the aircraft to crash.
- While two of the engines had problems and one of them was shut down, the damage to the plane's structure was so severe that the crash would have been inevitable, even with the engines operating normally.
Previous tyre incidents
In November 1981, the American National Transportation Safety Board sent a letter of concern to the French BEA that included safety recommendations for Concorde. This communiqué was the result of the NTSB's investigations of four Air France Concorde incidents during a 20-month period from July 1979 through to February 1981. The NTSB described those incidents as "potentially catastrophic," because they were caused by blown tyres during takeoff. The NTSB also expressed concern about the lack of adequate remedies on the part of the French, as well as improper crew responses to those incidents.
- 13 June 1979: The number 5 and 6 tyres blew out during a takeoff from Washington Dulles International Airport. Fragments thrown from the tyres and rims damaged number 2 engine, punctured three fuel tanks, severed several hydraulic lines and electrical wires, and tore a large hole on the top of the wing over the wheel well area
- 21 July 1979: Another blown tyre incident during takeoff from Dulles Airport. After that second incident the "French director general of civil aviation issued an air worthiness directive and Air France issued a Technical Information Update, each calling for revised procedures. These included required inspection of each wheel and tyre for condition, pressure and temperature prior to each takeoff. In addition, crews were advised that landing gear should not be raised when a wheel/tyre problem is suspected."
- October 1979: Tyres number 7 and 8 failed during a takeoff from New York's JFK Airport. In spite of the well-publicized danger from the previous incidents, the crew ignored the new safety recommendations and raised the landing gear and continued to Paris. There was no subsequent investigation by the French BEA or the NTSB of that incident.
- February 1981: While en route from Mexico City to Paris, Air France (F-BTSD) blew more tyres during another takeoff at Dulles Airport. Once again, the crew disregarded the new procedures by raising the landing gear. The blown tyre caused engine damage that forced the flight to land at New York JFK Airport. The NTSB's investigation found that there had been no preparation of the passengers for a possible emergency landing and evacuation. The CVR was also found to have been inoperative for several flights, including one which followed a layover in Paris.
To save on weight, Concorde was designed to take off without the assistance of flaps or slats. That required a significantly higher air and tyre speed during the takeoff roll. That higher speed increased the risk of tyre explosion during takeoff. When the tyres did explode, much greater kinetic energy was carried by the resulting fragments, increasing the risk of serious damage to the aircraft. A thicker skin on the bottom side of the wings could have prevented serious damage from an exploding tyre, but that would have added too much weight, cancelling out most of the advantage of not having flaps or slats.
British investigators and former French Concorde pilots looked at several other possibilities that the report ignored, including an unbalanced weight distribution in the fuel tanks and loose landing gear. They came to the conclusion that the Concorde veered off course on the runway, which reduced takeoff speed below the crucial minimum. The aircraft had passed close to a Boeing 747 carrying French President Jacques Chirac who was returning from the 26th G8 summit meeting in Okinawa, Japan, which was much further down the runway than the Concorde's usual takeoff point; only then did it strike the metal strip from the DC-10.
The Concorde was overweight for the given conditions, with an excessively aft centre of gravity and taking off downwind. When it stood at the end of the runway, ready to roll, it was over its approved maximum takeoff weight for the given conditions.
The Concorde was missing the crucial spacer from the left main landing gear beam that would have made for a snug-fitting pivot. This compromised the alignment of the landing gear and the wobbling beam and gears allowing three degrees of movement possible in any direction. The uneven load on the left leg's three remaining tyres skewed the landing gear, with the scuff marks of four tyres on the runway showing that the plane was veering to the left.
Modifications and revival
The accident led to modifications being made to Concorde, including more secure electrical controls, Kevlar lining to the fuel tanks, and specially developed, burst-resistant tyres. The new-style tyres would be another contribution to future aircraft development.
The crash of the Air France Concorde nonetheless proved to be the beginning of the end for the type. Just before service resumed, the September 11 attacks took place, resulting in a marked drop in customer numbers, and contributing to the eventual end of Concorde flights. Air France stopped flights in May 2003, while British Airways ended its Concorde flights in October 2003.
In[update] June 2010, two groups were attempting to revive Concorde for "Heritage" flights in time for the 2012 Olympics. The British Save Concorde Group, SCG, and French group Olympus 593 were attempting to get four Rolls-Royce Olympus engines running smoothly at Le Bourget Air and Space Museum in France.
On 10 March 2005, French authorities began a criminal investigation of Continental Airlines, whose plane dropped the debris on the runway.
In September 2005, Henri Perrier, the former head of the Concorde division at Aérospatiale, and Jacques Herubel, the Concorde chief engineer, came under investigation for negligence: a report stated that the company had more than 70 incidents involving Concorde tyres between 1979 and 2000, but had failed to take appropriate steps based upon these incidents.
- John Taylor, an American Continental mechanic
- Stanley Ford, an American Continental maintenance manager
- Henri Perrier of Aérospatiale
- Claude Frantzen, a former employee of the French airline regulator.
Charges against Jacques Herubel were reported to have been dropped, but on 3 July 2008, confirmation of the trial, including Herubel, was published. The trial started on 2 February 2010. Also facing fines or a custodial sentence were the designers of the plane, who prosecutors say knew that the plane's fuel tanks could be susceptible to damage from foreign objects, as well as a French official responsible for the regulation of the plane's safety.
On 6 December 2010, Continental Airlines was found criminally responsible for the disaster by a Parisian court and was fined €200,000 ($271,628) and ordered to pay Air France €1 million. Continental mechanic John Taylor was given a 15-month suspended sentence, while another airline operative and three French officials were cleared of all charges. The court ruled that the crash resulted from a piece of metal from a Continental jet that was left on the runway; the object punctured a tyre on the Concorde and then ruptured a fuel tank. Another Continental employee, Stanley Ford, was found not guilty. Continental's lawyer, Olivier Metzner, said it would appeal the verdict.
On 29 November 2012, a French appeals court overturned that decision, thereby clearing Continental of criminal responsibility.
The Parisian court also ruled that Continental would have to pay 70% of any compensation claims. As Air France has paid out €100 million to the families of the victims, Continental could be made to pay its share of that compensation payout. The French appeals court, while overturning the criminal rulings by the Parisian court, affirmed the civil ruling and left Continental liable for the compensation claims.
One monument in honour of the crash victims was established at Gonesse. The Gonesse monument consists of a piece of transparent glass with a piece of an aircraft wing jutted through. Another monument, a 6,000 square metres (65,000 sq ft) memorial topiary in the shape of a Concorde, was to be established at Mitry-Mory.
- The timeline and causes of the crash were profiled in the premier episode of the National Geographic documentary series, Seconds From Disaster.
- NBC aired a Dateline NBC documentary on the crash, its causes, and its legacy on 22 February, 2009.
- Channel 4 and Discovery Channel Canada aired a documentary called Concorde's Last Flight."
- Smithsonian Channel aired a 90-minute documentary Concorde: Flying Supersonic in 2010.
- The aircraft that crashed had previously been used in the making of the movie The Concorde ... Airport '79.
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- The Observer – this article mentions other contributing factors
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- CVR transcript
- All 109 Aboard Dead in Concorde Crash into Hotel Near Paris; 4 On Ground Dead – CNN