The Real Reason Why Air France Stopped Flying the Concorde

By Robert Mark on January 17th, 2019

 

                 Photo by Michel Gilliand

The Real Reason Why Air France Stopped Flying the Concorde

By Rob Mark

The creation and nearly 30-year operational life of the French/Anglo Concorde, the world’s first operational supersonic airliner, is a rich history of cross-border cooperation and innovation at a time long before the personal computer revolution or the first cell phone. In fact, the origins of the first supersonic transport (SST) date back to before the election of President John F. Kennedy in 1960.

However, the end of the Concorde is indelibly etched into the memory of millions of people as a single photo of Air France flight 4590, its left delta wing ablaze, attempting to liftoff at a perilously steep angle of attack from Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG) on July 25, 2000. Staggering no more than a few hundred feet above the ground, flight 4590 crashed 90 seconds after it began its takeoff roll on runway 26 Right. This was the first and only fatal Concorde accident.

The Concorde ran over a piece of metal on the runway left behind by a McDonnell-Douglas DC-10 that had departed earlier from the runway 26 Right. That metal sliced though a tire on the SST sending a piece of hi-speed rubber into the wing that sliced open a fuel tank, spewing fuel that quickly ignited. At least this is the story as most of us heard it.

The Swiss Cheese Accident Analysis Model

John Hutchinson, a retired Concorde pilot in the UK tells a much more detailed version of the Concorde accident on the Podcasting on a Plane podcast. Hutchinson, a Concorde captain at British Airways from 1977 to 1992, spent an enormous amount of time analyzing the 4590 accident from the perspective of his 15-years of left-seat experience. His story explains the Air France 4590 accident was a Swiss cheese calamity that again proves most aircraft accidents result from not a single cause, but from a perfect storm of errors that eventually overwhelm a pilot or crew.

                Concorde fuel tanks by the numbers

Just a few of the issues Hutchinson uncovered include a problem with the left main landing gear long before takeoff, a crewmember who was not technically qualified to be sitting in the Concorde’s right seat, a captain who overloaded the aircraft with fuel and bags, a center of gravity that exceeded the rear limits, a runway at CDG that was under repair and a captain who pulled the airplane off the ground before it ever reached flying speed. Although the aircraft became airborne for a short few seconds, there were two additional near disasters lurking, Hutchinson said, before the airplane eventually stuck a hotel west of CDG killing 113 people.

The podcast is a fascinating update of the final flight of Air France 4590 that runs about 37-minutes. Listen to the podcast here.

Rob Mark

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Note: This story was originally written for and published at Flyingmag.com

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