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Concorde: How the supersonic dream came to an end

Sam Lee relives the crash of Air France and what this did to the reputation of Concorde

“…45 90 you have flames behind you.”

“45 90 you have strong flames behind you…”

“We’re trying for Le Bourget.”

. . . . . . . .

“The Concorde has crashed near Le Bourget, Fire Service Leader”

Artwork by Sam Lee

The crash of Air France Flight 4590 on the 25th of July 2000 marked the beginning of the end for, arguably, the world’s only successful supersonic passenger airliner. But what caused the tragic accident in Paris, and how did this lead to the premature retirement of Concorde just three years later?

Flight 4590, chartered to take 100 tourists to New York, was running late due to maintenance issues. At 4:34pm Concorde finally began its taxi towards the runway, and by 4:42pm the aircraft was lined up on the runway and ready for take-off. Accelerating rapidly, the aircraft passed “V1”- the point beyond which it would be impossible to stop before the end of the runway. Four seconds later flames erupted from underneath the wing.

Unable to stop, Concorde slowly heaved into the air. Moments later the aircraft began to pitch up, roll to the left and rapidly lose height. The flight of Air France 4590 lasted less than 70 seconds. All 109 people onboard, and four on the ground, were killed.

Accident investigators began to trace Concorde’s movements and happened to stumble across a 40cm-long metal strip lying on the runway. Could this strip of metal be responsible for bringing down the 190-tonne aircraft?

The investigation revealed that the strip of metal was shed by another aircraft that had used the runway only minutes before Flight 4590. As Concorde’s tyres hit the metal, a chunk of rubber was sliced off and sent upwards, impacting a fuel tank. Due to overfilling of the tank, instead of punching a hole in the metal, a shockwave was created which blew out a section of the tank. Severed electrical cables ignited the torrent of fuel, and flames soon erupted from the left wing.

Limping into the air, with both left-hand engines losing power, the fire began to melt through the wing structure and the flying controls. Disaster was inevitable.

In the months following the crash, British Airways and Air France grounded their Concordes whilst safety modifications were made, including fitting more resistant tyres and Kevlar lining to the fuel tanks. Finally, after the £30 million refurbishment, a British Airways Concorde safely touched down after the first test flight since the crash. The date was the 11th of September 2001.

The events of that day cost Concorde many of its regular transatlantic business customers and with declining passenger numbers following 9/11, Concorde was flying virtually empty. Combined with rising maintenance costs, the economic forces became all too great. In April 2003 retirement was announced, and on the 26th of November 2003, Concorde landed for the final time.

A heady mix of cutting-edge engineering and artistic elegance, Concorde represented a step-change in civil aviation. Flight 4590 had irreversibly damaged the aircraft’s reputation; pride and prestige could no longer shield it from economic reality. Eye-wateringly expensive to operate, deafeningly loud, and comparatively cramped - its supersonic speed was now traded for increased comfort. Yet Concorde still inspires; it symbolises the desire to push the boundaries of science and technology, to redefine what is possible. Nearly two decades on, nothing has come close to it and it’s unlikely that we will see such an aircraft in the skies ever again.

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From Issue 22: the Dark Side of Science

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