Air France Flight 4590
Concorde Air France Flight 4590 fire on runway.jpg
Flight 4590 during takeoff
Accident
Date25 July 2000 (2000-07-25)
SummaryCrashed following debris strike and in-flight fire
SiteGonesse, France
48°59′08″N 2°28′20″E / 48.98556°N 2.47222°E / 48.98556; 2.47222Coordinates: 48°59′08″N 2°28′20″E / 48.98556°N 2.47222°E / 48.98556; 2.47222
Total fatalities113
Total injuries6
Aircraft
Aircraft typeAérospatiale-BAC Concorde
OperatorAir France on behalf of Peter Deilmann Cruises
IATA flight No.AF4590
ICAO flight No.AFR4590
Call signAIR FRANS 4590
RegistrationF-BTSC
Flight originCharles de Gaulle Airport, Paris, France
DestinationJohn F. Kennedy International Airport, New York City, United States
Occupants109
Passengers100
Crew9
Fatalities109
Survivors0
Ground casualties
Ground fatalities4
Ground injuries6

Air France Flight 4590 was an international charter flight of Air France, from Charles de Gaulle Airport, Paris, to John F. Kennedy International Airport, New York, flown by an Aérospatiale-BAC Concorde. On the afternoon of Tuesday, 25 July 2000, at 16:44:31 local time (UTC 14:44:31), the aircraft serving the flight (registration F-BTSC) ran over debris on the runway during takeoff, blowing a tyre, which threw chunks of tyre into the underside of the left wing and into the landing gear bay with great force.

The fuel tank built inside the left wing was full, with almost no ullage. When the tyre fragments struck the wing, the tank ruptured, thereby releasing large quantities of fuel. Tyre fragments severed wiring in the landing gear bay, preventing retraction of the landing gear. Fuel from the ruptured tank ignited, causing a loss of thrust in engines 1 and 2. Lack of thrust, high drag from the extended landing gear, and fire damage to the flight controls made it impossible to control the aircraft, which crashed into a hotel in nearby Gonesse two minutes after takeoff. All 109 people on board were killed, alongside four in the hotel. Six other people in the hotel were critically injured.[1][2]

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.[3][4] It was the only fatal Concorde accident during its 27-year operational history.[5]

Aircraft and crew

F-BTSC, the Concorde involved in the accident, photographed in 1985
F-BTSC, the Concorde involved in the accident, photographed in 1985

The aircraft involved was a 25-year-old Aérospatiale-BAC Concorde (registration F-BTSC, serial number 203) that had its maiden flight on 31 January 1975 (during testing, the aircraft's registration was F-WTSC). The aircraft was purchased by Air France on 6 January 1976. It was powered by four Rolls-Royce Olympus 593/610 turbojet engines, each of which was equipped with afterburners. The aircraft's last scheduled repair had taken place on 21 July 2000, four days before the accident; no problems were reported during the repair. At the time of the crash, the aircraft had flown for 11,989 hours and had made 4,873 take-off and landing cycles.[2]: 21–35 [6][7]

The cockpit crew consisted of the following:[2]: 18–20 [8]

Crash

The wind at the airport was light and variable that day, and was reported to the cockpit crew as an eight-knot (15 km/h; 9 mph) tailwind as they lined up on runway 26R.[2]: 17, 170 

N13067, the DC-10 involved in the accident sequence
N13067, the DC-10 involved in the accident sequence

Five minutes before the Concorde departed, Continental Airlines Flight 55, a McDonnell Douglas DC-10-30, took off from the same runway for Newark International Airport and lost a titanium alloy strip that was part of the engine cowl, identified as a wear strip about 435 millimetres (17.1 in) long, 29 to 34 millimetres (1.1 to 1.3 in) wide, and 1.4 millimetres (0.055 in) thick.[2]: 17, 107 [9] The Concorde ran over this piece of debris during its take-off run, cutting its right-front tyre (tyre No 2) and sending a large chunk of tyre debris (4.5 kilograms or 9.9 pounds) into the underside of the left wing at an estimated speed of 140 metres per second (310 mph).[2]: 115  It did not directly puncture any of the fuel tanks, but it sent out a pressure shockwave that ruptured the number 5 fuel tank at its weakest point, just above the undercarriage. Leaking fuel gushing out from the bottom of the wing was most likely ignited either by an electric arc in the landing gear bay (debris cutting the landing gear wire) or through contact with hot parts of the engine.[2]: 120–123  Engines 1 and 2 both surged and lost all power, and then engine 1 slowly recovered over the next few seconds.[2]: 17  A large plume of flame developed, and the flight engineer shut down engine 2 in response to a fire warning and the captain's command.[2]: 166 [BEA 1]

Air traffic controller Gilles Logelin noticed the flames before the Concorde was airborne and informed the flight crew.[2]: 17  However, the aircraft had passed V1 speed, at which point takeoff is considered unsafe to abort. The plane did not gain enough airspeed with the three remaining engines as damage to the landing gear bay door prevented the retraction of the undercarriage.[2]: 134–135  The aircraft was unable to climb or accelerate, and its speed decayed during the course of its brief flight.[10]: 33–37  The fire damaged the inner elevon of the left wing and it began to disintegrate,[2]: 164 [11] melted by the extremely high temperatures. Engine number 1 surged again, but did not fully recover, and the right wing lifted from the asymmetrical thrust, 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 they lost control due to deceleration and the aircraft stalled, crashing into the Hôtelissimo Les Relais Bleus Hotel.[3][12][13][14] A video of the burning plane on takeoff and the aftermath of the crash was captured by a passing driver.[15]

The crew was trying to divert to nearby Paris–Le Bourget Airport, but accident investigators stated that a safe landing would have been highly unlikely, given the aircraft's flightpath. The cockpit voice recorder (CVR) recorded the last intelligible words in the cockpit (translated into English):[16][17]

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)."
Fire service leader: "De Gaulle tower from fire service leader, can you give me the situation of the Concorde?" (two gongs and sound of switch, followed by another switch and sounds likened to objects being moved)
Pilot: (unclear, sounds like exertion)
Pilot: (unclear, sounds like exertion)
Pilot: (unclear, sounds like exertion)
End of recording

Fatalities

All the passengers and crew, and four employees of the Hotelissimo hotel were killed in the crash.[18][19] The passengers, most of whom were German tourists en route to New York for a cruise, included German football manager Rudi Faßnacht and German trade union member Christian Götz.[18][19][20]

Nationality Passengers Crew Ground Total
Austria 1 1
Denmark 2 2
France 8 8
Germany 96 1 97
United States 1 1
Algeria 1 1
Mauritius 1 1
Poland 2 2
Total 100 9 4 113

Aftermath

N13067, the DC-10 involved, was scrapped at Mojave, California, in 2012.[21]
N13067, the DC-10 involved, was scrapped at Mojave, California, in 2012.[21]

Until the crash, Concorde had been considered among the world's safest aircraft.[22] The crash was a direct cause of the end of the model's career.[23]

A few days after the crash, all Air France Concordes were grounded, pending an investigation into the cause of the crash and possible remedies.[24]

Air France's Concorde operation had been a money-losing venture, and it is claimed that the aeroplane had been kept in service as a matter of national pride;[25] British Airways claimed to make a profit on its Concorde operations.[26][27] According to Jock Lowe, a Concorde pilot, until the crash of Air France Flight 4590 at Paris, the British Airways Concorde operation made a net average profit of about £30M (equivalent to £44M in 2019) a year.[28] Commercial service was resumed in November 2001 after a £17M (£24M today) safety improvement service, until the type was retired in 2003.[28]

Investigation

The official investigation was conducted by France's accident investigation bureau, the Bureau of Enquiry and Analysis for Civil Aviation Safety (BEA).

Post-accident investigation revealed that the aircraft was over the maximum takeoff weight for ambient temperature and other conditions, and 810 kg (1,790 lb) over the maximum structural weight,[2]: 32, 159 [BEA 2][BEA 3][29][30] loaded so that the centre of gravity was aft of the take-off limit.[2]: 159 [29][30] Fuel transfer during taxiing left the number 5 wing tank 94 percent full.[2]: 118 [BEA 4] A 30-centimetre (12 in) spacer normally keeps the left main landing gear in alignment, but it had not been replaced after recent maintenance; the BEA concluded that this did not contribute to the accident.[2]: 155 [31][BEA 5]

The final report was issued on 16 January 2002.[32]

Conclusions

The BEA concluded that:

Alternative theories

British investigators and former French Concorde pilots re-evaluated two factors that the BEA had found to be of negligible consequence to the crash, the unbalanced weight distribution in the fuel tanks and the loose landing gear. They accused Air France of negligence because they concluded these factors caused the aircraft to veer off course on the runway reducing its takeoff speed to below the critical minimum.[8][34][35]

While examining the wreckage in a warehouse, British investigators noticed that a spacer was missing from the bogie beam on the left-hand main landing gear. (It was later found in an Air France maintenance workshop.)[36] This skewed the alignment of the landing gear because a strut was able to wobble in any direction with 3° of movement. The problem was exacerbated on the left gear's three remaining tyres by the uneven fuel load. Drag marks left on the runway by the left rear landing wheels show the Concorde was veering to the left as it accelerated toward takeoff.[31]

Due to the veer, the Concorde travelled further down the runway than normal because it was failing to gain sufficient takeoff speed. It struck the metal strip from the DC-10 after it had passed its usual takeoff point on the runway.[8]

At one point it drifted toward an Air France Boeing 747 that was carrying then-French President Jacques Chirac (who was returning from the 26th G8 summit meeting in Okinawa, Japan).[29][37]

Previous tyre incidents

In November 1981, the American National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) 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 to February 1981. The NTSB described those incidents as "potentially catastrophic", because they were caused by blown tyres during takeoff. During its 27 years in service, Concorde had about 70 tyre- or wheel-related incidents, seven of which caused serious damage to the aircraft or were potentially catastrophic.[38]

Because it is a tailless delta-wing aircraft, Concorde could not use the normal flaps or slats to assist takeoff and landing, and required a significantly higher air and tyre speed during the takeoff roll than an average airliner.[citation needed] That higher speed increased the risk of tyre burst during takeoff. Analysis of test results revealed the level of kinetic energy necessary to cause the rupture of fuel tank. The analysis of impact energy considered a tyre piece of 4.5 kilograms (9.9 lb) with a speed around 140 metres per second (310 mph). The piece could reach this speed by combination of rotation of the tyre on takeoff and the tyre burst.[2]: 115 

Modifications and revival

The accident led to modifications to Concorde, including more-secure electrical controls, Kevlar lining to the fuel tanks, and specially developed burst-resistant tyres.[41]

The crash of the Air France Concorde nonetheless proved to be the beginning of the end for the type.[42] Just before service resumed, the September 11 attacks took place, resulting in a marked drop in passenger numbers, and contributing to the eventual end of Concorde flights.[43] Air France stopped flights in May 2003, followed by British Airways five months later.[44]

In June 2010, two groups attempted, unsuccessfully, 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 at Le Bourget Air and Space Museum.[45]

Criminal investigation

French authorities began a criminal investigation of Continental Airlines, whose plane dropped the debris on the runway, in March 2005,[46] and that September, Henri Perrier, the former chief engineer of the Concorde division at Aérospatiale at the time of the first test flight in 1969 and the programme director in the 1980s and early 1990s, was placed under formal investigation.[47]

In March 2008, Bernard Farret, a deputy prosecutor in Pontoise, outside Paris, asked judges to bring manslaughter charges against Continental Airlines and two of its employees – John Taylor, the mechanic who replaced the wear strip on the DC-10, and his manager Stanley Ford – alleging negligence in the way the repair was carried out.[48] Continental denied the charges,[49] and claimed in court that it was being used as a scapegoat by the BEA. The airline suggested that the Concorde "was already on fire when its wheels hit the titanium strip, and that around 20 first-hand witnesses had confirmed that the plane seemed to be on fire immediately after it began its take-off roll".[36][50]

At the same time, charges were laid against Henri Perrier, head of the Concorde program at Aérospatiale, Jacques Hérubel, Concorde's chief engineer, and Claude Frantzen, head of DGAC, the French airline regulator.[48][51][52] It was alleged that Perrier, Hérubel, and Frantzen knew that the plane's fuel tanks could be susceptible to damage from foreign objects, but nonetheless allowed it to fly.[53]

The trial ran in a Parisian court from February to December 2010. Continental Airlines was found criminally responsible for the disaster. It was fined €200,000 ($271,628) and ordered to pay Air France €1 million. Taylor was given a 15-month suspended sentence, while Ford, Perrier, Hérubel, and Frantzen 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.[54][55][56] The convictions were overturned by a French appeals court in November 2012, thereby clearing Continental and Taylor of criminal responsibility.[55]

The Parisian court also ruled that Continental would have to pay 70% of any compensation claims. As Air France had 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.[55][57]

Legacy

Gonesse memorial
Gonesse memorial

A 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 jutting through.[58] Another monument, a 6,000-square-metre (65,000 sq ft) memorial surrounded with topiary planted in the shape of a Concorde, was established in 2006 at Mitry-Mory, just south of Charles de Gaulle Airport.[59][60]

Documentaries and other media

See also

References

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BEA

  1. ^ Section 2.2 "Crew Actions" (page 166): "The exceptional environment described above quite naturally led the FE to ask to shut down the engine. This was immediately confirmed by the Captain's calling for the engine fire procedure".
  2. ^ Page 32: "The maximum structural weight on takeoff being 185,070 kg, it appears that the aircraft was slightly overloaded on takeoff".
  3. ^ Page 159: "14h40m01s... it can be deduced that, for the crew, the aircraft weight at which the takeoff was commenced was 185,880 kg, for a MTOW of 185,070 kg".
  4. ^ Section 1.16.7.3 "The Fuel in Tank 5" (page 118): "Taking into account these calculations, we may consider that the quantity of fuel in tank 5 was practically that which was loaded on the apron, which represents around 94% of the total volume of the tank".
  5. ^ Page 155: "In conclusion, nothing in the research undertaken indicates that the absence of the spacer contributed in any way to the accident on 25 July 2000"
External video
video icon "How the Crash of Flight 4590 Destroyed Concorde's Mystique". Smithsonian Channel. 20 January 2017.
video icon "Why the Concorde crashed and what happened next". BBC. 26 March 2019. Archived from the original on 12 December 2021.