Until Sept. 11, 2001, the most momentous air disaster in recent years had been the fiery crash of the Air France Concorde in the summer of 2000 that killed 113 people. That catastrophe--and the accompanying revelations of the plane's fragility and susceptibility to mishaps--gave the aircraft the ugly title of the most dangerous plane in the sky. The Concorde's French and British developers, however, were determined to bring the plane back and, two months ago, were prepared to do just that. Then came Sept. 11.
Transatlantic commercial air traffic has since plummeted, and both British Airways and Air France have been forced to cut routes. But the Concorde is still scheduled to make its return to New York City's John F. Kennedy Airport this week, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair was expected to fly a chartered Concorde to Washington on Nov. 7 for meetings with President Bush--the plane's small but high-profile contribution to the wartime alliance.
Is the plane really ready to fly? British Airways and Air France are appalled at the statistic bandied about to show how dangerous the Concorde is: a "hull loss" rating (that is, of a completely totaled plane) of 11.64 per 1 million flights--compared with the average of 0.84 for the Boeing 737. A statistical fluke, they say, because there are so few Concordes, and they fly so rarely. Otherwise, they argue, the Concorde has an outstanding safety record.
Meanwhile, there are still serious questions about the crash. The preliminary conclusion by French investigators is well known: during takeoff, a 16-in. metal strip on the runway slashed one of the Concorde's tires, sending a 10-lb. piece of rubber into the underside of the wing and causing a fuel tank to rupture. Something yet undetermined ignited a fire that engulfed the No. 2 engine. There was also a problem with the No. 1 engine: it could not provide thrust. Given those problems, the pilots lost control of the plane after only one minute in the air.
But aviation sources in Britain and France as well as published reports (including a major investigative piece in the London Observer) argue that the crash was a much more complex series of events. First, a 5-in. long "spacer," a metal part that helps keep in alignment the four wheels on one of the Concorde's landing gear, was left off the Air France plane. This mistake very likely hindered the speed of the plane as it rolled down the runway and caused it to veer severely to its left, striking a runway light. Critics argue that debris from this light disrupted engine No. 1, causing it to lose thrust.
The plane was also slightly overweight, its center of gravity too far toward the back. Not a major problem on typical jetliners, it is critical to the Concorde because its design and power make it particularly vulnerable on takeoff. If the sensitive balance was off, British Air pilots would call the mechanic to the cockpit for severe reprimands. The weight distribution had to be correct; otherwise even the wind could pose a danger. In Paris on July 25, 2000, the wind had shifted to come from behind the aircraft: a basic rule for all pilots is that planes should take off into the wind. The Air France Concorde headed down the runway with an eight-knot tailwind. French investigators say these conditions were not material to the cause of the accident.