Concorde Crash Raises Safety Questions: Experts

In fact, early in the service life of the aircraft, Concorde jets suffered a series of tire blowouts, including at least two in 1979, one in 1980 and one in 1981 at airports in the United States. (See related stories, above right, for aviation agency documents.)

The most serious incident occurred at Washington’s Dulles International Airport in June 1979, when two tires blew out on the left landing gear. Debris punctured three fuel tanks, severed hydraulic lines and electrical wires, and damaged the No. 2 engine. Fuel poured out of the wing, but didn’t catch fire.

The Concorde’s design, with its long fuselage, puts a particularly large amount of stress on the tires, especially as the nose rotates up during takeoff, says Mike Dornheim of Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine.

Concorde tires are usually changed after about 35 flights, according to British Airways officials, while a typical jet might have its tires changed after anywhere from 92 to 300 flights, depending on the jet and a number of other factors.

“It’s an airplane that would tend to have a lot of stress on the tires, particularly at rotation,” says Dornheim. “You couldn’t think of a worse airplane for tires.”

But he adds the designers of the Concorde probably designed special tires to handle the load.

How Well Fixed?

A number of corrective actions were taken in the early ’80s by the Concorde operators to deal with the blowouts, including increased tire inspections and monitoring, and new procedures for pilots to deal with the problem.

Additionally, the plane’s operators decided to stop using re-treaded tires on the aircraft and installed sensors to let the crew know if a tire has blown, or if its pressure is not balanced.

But it’s not clear how successful the fix was at preventing tire blows over the years.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration says it has no data indicating additional Concorde blowouts in the United States since 1981.

The FAA data is incomplete, though, since the agency has been unable to locate incident reports for the Concorde from between 1988 and October 1996, according to spokesman Les Dorr.

British Airways, though, reports 12 tire failures on its Concordes since 1988.

But none of those, of course, resulted in a catastrophe.

In fact, one British Airways captain recounts how a Concorde safely flew across the Atlantic after a piece of tire had torn off and was ingested by an engine, damaging the turbine. The engine continued operating and the pilot was not aware of the damage until after landing.

After reaching a certain speed, Concorde’s are built to fly with two engines on one side of the plane disabled.

“Probably a lot of tire bursts never make it into the papers,” says Dornheim.

A Record of Safety

Jane’s Yates says even if French authorities do determine with certainty that a tire did ultimately cause the crash, it shouldn’t necessarily mean the aircraft in operation are unsafe and should be grounded until changes are made.

“There hasn’t been an instance of a major tire blowout for some considerable time now,” he says. “It’s highly likely that the problems that were experienced in the late 1970s and early 1980s were addressed, and addressed effectively.”

But Nance questions whether the plane is built to safely withstand the damage caused by a severe blowout, if it does occur.

“Quite frankly, you can probably build tires that are even tougher. Maybe you can build the wheels to take 350 to 400 knots, instead of just 250 to 300, or whatever they’re rated for,” says Nance.

“But other than putting metal plates of some sort all along the tanks on the underside and changing the aerodynamics and the weight of the airplane, I don’t know how in the heck you could insulate against puncturing wing tanks, which is where the fire came from,” he says.

“And I certainly don’t know how you can insulate the engines, which is where it appears the crash came from,” he says.

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