After 27 years in service, the world’s only supersonic commercial aircraft has also proven to be one of the world’s safest, aviation experts say.
Until Tuesday’s crash of an Air France Concorde near Paris that killed 100 passengers, nine crew members and four people on the ground, the fleet of super-airliners had never been involved in a fatal accident.
That fleet, however, is small and specialized — until this week, there were 12 Concordes flying under the colors of two airlines, Air France and British Airways.
Originally designed and built in the 1960s and 1970s, and updated over the years, the aircraft are expected to keep flying through much of this decade. British Airways has indicated it could fly its Concordes at least until 2010. Air France says its aircraft could have at least seven more years of service.
Air France Concorde F-BTSC had undergone heavy routine maintenance less than a week before it crashed, according to the airline.
“The Concorde is and remains one of the safest aircraft in the air to date,” says Chris Yates, editor of Jane’s Airport Security Standards & Technology.
“In terms of aeronautical design, it’s one of the leading designs of civil aircraft,” he says. “No one out there has ever come up with a civil design like Concorde.”
Some Recent Troubles
Like any aircraft, the Concorde has had some trouble over the years.
In 1979, one of the tires of a British Airways Concorde burst on landing. The incident led to a design modification.
On Monday, the airline grounded one of its Concordes after detecting cracks in the wings of its seven aircraft. Officials said there was no danger to passengers.
The cracks had actually been detected months prior, but the fleet stayed in service. The one plane was grounded after the cracks were found to have worsened in it.
“Aging aircraft structures will always develop cracks,” says ABCNEWS aviation analyst John Nance. “The problem is not the presence of cracks, but where they are and how deep they run. In this case, British Air indicated the fractures were structurally insignificant.”
Because of the way the Air France Concorde crashed, with flames shooting out of an engine, experts think the plane’s wings may not have been at fault in the crash.
Concordes also, in recent years, have endured some engine problems.
The British Broadcasting Corp. reported that in January, a Concorde flying from Barbados to London’s Heathrow airport had to make an emergency landing after one of its four engines failed. Today, a British Airways spokesman clarified that the engine had not failed during that incident. Rather, a nozzle part on the engine, which also is used as a thrust reverser to slow the aircraft after landing, was not working properly, he said. The pilot shut the engine down.
In March of this year, a Concorde en route from New York’s JFK Airport to Heathrow was forced to divert to Ireland’s Shannon Airport after a suspected fuel leak prompted the pilot to shut down one of the plane’s engines. A BA spokeswoman says the shutdown was precautionary and no problems with the engine were found.
In March 1999, a Concorde returned to JFK after a fire warning on an engine and various warnings indicating smoke in the air-conditioning system coupled with crew reports of eye and throat irritation, the British paper The Sunday Times reported.
“While it is true that there have been no other crashes of a Concorde until today, there have been major maintenance problems with the airplane over time,” says ABCNEWS’ Nance. “But the point is that the redundancy built into the Concorde has worked in all cases, until today.”
In at least two incidents, the aircraft have had problems with parts of rudders breaking off.
In April 1989, part of a Concorde’s rudder broke off on a flight from New Zealand to Australia. The plane landed safely. A British agency later concluded the breakup occurred when the rudder’s skin peeled away and allowed moisture into its core.
In October 1998, a British Airways Concorde experienced a partial separation of the lower rudder during a flight over the North Atlantic, off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada. The plane continued on to its destination at JFK and landed without incident.
The Concorde’s operators have found other cracks in the aircraft’s structure.
In 1994, three outer windows of a Concorde jet shattered as the plane flew at twice the speed of sound, according to a press account. An inner pane maintained pressure and no one was injured.
In February 1989, cracks were discovered in the outer layer of a window of a Concorde jet on a trans-Atlantic flight to New York, according to another account. The pilot reduced altitude and returned the aircraft to Paris safely.
Reaching End of Duty?
Some critics say the Concorde fleet has reached the end of its years.
A report last year by The Sunday Times cited documentation indicating that “in the 12 months between August 1998 and July 1999 the aircraft, now a quarter of a century old, had 130 incidents reported, from problems with the hydraulics and engines to repeated warnings of smoke in the air-conditioning system.”
A British Airways official quoted in the story, however, categorized those incidents as “low” risk.
Jane’s Yates says the data are no cause for concern.
“You can look at any aircraft type and read similar sorts of figures,” he says. “I wouldn’t read anything into those figures. Low-level means low-level, a non-critical incident. These are pretty common with anything that flies.”
Moreover, while the aircraft are aging in years, they are still pretty young in terms of hours spent in the air, says Philip Butterworth-Hayes, another aviation expert with Jane’s.
“They’re extremely young in maintenance terms,” he says. “If you measure the number of hours that they fly, landings and takeoffs, they’re the equivalent of a 2-year-old 747, so they can go on for ages.”