As Air France celebrates its 90th anniversary, it’s the perfect time to reflect on its remarkable history and revisit a tragic chapter – the Concorde crash. We fly into the past, uncovering the milestones and mishaps that define the legacy of this iconic airline, and hear from a Concorde engineer.
Ninety years ago, on 17 October 1933, Air France took its first breath as a conglomerate of several airlines: Air Orient, Air Union, Société Générale de Transports Aériens, the Compagnie Internationale de Navigation Aérienne, and Aéropostale.
Since then, it has evolved into a global powerhouse in the aviation industry. Today, Air France operates a diverse fleet of over 240 aircraft, serving more than 200 destinations worldwide with approximately 1,000 daily flights.
The airline has continually pushed the boundaries of aviation. It pioneered using the first twin-engine widebody airliner, the Airbus A300, and became the launch partner for the Airbus A320, a leading twin-engine narrowbody. Air France and Airbus established a close partnership, adopting nearly every model the manufacturer had to offer.
Despite facing challenges during the 1970s oil crisis, the airline introduced notable aircraft like the Boeing 727, Boeing 737, and the legendary Boeing 747. Most impressively, Air France was one of only two airlines to operate the world’s first supersonic jetliner, the Concorde, which showcased the airline’s dedication to innovation and exploration.
Amidst their remarkable journey, one event stands out for Air France – the crash of Flight 4590, the Concorde supersonic airplane, which resulted in the loss of all 109 people on board and four on the ground. This tragic incident marked the first fatal Concorde crash in 24 years of passenger service and ultimately suspended all Concorde operations in 2003.
Flight 4590 was a charter flight from Paris to New York City. The ill-fated aircraft, an Air France Concorde with registration number F-BTSC, primarily carried German tourists heading to board a Caribbean-bound cruise ship in New York.
Tragedy struck as the plane accelerated down the runway, with a fire igniting on the left side under the wing. This catastrophe led to the failure of one left-side engine during takeoff, followed by the second engine’s failure shortly after.
The aircraft plummeted from the sky, crashing into a small hotel and restaurant in suburban Gonesse, claiming the lives of all 100 passengers and nine crew members on board, as well as four people on the ground, with six others injured. Both Air France and British Airways suspended Concorde operations.
A French government investigation into the crash attributed it to the Concorde running over a strip of metal on the runway, leading to a tire blowout and subsequent fuel tank rupture. The released fuel ignited, likely from an electrical arc in the landing gear wiring, causing engine failure.
The metal strip on the runway was identified as a jet engine part that had fallen from a Continental Airlines DC-10 moments before the Concorde’s takeoff. The part was inappropriately made of an alloy with 90 percent titanium content instead of stainless steel, as specified by the engine manufacturer.
Critics of the official report suggested additional contributing factors, such as exceeding the recommended takeoff weight, a missing “spacer” in the landing gear mechanism, a wind shift before takeoff, and possible premature engine shutdown.
In 2010, Continental Airlines and its mechanic faced involuntary manslaughter charges, although an appeals court later overturned the convictions but maintained a fine on the airline.
Looking to the future, the question arises: will supersonic travel make a resurgence? Nick Schulkins, an engineer involved in the review of the Concorde’s systems, expresses skepticism. He believes the economics of supersonic travel may not currently favor its return, making it a luxury affordable only to the very rich.
“When it comes down to the figures, they just don’t add up right now. Only the very rich could justify the expense – and that’s why any existing projects we hear or read about are looking at building supersonic business jets,” Schulkins told the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.
Ticket prices for Concorde’s final flight back in 25 July 2000 were £4,350 (just over AU $8,300) for a one-way trip and £8,292 (close to AU $16,000) for a return.
Schulkins points out the challenge of mitigating the sonic boom, which restricts supersonic flights over populated areas. “Another issue is making the sonic boom disappear to allow aircraft to operate over land so that it doesn’t cause structural damage,” said Schulkins, adding that the cost of this work is holding up current developments.
He suggests that supersonic passenger travel could theoretically reemerge if engineers can minimize the boom to a quiet thud.
In conclusion, Air France’s long aviation history is a tapestry of remarkable achievements and heartbreaking disasters, with the Concorde crash leaving an indelible mark on the airline’s legacy.
Ninety years later, Air France is still thriving, no small feat considering the nature of the aviation industry and the challenges it has had to overcome in the recent past. The airline is focused on offering its best to its passengers and the aviation industry.
As we ponder the prospects of supersonic travel making a comeback, we remember the dedicated engineers who contributed to the era of the Concorde and pushed the boundaries of aviation.
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