|THE CRASH OF THE CONCORDE|
July 26, 2000
RAY SUAREZ: These were the final terrifying seconds of Air France 4590. Flames shot from the rear of the supersonic jet, in trouble virtually from the moment of takeoff before it plunged into a town just a few miles from the airport. Today investigators and emergency crews sifted through charred wreckage searching for the cause of yesterday's crash. 113 people, including four on the ground, were killed when the Air France Concorde slammed into a small hotel near the town of Gonesse. Authorities said one of the aircraft's engines may have failed and caused the first crash in the supersonic jet's nearly 30-year history. One engine had last-minute maintenance just before the fatal trip.
FRANCOIS BROUSSE, VP, Concorde Communications Air France: There was work done on the plane just before the flight. And there was a slight delay, and then the plane took off.
REPORTERS: What kind of work -
FRANCOIS BROUSSE: It was work on an engine, but at the present moment we can absolutely not know for sure whether it has something do with the cause of the crash.
RAY SUAREZ: French officials grounded all Air France Concordes indefinitely. British Airways, the only other airline flying the jet, has resumed its flights after yesterday's suspensions. Almost all of the passengers on the chartered flight were German tourists. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and other government officials joined mourners at a memorial service in Hanover. Until yesterday, the Concorde known above all for its jet set luxury. The planes-- just 13 in the world-- ferried the rich across the Atlantic at up to twice the speed of sound. Regular flights cost about $10,000 round-trip. The Concorde flies at 60,000 feet and 1,350 miles per hour. It regularly completes the London or Paris to New York crossing in three and a half hours, or about half the time of a regular jet.
SPOKESMAN: Just seconds to go after this long, long wait.
RAY SUAREZ: The Concorde was born from a race to develop the first supersonic commercial plane. The first test flight, an Anglo- French joint venture, was seen as a symbol of national pride in both countries. It took off from Toulouse, France, in 1969. In January, 1976, the first commercial Concorde services were launched simultaneously by British Airways and Air France. Environmentalists have long objected to the supersonic planes, saying they use too much fuel and wreak havoc on the ozone layer. In the United States, it took an order by the Supreme Court to allow the jets to land. It's been considered among the world's safest, with no fatal accidents before yesterday, though the supersonic planes have had a history of wheel and tire problems. Earlier this week, both British Airways and Air France said they found hairline cracks in the wings of several planes. They said the cracks posed no danger to passengers and none were found on the Concorde that crashed. Investigators have recovered the flight recorders, damaged in the crash and fire, and have begun their analysis, piecing together the events leading up to the crash.
RAY SUAREZ: And for more on yesterday's crash, I'm joined by Lee Dickinson,
a former member of the National Transportation Safety Board, now director
of the Washington office of exponent failure analysis, which does aviation
investigation work; Charles Eastlake, professor of aerospace engineering
at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical university in Daytona Beach, Florida; and
Patrice De Beer, the chief Washington correspondent for "Le Monde,"
a French daily newspaper.
LEE DICKINSON, Former National Transportation Safety Board Official: They are, Ray. You have mentioned the most important tools. They've recovered the cockpit voice recorder, which hopefully, if it has good information on it, will give the investigators information about what the crew was doing in terms of who they were talking to, possibly who was flying the airplane, and any intra cockpit communications - also, the flight data recorder that would have information on it about what the plane was doing. Was it responding and how was it responding to inputs by the pilots? They have information from the air traffic control tapes. It's my understanding there was communication between the pilot or the crew, and air traffic control, some indication about a potential problem with an engine and I believe the number 2 engine. That's all information that leads you in a certain direction. That's to say not to forget other areas that need to be investigated but it helps to start the investigation.
RAY SUAREZ: Unlike recent jet crashes here in the United States or off the United States like Swissair or Egypt Air we have eyewitnesses because the plane was in so much trouble so early, so close to the airport. Are eyewitness accounts very valuable in this kind of investigation?
LEE DICKINSON: Eyewitness accounts are always valuable. What we've said in the past and what we statements see, unfortunately not everybody who is an eyewitness says the same thing. We know what the investigators try to do is determine what is factual and what may be not as factual -- that they couple that with the information that they collect on scene which helps to form the basis of the analysis which should lead to the probable cause.
RAY SUAREZ: Charles Eastlake a lot of the early attention is going to the engine that was seen to be in trouble, that there was some questions about before take off. Are there some things that you can help us understand about flying this plane and the design of the plane that makes something like an engine failure, trickier than it might be on a more conventional commercial airliner?
CHARLES EASTLAKE, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University: Oh, yes there are a couple of things about this particular airplane that are different from the typical subsonic airliner. One is that the engines are grouped together inside a single pod so that if there's a problem with one engine which the airplane has been shown capable of dealing with, if the problem is severe with one engine, the other engine is right next to it and the second engine may in fact be involved in a catastrophic failure and the airplane with two engines not functioning is in deep trouble -- maybe hopeless trouble.
RAY SUAREZ: And the Concorde has to take off at a much higher rate of speed than conventional aircraft do?
CHARLES EASTLAKE: Absolutely, yes. Because of the highly swept wings, that are necessary to achieve supersonic flight, the airplanes don't fly as well at low speed as the typical airliner. So the take off and landing speeds are considerably faster than the subsonic airliners that most of us are familiar with.
RAY SUAREZ: Can the cockpit crew see much from their position? If there's trouble can they look back on the wings with that swept back design?
CHARLES EASTLAKE: In this airplane because the wing is towards the rear and the fuselage is long, the pilots probably can't see anything at the back of the airplane. I've never had the opportunity to actually look. But my guess is they can't see anything back there.
RAY SUAREZ: Patrice de Beer it's been reported on both sides of the Atlantic that the Concorde was a potent symbol to the French public. Is it still 31 years after the first one came out of a hangar?
PATRICE DE BEER, Le Monde: Yes it is still a symbol. In a sense it's a myth that is being shaken. Because the Concorde was the first symbol of the development of high technology in French in the 60's and 70's after the war. And it was a symbol that France didn't want to be seen only as the country of baguettes, and perfumes and fashion -- and it was becoming a high-tech country. And also a symbol of Europe; it was the first joint venture with the British at the time where the European community was building up. And it was the beginning of the saga. It was very important for the French. You know for us it's not only a technological achievement but we always like to give an emotional if not a political dimension to everything. And there was a lot be behind Concorde.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, this was heavily financed by the French government as well. Did that give subsequent governments a stake in this airplane?
PATRICE DE BEER: Yes, but it was also sort of a national endeavor. The French were very proud, the Russians tried to build the Concorde and it failed. They were unhappy that it was difficult for them to fly to the states. We had to have an order from the Supreme Court to allow the Concorde to land in the states. So it was part of national psyche. It was part of our panache, if I can say so. And it's also a symbol of a new economic power and of the grandeur of France.
RAY SUAREZ: But a lot of time had passed and now there were only little more than a dozen of them flying in the world. Was it starting to be seen as a jet that was perhaps a symbol of another time? Or was this something that was considered viable into the future?
PATRICE DE BEER: Well, it was a symbol of another time but it was a symbol that lasted. And until yesterday it looked like sort of an unshakeable symbol that would retire. But not die. And unfortunately, this myth has been shaken very badly..
RAY SUAREZ: Charles Eastlake, how would we assess, if we're looking at the commercial aircraft of the late 20th century, where would we put Concorde?
CHARLES EASTLAKE: Concorde clearly has a place of its own. It's the only civilian supersonic aircraft in existence and that place will remain in the future. It's unclear whether there will be a follow on supersonic transport because of the difficulty of making an economic success out of supersonic flights. So Concorde has a place of its own in aviation history.
RAY SUAREZ: But when you assess a plane as to whether or not it's a successor not and you look at the small number of passengers, the high rate of fuel use, the fact that it couldn't fly across the Pacific Ocean, for instance, Los Angeles to Tokyo route, is it really a plane that earned its wings?
CHARLES EASTLAKE: Oh, it certainly has earned its wings. Not in all respects -- but in the respects in which it's used. If a new supersonic transport will built now, it probably would be slightly faster. It probably would have greater range. It almost certainly would have better fuel economy and lower noise. But Concorde is definitely not ancient history. It's still a real aircraft that has a unique spot.
RAY SUAREZ: Lee Dickinson, let's talk about the safety record. A lot has been paid attention to the fact that this was the first fatal crash that has been if regular service for more than two decades. How does it wrack up against other planes, how do you measure whether a plane is really safe or not?
LEE DICKINSON: Well, typically what you do if you're looking at accident statistics alone, you're looking at, as you said, Ray, about 30 years of safe flying with a number of take off and landing of these 13 or 14 airplanes over the last 30 years; this is the first fatal accident. In terms of accident rates whether you're measuring them over passenger miles or plane miles, or whatever unit you want to use it is a very safe airplane. The difficulty is if you're trying to compare that rate with a major airline, American, Delta, U.S. Airways, and the like, and that's because their fleets are much larger. So you are comparing an airline with three or four, five hundred airplanes or more, to one that may be seven or eight or both of these it may be up to fourteen.
RAY SUAREZ: And I guess a lot of the attention that is being paid to the age of the fleet, a 20-year-old Concorde isn't really the same as a 20-year-old747 -- they just don't fly as much?
LEE DICKINSON: They don't fly as much, that's correct. If you look at the number of cycles, I believe on this airplane you are looking at 4,000 cycles.
RAY SUAREZ: And a cycle is a take off and landing.
LEE DICKINSON: That is correct, single trip, take off and landing. You are looking at low cycles. But again, if you have an older airplane and that can be defined in a number of ways, 20, 30, 40 years old, the real key here is to make sure it is inspected properly and it is maintained properly, and that's the key to keeping anything in service.
RAY SUAREZ: Short of fatal accidents though, and in this case until the other day there were none, do you keep track of how many time it is has to return and abort a takeoff, how many faults are found through inspection through so many hours of flying - are there other ways to see whether a fleet is just sort of aging badly?
LEE DICKINSON: Or aging properly.
RAY SUAREZ: Or aging properly?
LEE DICKINSON: Absolutely. This is information that is collected during the inspections. And they are required inspections that are made on these airplanes like they are on the typical subsonic airplanes for U.S.-manufactured aircraft and the like. Information is indeed collected and analyzed to make sure that the planes that are being put in service are flying safely from one point to another.
RAY SUAREZ: And did the Concorde wrack up well in those sorts of measurements as well?
LEE DICKINSON: As far as I know they did, yes.
RAY SUAREZ: Panel, thank you very much.