The crash that put a stop to the first supersonic commercially plane

Over a century ago in the December of 1903, the first powered airplane took off. It was made by Wilbur and Orville Wright. Also known as the Wright  brothers. The first airplane  was named ‘kitty hawk’ by the Wright brothers and it did not look like any modern airplane made by Boeing or Airbus nowadays. It had a top speed of 48 kilometers per hour, a range of 300 meters  and a carrying capacity of one passenger. In comparison the Boeing 777X has a  top speed of over 1000 kilometers per hour, a range of over 16,000,000 meters and a carrying capacity of 365 passengers. It flies close to the speed of sound, but if it flies normally then it can not break the speed of sound. The first plane to go the speed of sound was the Bell x-1 manufactured by Bell. That was in 1946. The first commercial plane to break the sound barrier was the Concorde, but what the manufacturers did not know was that it was also the last one. Sixteen Concordes were build in total, but only 14 of them actually came in to service for the airlines Air France and British Airways, the manufacturers of the Concorde. At the time of the Concorde it was something really special and it still is. The Concorde yielded British Airways a revenue of 1.75 billion Pounds. The cost were 1 billion Pounds. That’s  a 750 million Pounds profit only for British Airways. The profits were massive. Why did the Concorde end? Why were all the flights canceled? The reason is ‘just’ one crash of a Concorde in France. The first commercial supersonic aircraft came to an end because of Air France Flight 4590.

It was a sunny day in Charles De Gaulle Airport. The sky was clear and there was almost no wind. A Continental Airlines McDonell Douglas took off heading towards Newark International Airport, New Jersey. At the same time the crew of one of the 14 Concorde planes in service was preparing to go taxiing. The crew of the Concorde was calibrating the iconic nose of the plane and doing other some other stuff to get ready to take off. After everything was finished and the plane was ready for takeoff, the pilots started taxiing the plane towards the runway.  Because the shape of the Concorde the plane has difficulties staying airborne at low altitudes. To minimize that effect, the Concorde needs to go fast to take off and stay in the air. At high altitudes there is less pressure. Less pressure means less drag. Less drag means a lower fuel consumption. That is the reason Concordes flew very high in the air and could reach altitudes of over 18 kilometers or 60,000 feet. 

 The plane was gaining speed to take off. The airplane was going faster that its V1 speed, the maximum speed dismissing takeoff is considered safe.

 Then if you had been inside that Concorde you would have heard a very hard sound and if you were sitting near a window near the engines after some time you would have seen them  catch fire from the tankers. The plane did manage to take off, but it was of no use as it crashed a couple of seconds after it took off. Eye witnesses reported seeing huge mushroom clouds rise into the air. Considering the fact that the tankers were full of kerosine because the Concorde was not economical and it was going to fly a long transatlantic flight heading towards John F. kennedy Airport, a big explosion was to be expected. The wreckage of the Concorde kept burning many hours after the accident. All of the passengers and the crew died. There were also four fatalities on the ground. 113 people died in total.  The official investigation was conducted by France’s accident investigation bureau, the BEA, and the final report was issued on 16 January 2002. The investigation by the BEA started not very long after the crash happened—only a couple of hours after it. I will not go into the details of the investigation. The investigators found a piece on the runway that did not belong to that Concorde. The piece was a titanium alloy strip of about 435 millimetres (17.1 in) long, 29 to 34 millimetres (1.1 to 1.3 in) wide, and 1.4 millimetres (0.055 in) thickness.  They concluded that the metal strip was from the McDonnell Douglas that took off 5 minutes earlier. They mane many scenarios and eventually chose that this was the correct one: the plane was going very fast to take off. The titanium strip came under the tire and the strip cut the tire. As a result a big chunk of the tyre weighing 4.5 kilograms was  sent into the underside of the aircraft’s wing at an estimated speed of about 140 metres per second (310 mph). That piece of tyre debris had a lot kinetic energy because it was so heavy and it went so fast. The tyre debris did not rupture the tank by itself; it created a shockwave that ruptured an other tank at its weakest point. The kerosene lighted up either by loose electrical wires or by the hot debris. It had a full tank. Thousands of liters of kerosene catch caught fire. Then both engines stopped. Then the plane still with a lot of kerosene crashed after being in the air for only a couple of seconds.

I think it is strange that until the crash of Air France Flight 4590 in 2000, Concorde had been considered among the world’s safest airplanes and after a crash there came and end to that. Why did the manufacturers not solve the problem and recover their reputation? There are many solutions to this problem, you only need a bit expertise and creativity to do so. I have thought of some possible solutions: solution no. 1 solve it by making the kerosene tanks less vulnerable; solution no. 2  use a scanning device to scan the runway for harmful objects; solution no.3 install a shield around the tanks to make sure the hot tires do not come into contact with the kerosene. I also think it is strange that the pilots of the crashed Concorde never had been taught what to do in a situation when both engines fail on the runway. The manufacturers said that it was jot needed as it was highly improbable. Sometimes the highly improbable has great consequences. 

If we manage to make the Concorde less vulnerable (both the tires and the tanks) and if we manage to teach the pilots what to do even in a situation which seems impossible, then I do not see why grounding them is necessary in order to obtain safe aviation. Sometimes avoiding the problem and not learning from it will cause the problem to just pop up somewhere else. Accidents are caused by mistakes and they happen, but not learning from them is a far greater mistake.