British Airways has begun modifying its Concordes, with hopes rising that the airline's supersonic flagship will be back in service by late spring.
The airline will be investing more than £30 million to ensure its delta-winged aircraft can resume flying safely, and offering the best customer experience in the skies. £17 million will be spent on safety-related modifications, and £14 million, announced last year, on new seats, cabin interiors and other customer service improvements, whih have the benifit of off setting the additonal weight that the safety modifications will cause.
Concorde GOLF - BRAVO OSCAR ALPHA FOXTROT (G-BOAF -aircraft 216). is the first of its seven aircraft to be adapted. It is currently in the Concorde hangar at Heathrow, where engineers have begun fitting it with new linings to its fuel tanks and shielding wiring in the undercarriage areas.
The new fuel tank liners, (whcih are similar in appearance to seed trays) - manufactured by EADS, the former Aerospatiale, in Toulouse - are made of a kevlar-rubber compound and cost around £17,000 Each. They have been designed to contain the fuel should the wing skin be punctured, adopting an approach already successfully used in military helicopters and Formula 1 racing cars. over 150 will be fitted, jigsaw like, into the fuel tanks of each Concorde.
Current BA estimates are that it will take a team of 40 engineers around eight to ten weeks to carry out these alterations to each aircraft. Initial tests on the modifications, carried out by the manufacturers using advanced computer modelling and actual physical trials, have proved encouraging. They were presented at the most recent meeting of the Anglo-French Government Concorde working group last month.
Before passenger flights resume, the modifications will be subject to further exhaustive proving, with thorough ground testing on an Air France aircraft due to begin later this month. Once the modifications have been completed, G-BOAF, the first British Airways modified Concorde, will then be used for in-flight proving. Data will be collected and analysed to verify the operational effects of the tank liners, on the aircraft's fuel transfer systems,fuel monitoring systems and centre of gravity.
British Airways will then modify two Concordes at a time, until the entire fleet has been completed. Provided the modifications are signed off by the airworthiness authorities and no unforeseen issues arise from the investigation into the Paris tragedy, it is expected that the aircraft's certificate of airworthiness will be returned. British Airways will also carry out its own, thorough safety audit, drawing on the experience of technicians who have worked on Concorde throughout its lifetime in commercial service.
While the modifications are carried out, new cabin interiors, including new seats, will be installed, as part of the £14 million package of improvements for Concorde announced early last year.
While no firm date has yet been targetted for a resumption of Concorde services, British Airways hopes to start flying passengers supersonically again this spring, with an initial daily return service between London Heathrow and New York JFK, building later, when modifications have been completed to more aircraft, to the regular two daily flights in each direction.
Mike Street, British Airways' Director of Customer Services and Operations, said: "British Airways has always said that we would only resume Concorde services once we are convinced we can do so safely. We are confident that the modifications now underway will enable us to achieve this.
"Concorde's customers can't wait to get back on board. We are very much looking forward to carrying them - sooner rather than later."
Since services were suspended in August, the airline's engineers have been keeping its Concordes in tip-top condition, checking them every day, running the engines regularly and testing the computer, electrical and hydraulic systems, while the airline's Concorde flight crew have been keeping their skills honed in the airline's simulator.
Capt Bannister, who has been with BA since 1969 and is head of the Concorde division, added: "We will initially
operating one London-New York return flight a day and plan to go back to the
usual two returns a day schedule by late summer or early autumn.
"Some time after that we plan to resume Concorde flights to Barbados."
The modification work also involves a strengthening of the wiring in the
supersonic plane's undercarriage area.
Capt Bannister said: "We are being very prudent and we want to look at
potential ignition sources. The tank liners are to ensure that we can't have
massive fuel leak again."
He went on: "Regular Concorde passengers have been very supportive. We have been in regular contact with them and some have been calling us telling us how much they miss the service."