RETURN TO SERVICE - FULL STORY
Chapter 2
The Start of the Return

 
Air France Concorde F-BVFA parked up in Paris (Vincent Gury)

After the accident Air France grounded its Concorde fleet with immediate effect, this decision was further ratified by French transport minister, Jean-Claude Gayssot saying that France didn't want to take any risks and he officially grounded the 5 remaining French aircraft indefinitely.

On the 25th July Air France Concorde F-BVFC had flown the AF002 service out to New York, arriving a few hour before the accident occurred back in Paris. The aircraft was subsequently grounded on the tarmac at JFK. Engineering staff took precautions to safely seal up the aircraft from the elements, as nobody knew how long it would have to stay parked there for.

F-BVFC grounded and sealed up on the ramp in New York. (Brian Stevenson)
In early September Air France took the decision to repatriate the aircraft back home to Paris. A team of 12 engineers flew out to New York to prepare the aircraft:

"When a plane's been out of service for nearly two months, there's a danger of leaking joints in the fuel or hydraulic systems. We've flown out quite a few spare parts already." said an Air France spokesperson

"A flight crew have also been training in the Air France Concorde simulator at Charles de Gaulle Airport."

France's civil aviation directorate, the DGAC gave the airline permission to bring the missing plane home, exceptionally reinstating Concorde's airworthiness certificate, albeit temporarily and with certain conditions. All the countries whose airspace lay across the flight path: the United States, Canada, Ireland and Britain were swift to allow the one-off voyage. No passengers were to be allowed on board - not even Air France's chief executive, Jean-Cyril Spinetta, who was reported to have asked to make the trip.

Fox-Charlie Departs from New York on September 21st
Fox-Charlie departed from JFK at 9:15 EST on September 21st, after a special safety check had been completed on the New York runway. The aircraft was commanded by Captain Edgard Chillaud (Chief Pilot of Concorde Division) along with First Officer J. Rossignol (Chief Instructor), Flight Engineer J. Lombart (Chief Flight engineer) and 2nd Flight engineer Roger. Beral. Shortly after 17:45, some 3-1/2 hours after leaving John F. Kennedy International Airport, the aircraft arrived back at CDG.

Back in Paris the aircraft de-tours past Air France's Headquarters
Fire crews stood by on the tarmac as the aircraft majestically touched down. The aircraft took a special de-tour on its way to the Concorde maintenance base when it taxied via the Air France corporate Headquarters building where all the staff and many enthusiasts stood to welcome Fox-Charlie back. For many it was and emotional moment as Edgard Chillaud drooped Concorde nose to salute and acknowledge them.

"We've all missed it and are happy to see it back home again," said Lucien Guy, a mechanic at Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport's QN hangar, where all the French carrier's Concordes were now all safely in storage since the catastrophic accident.

For British Airways, who were keen to get the aircraft back in service, there were many false hopes with the media commenting that government departments in Whitehall "Would not stand for any dragging of the inquiry by the French investigators."

Several aviation industry analysts were even predicting the CAA's own findings from the UK accident investigators working on the accident inquiry would be satisfactory for the aircraft's certificate of airworthiness to be returned with only minor changes being needed to be made to the aircraft's standard operating procedures along with further prevention measures to ensure dangerous FOD (Foreign Object Debris) was not left on the runways.

Dunlop tyres and water deflectors, with restraining cables, were fitted to BA Concorde's
In the aviation media there was even talk that the UK manufactured Dunlop aircraft tyres, used by BA, were sufficiently different in design, and that as their water deflectors had a special restraining cable fitted, the accident that happened in Paris could not occur to a UK based aircraft. It was believed by many outside BA, that these reasons alone would allow Concorde back into the air. The airlines and manufactures dismissed the idea saying that a joint solution would be the best way forward for everyone involved.

With the aircraft grounded, but with a good chance of only being temporary, British Airways even looked into the possibilities of bring forward the recently announced cabin upgrade to take advantage of the down time. The 14 million upgrade, which had been announced at the start of the year, would ensure the interior of the aircraft is as elegant as the exterior.

Interior experts Conran & Partners led by Sir Terence Conran advised on colours, fabrics and accessories working with London based consultancy Factory Design, the British Airways Design and Brand Management teams and Britax Aircraft Interior Systems

The key features of the planned upgrade were:

  • New seats In ink-blue Connolly leather and fabric with a cradle mechanism, footrest and contoured headrest for more comfort and support The design was inspired by the classic Charles & Ray Eames chairs, and uses new technology and materials that are 20 per cent lighter, this BA hoped would lead to almost 1 million a year in fuel efficiencies.

 

  • The interior of the passenger cabin would be lighter and brighter with different lighting filters to give a fresher look which would change to a cool blue wash throughout the cabin when Concorde flies through the sound barrier at Mach one

 

  • New more spacious washrooms in aqua green and stainless steel with opaque wall panels that are up-lit and down-lit, would help give a sense of more space.

By September it was clear to all that no quick fix would be achievable which whould satisfy the aviation authorities. Unless something else was discovered in the course of the on going inquiry British Airways, Air France and the manufacturers were in for the long haul to convince the regulators that the aircraft was safe to carry passengers and allow it back into service.

The chain of events that led to the accident was becoming clearer- The focus was moving onto the tyres and why did they burst so explosively, to enable such a large fuel leak.

The piece of titanium strip that caused the damege to the Air Fracne Concorde tyre
The piece of titanium that had caused the accident in Paris, had fallen off an aircraft that had only recently departed, but had gone un-noticed by the airport authorities.

It was simply the way the metal had fallen onto the runway that caused the initial problem. If it had been on the runway the other way up it would simply have fallen over when the tyre came in contact with it, but on this occasion it locked in such a way that slashed the tyre so badly that a 4.5KG piece was thrown off.

The cut in the 4.5KG tyre fragment, matched the contour of the titanium strip
This piece of tyre debris was over 1.1M long and 33 cm wide (approximately the width of the tyre tread). Like all aircraft, Concorde had been certified to survive a tyre burst that would see have a piece of tyre debris hitting the underside of the aircraft.

The test piece that would be used during certification testing would have to be a size equivalent to the square of the tyres tread (approx 30cmX30cm in the case of Concorde), but the piece that was thrown up and hit the underside of the wing fuel tank on that fateful day, was in a different league and would have caused serious damage to any aircraft - Concorde's problem was that the damage it caused was catastrophic.