RETURN TO SERVICE - FULL STORY
CHAPTER 3
What to do Next
3 British Airways Concordes stored on the ramp at their Heathrow base

With all 12 aircraft now back at their home bases - Air France with 5 aircraft at their Charles De Gaulle base and British Airways with all 7 aircraft at Heathrow - no one knew how long the fleet would stay grounded. Privately many at BA through that the grounding would only be temporary and that services would be resumed very shortly.

Engineers at Heathrow ran weekly engine run on the fleet to ensure that their systems were in tip top condition so that they could return to service at a minutes notice.

Management from both Air France and British Airways began talks with the manufacturers, EADS and BAE systems, along with aviation authorities to help develop measure that would allow re-certification of the aircraft. A special working group was formed that would meet alternately between France and London to discuss the way forward and progress in the on-going investigation.

The Anglo-French inter-governmental working group was suggested to manufacturers, airlines and regulators shortly after the accident as a means to help them work together across any differences that may have existed, and provide a focus point for the work that was required. Both Governments, having been so involved in Concorde and for that matter ploughing so much money into the aircraft in the early development years, wanted to do as much as they could to assist in the return to service programme

The first meeting of the working group took place in Paris during September 2000, shortly after the preliminary accident report was published suggesting that a tyre bust was the blame for the accident.

F-BVFA and F-BVFB parked up in Paris (Vincent Gury)
By mid October with the fleet still parked up, the frustration was begging to show on the slow progress being made, both in the investigation and on plans to bring the aircraft back into service. Christopher Darke, the head of the British pilots' union (BALPA) said on the eve of 2nd meeting of Anglo-French working group to discuss the way forward, Mr Darke said: "They are taking an age to investigate what happened."

He went on to criticise the French system under which a magistrate is appointed to lead the inquiry and handle references passed on by the safety team.

His views were echoed by Ken Smart, head of the UK's accident investigation branch. He spoke of the "unacceptable procedural delays" imposed by judicial authorities. Mr Darke called on Britain to put pressure on the French to speed up the procedure.

Even the UK government was becoming concerned with the Department of Transport saying about the meeting that it "was concerned that impediments to the technical accident investigation be removed".

With the official investigation seemingly stalled. The airlines and representatives from the manufacturers took it upon themselves to push forward with plans that would see the Certificate of Airworthiness restored to the aircraft, by working on a set of measures and modifications that could be made to the aircraft to prevent the chain of events, that occurred during the accident sequence from occurring again. British Airways knew that they could not afford to keep Concorde on the ground past the summer of 2001 and a solution urgently needed to be found.

Jim O'Sullivan and Captain Mike Bannister
A brainstorming meeting was arranged at Gatwick Airport in early November 2000 to discuss the options for Concorde's return to service. Everybody and their dog turned up and it was near enough impossible to make any progress, so Jim O'Sullivan, BA's Technical and Quality Director, took a group of five key people aside to try to come up with a plan of action.

Together with O'Sullivan was BA Chief Concorde Pilot Mike Bannister, John Britton and Alain Marty (Chief Concorde engineers at Airbus UK and Airbus France) along with Herve Page from Air France and Roger Holliday who was the chief Airworthiness engineer at Airbus UK.

On a flip chart, with the currently understood failure mechanisms that had occurred at Gonesse, they came up with what events they needed to fully understand and prevent from happening again so that the, aircraft would be allowed back in the air.

They needed to:

If these could be understood and suitable measure put in place to significantly reduce the chances of them happening again most agreed that Concorde did have a chance of once again gracing the skies.

By the time of the next Anglo-French working group meeting in Paris a few weeks later, on November 19th 2000, a rough plan was in place that would "Break the Chain" that was believed to have caused the accident in July 2000 :

Moulded Kevlar linings could be fitted to the fuel tanks to cut down the leaks to acceptable levels and new tyres could be fitted, that if they were to burst, would crumble into small parts, rather than shred into large chunks.

Further time was needed to put a full plan into place but for once there was a chance that thing things could be turned around. It was going to cost though - many predicted 1.5 Million for each aircraft but this is well within what the airlines would be prepared to pay to get their supersonic flagships back in the air. "It's pennies compared with the sort of contribution Concorde makes to BA." Said one observer.

The Concorde pilots who had not flown their aircraft from months were delighted at the prospect of returning to supersonic passenger travel. One said that "the fuel tank lining and new tyres could be fitted in weeks", although he admitted the modifications would then need extensive testing.

'There is a clear economic issue here. British Airways cannot afford to go on losing money hand over fist on Concorde. They can only sustain such losses for a finite period,' said Chris Yates, Aviation Safety editor for Jane's Transport, "If Concorde doesn't fly again relatively soon, then it may not get back in the air at all."

Three weeks after the working group meeting, the French accident investigators published their 2nd report to the causes of the accident - which contained a startling revelation: The fuel tank had not been punctured but had in fact ruptured from the inside out, due to an hydraulic shockwave that had been formed in the fuel when the rubber from the bust tyre had impacted the underside of the aircraft.

The manufacturers and airlines had been aware of this development for a number of weeks and had taken this into account with their planning, in any case the liners would prevent a fuel leak during either a failure of the tank or puncture.

With the future looking much more positive: British Airways rolled all seven of their Concordes into formation outside their maintenance hanger at Heathrow for a one off, one of a kind picture. This was in fact the first, and possibly the last time ever, that all 7 had been able to be brought together and photographed.

All 7 British Airways Concordes lined-up for the first time, in November 2000
(Adrian Meredith / British Airways)