Concorde Delayed for Maintenance

Wednesday, July 26th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

GONESSE, France (AP) —The Air France Concorde plane that crashed and killed 113 people during takeoff had been delayed for last-minute maintenance on one of its engines, Air France said Wednesday as its fleet of supersonic jets was indefinitely grounded.

French forensic experts examined the charred bodies of the victims, mainly German tourists, to determine their identities as relatives began arriving in Paris a day after the crash. ``Today Germany is shaken,'' Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said at a service for the victims at a chapel in Hanover, Germany, on the grounds of the World's Fair. Pope John Paul II sent condolences.

In France, President Jacques Chirac was to attend an ecumenical ceremony later Wednesday in the town where the plane went down. He said ``everything'' would be done to determine the causes of the accident.

Air France said the crash of Flight AF4590 on Tuesday appeared to have been caused by a fire in one of the engines at the moment of takeoff. Experts said possible causes of the fire ranged from birds flying into the air intake to mechanical failure.

At a morning news conference, company spokesman Francois Brousse said the flight was delayed for several minutes before takeoff while work was done on an engine. Brousse did not say if the engine was the same one that caught fire or if the problem was related to the crash.

He said the work was done at the request of the crew.

``Our safety rules are such that if our crew has any hint of a problem, then this kind of intervention is automatic,'' Brousse said.

French Transport Minister Jean-Claude Gayssot on Wednesday ordered the indefinite suspension of all Air France Concorde flights. He said he wanted more checks, with an emphasis on the recovered black boxes — the flight recorders and cockpit voice recorder.

``When we know a sufficient amount about them, and when we're in touch with our British colleagues, we will be able to consider the decision to resume,'' he said. However, he said the future of the Concorde was ``not in question.''

The Ministry of Transportation said the two recorders were damaged but had been found.

Air France already grounded all Concorde flights Wednesday. British Airways canceled its two Tuesday night flights, but resumed Concorde service on Wednesday between New York and London after completing safety checks.

German Transport Minister Reinhard Klimmt, who along with 50 psychologists was meeting victims' relatives in Paris, said the investigation was focusing on engine failure.

``Technology can fail and in this case, it failed horribly,'' Klimmt said on German television.

French media speculated on whether this marked the end of the swooping ``white bird,'' a source of French pride. The daily Le Figaro wrote, ``The Concorde without a doubt died yesterday.''

Until Tuesday, the Concorde had a perfect safety record during 31 years of service since it was developed by Britain and France in the 1960s.

At least one of the two left-side engines was on fire as the plane took off at 4:44 p.m. from Charles de Gaulle airport carrying 100 passengers and 9 crew members, witnesses said. As the jet struggled to gain height, witnesses saw a plume of flame trailing 60 yards behind it.

Crash scene
AP/Alastair Grant [20K]

All those aboard perished, along with four people on the ground. Twelve people were rushed out of Hotelissimo, the hotel that was hit. One was seriously injured, police said early Wednesday. A neighboring hotel was damaged.

Ninety-six of the passengers were from Germany — 13 from the town of Moenchengladbach, on the border with the Netherlands. There were also two Danes, one Austrian and one American. The American was a retired Air France employee, but the company did not release a name.

The victims on the ground included two Polish hotel employees, the Polish Consulate in Paris confirmed. The identities of the other two victims were not immediately known, though television reports said they were a British tourist and a French woman.

Authorities said 81 bodies had been taken away for autopsies by Wednesday morning.

The Concorde passengers were headed for New York, where they planned to board a German cruise liner for a luxury voyage through the Caribbean. They were supposed to be enjoying champagne over the ocean at twice the speed of sound.

But the dream vacation ended in a nightmare of flame and black smoke at Gonesse, a small town near Charles de Gaulle airport about nine miles northeast of the French capital.

``We saw flames shoot up 40 meters (120 feet) and there was a huge boom,'' said Samir Hossein, a 15-year-old student from Gonesse who was playing tennis. ``The pilot tried to yank it up, but it was too late.''

Firefighters poured streams of water on the blackened chunks of what was once the pride of the Air France fleet.

The crash did not appear to be linked to cracks found recently in both British Airways and Air France Concordes.

``There were no hairline cracks in this Concorde, but the accident could have resulted from fire in the engine on takeoff,'' Air France said. The jetliner was powered by Rolls-Royce Olympus 593 engines.

The plane, full of fuel on takeoff for the Atlantic run, had been in service since 1980 and had flown 12,000 hours. It had its last mandatory regulatory checkup July 21.

Twelve of the needle-nosed supersonic jetliners are still operated by Air France and British Airways.

The Concorde, which first flew in 1969, has been considered among the world's safest planes. Its only major scare came in 1979, when a bad landing blew out a plane's tires. The incident led to a design modification.

The plane, which crosses the Atlantic at 1,350 mph, is popular with celebrities, world-class athletes and the rich. It flies above turbulence at nearly 60,000 feet, crossing the Atlantic in about 3 1/2 hours, less than half the time it takes regular jetliners. A round-trip Paris-New York ticket costs $9,000.

Air France officials have said in the past that their current fleet is fit to fly safely until 2007.