What Went Wrong

By the time Air France Flight 4590 began its takeoff, the chartered Concorde was almost 80 minutes behind schedule. That's a big delay for a plane that makes the entire trip from Charles de Gaulle to New York in just three and a half hours. The passengers' bags were late, though, and the pilot ordered a last-minute repair on one engine. By the rule book, Capt. Christian Marty could have ignored the malfunctioning component, one of four braking devices called a thrust reverser. But he and his copilot, Jean Marcot, wanted their landing to be as smooth as the rest of the flight. The 100 passengers and nine crew members waited while mechanics found and installed a new part. Then the SST taxied to the runway.

Fifty-six seconds after clearing the plane for takeoff, the tower radioed an urgent warning: the rear of the aircraft was spouting fire. Marty and Marcot sent a terse reply: "Engine No. 2 is down." There was no time left to cancel their takeoff. They had passed V1, the term pilots use for the precise point beyond which they cannot safely abort a flight and stop before the end of the runway. The Concorde lifted off, and the men in the cockpit told the tower they would try to land at Le Bourget, an old airport less than three kilometers to the southwest, mostly used by air shows and executive jets. They never got close. Near the historical village of Gonesse the Concorde plunged into a wood-frame motel that exploded into flames 100 meters high. Everyone aboard died, along with five people in the family-owned Hotelissimo. Most of the victims' remains were burned beyond recognition.

A formal inquiry began immediately. Its findings could play a vital part in determining the future of the world's 12 remaining airworthy Concordes, civil aviation's closest approximation to the space shuttle. A detailed account of the disaster gradually emerged from flight recorders, eyewitness accounts and amateur photographs and videotapes. The abundance of film from numerous angles seemed to give the investigation a running start. Even after so many years in the air, no other plane has the Concorde's mystique--or its allure for amateur paparazzi.

Officials soon ruled out suspicions of sabotage, but they still had more questions than answers. Investigators have uncovered disturbing hints that disaster could have been averted, NEWSWEEK has learned. Informed sources say burn marks on the runway and in the grass nearby suggest that the plane was on fire very early in its takeoff roll--well before it reached the V1 point. Eyewitness reports and amateur photographs appear to support that conclusion. One of the many questions investigators are now asking is whether there was any way the controllers could have warned of trouble sooner, possibly giving the pilot enough time to abort his takeoff.

The crash reverberated throughout Europe and across the Atlantic. Germany was hit especially hard. The passenger list had included 96 Germans, three of them children. Almost all were holidaymakers on their way to join a whale-watching cruise from New York to Ecuador aboard the luxury liner MS Deutschland. "Germany is shaken," said Chancellor Gerhard Schroder at an ecumenical memorial service in Hanover. "Germany is speechless." Bishop Josef Homeyer, a Roman Catholic, uttered a heartbroken prayer: "God, where were you in Paris? Why have you deserted us?"

France was stunned as well, not only by the devastating human toll but also by the abrupt loss of one of the country's proudest national symbols. "The Concorde was for France what the Apollo space program was for the United States," says Pierre-Henri Messiah, marketing director for Dassault Aviation, builder of the Mirage jet fighter. While NASA was leaving boot tracks on the moon, France and Britain joined the space age in their own way, teaming up to create the world's only faster-than-sound airliner. And long after the Americans gave up their spendthrift gallivanting, the Concorde kept on flying--until last week. Air France immediately suspended service on its five remaining Concordes while investigators tried to piece together what brought down Flight 4590. "What crashed at Gonesse was also a beautiful dream," editorialized the daily Liberation, "swift and shimmering, like the wings of a Concorde."

British Airways temporarily grounded its fleet of seven Concordes for inspection. On the very morning of the crash, Tuesday's International Herald Tribune was reporting that British Airways and Air France had found cracks in some Concordes' wings. Investigators say the tiny flaws are no worryif they stay tiny. And Flight 4590's plane came out clean when its wings were searched for cracks. Regular flights to and from Heathrow Airport have resumed. Government officials in London say British Airways found no problems after thoroughly checking out its Concordes. The Londoners claim the French are keeping their planes grounded merely for "political reasons" until a "decent interval" has elapsed. The French say they are only being prudent. What is certain is that Concorde bookings on British Airways have slowed since the crash. The British say their regular ridership will eventually calm down and return to precrash levels. Still, they concede that the Concorde's charter-tour traffic may have been permanently hurt.

In an instant the Concorde's safety record plummeted from one of the finest in the business to one of the worst. The aviation industry tabulates aircraft safety by "hull loss" accidents per million "cycles." A cycle is one complete flight, from takeoff to landing, and a hull-loss accident is one in which the plane is destroyed. Most contemporary passenger jets, such as the Boeing 737, have records in the ballpark of 1.5 hull-loss events per million cycles. Until last week, from the first prototype model's maiden test flight in 1969, no Concorde had ever crashed. But that record is scarcely as impressive as it may sound. Based on figures published over the years by France and Britain, American statisticians say the world's entire fleet of Concorde aircraft has logged 80,000 cycles at most since its commercial debut in 1976. Compare that with the world's most-traveled passenger craft, the 737, which flies 80,000 cycles or more every week.

While the air industry pondered its safety records, Germans wept openly for their lost friends and family members. Most of the passengers were local celebrities and prominent business executives. Many thought they were headed for the vacation of a lifetime. Margret and Klaus Frentzen, schoolteachers from the Rhineland town of Monchengladbach, in cabbage-farming country, had spent years saving their pfennigs for the honeymoon they had never been able to afford. Their three children stayed home. Another couple aboard was Fritz Charton, 52, and his wife, Marion, 47. They used to be farmers in the communist east. Then the wall came down, and suddenly their little farm outside Berlin was prime real estate, worth more than in their wildest dreams. Wolfgang and Helga Schnitter, 66 and 59, made their fortunes the same way. But they hated to brag. Rather than talk about the fancy tour they had planned, they told neighbors: "We're visiting a health spa."

In Paris the investigators sifted the facts. The French government says the flight's first problems appeared in the plane's inboard left engine, the same one that had its thrust reverser fixed. The plane was lifting into the air when the engine quit and could not be restarted. At the same time the outboard left engine, No. 1, temporarily lost thrust. The aircraft should have been gaining both speed and altitude at this point, but instead it was barely holding steady. The crew tried without success to retract the landing gear. They were airborne just under a minute when No. 1 lost power again. The plane banked sharply to the left and crashed. A trail of scattered aircraft debris marked the entire length of the flight path.

Examiners are especially interested in shreds of tire collected from the runway. Evidence from the wreckage shows that at least one tire blew out, apparently on the left main landing gear, according to NEWSWEEK's sources. The blown tire's mate on the same "truck" assembly was recovered intact, but the French say another tire may have blown. The Concorde's tires have caused problems numerous times before. In one white-knuckle incident 21 years ago a tire blew on takeoff from Washington. The shrapnel damaged an engine and the plane's fuel system, which is also contained in the wings, but the pilot managed to put the plane down safely. A British Airways Concorde blew out six of its 10 tires landing in New York in August 1987. The string of close calls led the Concorde's owners to switch suppliers in the mid-1980s, and the plane has been on Goodyear tires ever since. A U.S. expert says there have been no tire problems on Concordes visiting America for a decade or more. But the Concorde's high-speed takeoffs and landings, 30 percent faster than subsonic airliners, subject the tires to extreme heat and unpredictable stresses all the same.

Aviation experts caution against premature conclusions. At the moment, however, investigators seem to be focusing most closely on a theory that the crash may have resulted from a cascading series of equipment failures. A blown tire could have thrown fragments of rubber or shattered bits of landing gear into the engine or the wing. The shrapnel could have severed fuel or hydraulic lines or even caused the engine to disintegrate. The fire at the rear suggests a rupture in the fuel system from flying debris.

Even so, people close to the investigation say they cannot yet rule out alternative explanations. It is still within the realm of possibility that something went wrong during the thrust-reverser repairs just before takeoff, although U.S. experts consider it unlikely. A British source has said that the tire debris on the runway may not be from the Concorde at all. Late last week France asked Goodyear for technical details that should help to settle the question. There has been talk of designing a new system to warn the Concorde's crew when there's a blowout.

Whatever the cause, the result was like a bad dream for everyone who witnessed it. People who live and work near de Gaulle are accustomed to the thunder of the Concorde. "We didn't need church bells to set our watches by," says Marie-Dominique Maisonnier, a schoolteacher from Gonesse, where scheduled flights almost always passed over the town at around 11:20 a.m. and 6 p.m. "It was part of our lives." But witnesses say that Flight 4590 sounded wrong--it was "dull" or "hollow." Virginia Dorize, a 23-year-old graphic designer, has an office near the runway. The strange noise made her spring up from her desk. Through her office window she saw the plane lifting off amid plumes of fire.

Willy Corenthin, 29, a local electrician, heard the roar and saw the takeoff from his car on local highway 902, between the airport and Gonesse. The Concorde was spouting flames and flying too low. The plane started to turn. Corenthin assumed the pilot was trying to avoid hitting the town, but aviation experts say the plane was probably uncontrollable at this point. The left wing was on fire. As the plane banked, it fell. "It did not dive," says the electrician. "It dropped straight down." He was watching from almost a kilometer away when the jet hit the motel. He ran toward the scene, he says, "but with the smoke and the flames, there was no way."

Michele Fricheteau had just let most of her staff go on break at Hotelissimo. They were preparing for a large group of English musicians who were to check in that evening. A few employees kept working: two Polish interns, a maid from Mauritius and a newly hired student from Algeria. The sound of the approaching SST was even more deafening than usual. "Damn," the motel keeper said to herself, "the Concorde is really pushing things today." A moment later, flames seared her face and arms--but she escaped alive. The four employees died, along with a fifth victim who was not immediately identified. Late last week Fricheteau, arms wrapped in bandages, led a memorial procession of about 1,000 mourners as they laid wreaths near the motel's ruins. "We have lost everything," she said.

The elite ranks of Air France's 33 Concorde flight officers grieved for their comrades. Capt. Edgard Chillaud, who trained Marty on the Concorde and the Airbus 340, liked him from the start: "He was immediately seen as a good fellow to work with. Good pilot. Good skills." Two decades ago Marty became a national hero when he windsurfed across the Atlantic. His copilot, Marcot, was one of the most experienced Concorde fliers in the air. "He could have elected to be a captain on a short-haul aircraft years ago," says Chillaud. Eventually he could have worked his way up to command his own Concorde. But he couldn't bear to be parted from the aircraft even temporarily. "It's like a car," says Chillaud. "If you get into a Formula 1 car, it also has a steering wheel, a shift, an engine and wheels. It is the same. But it's different." Even before last week's crash, officials at Air France and British Air were saying the Concorde may have only a decade of service remaining. There may never again be a plane quite like it.