Beware experts with tunnel vision and a drum to bang
Idly channel-flicking, I chanced upon a TV programme called ‘Inside the Cockpit: The Concorde Crash’ on Channel 5, and my flicking thumb was instantly stilled. It turned out to be a worthwhile disquisition on the circumstances of the Gonesse accident−the first half, anyway. The second half degenerated into a jumble of non-sequiturs and red herrings, lent spurious authenticity by the fact that the worst allegations were made by two Concorde captains, John Hutchinson and Brian Walpole.
John Hutchinson has been banging this drum for years, although he retired before Gonesse and took no part in the return-toservice process that involved a meticulous study by pilots on both sides of the Channel of exactly what happened on that day. The accident, he said on the TV programme, was the fault of the crew. “If they’d stuck to operating that aircraft in a standard way, then, I would argue, that crash would not have happened,” he said. To back him up, former BA Concorde General Manager Brian Walpole accused the Flight Engineer of panicking and shutting down the number two engine, which, he said, had “dealt the death knell for everyone on board.”
The flight crew−captain Christian Marty, co-pilot Jean Marcot and flight engineer Gilles Jardinaud−are not around to defend themselves, but somebody must because they were not to blame, and it’s disturbing to hear them traduced by people who should know better. More recent Concorde pilots who know the facts, who were part of the investigation and who flew the accident profile in simulators countless times, will tell you that the crew of Air France 4590 did nothing out of the ordinary before the flight and handled the emergency with skill, but from the second F-BTSC hit a sliver of titanium alloy on runway 26 at CDG on July 25th 2000, the flight was doomed−nothing they could have done would have prevented the accident, nothing they did affected the outcome.
’SC crashed, they say, when the fire burned through all three hydraulic systems, green, blue and yellow, and the controls went to neutral just as the number one engine failed. Whatever is said about weight, about C of
G, a missing spacer, a broken runway light, even about the co-pilot’s licence being invalid because his medical was four days out of date, the aircraft flew, and the crew did a nearexemplary job of keeping it in the air. There was no panic on the flight deck−all three men continued to talk in measured tones and to do their impossible jobs right to the end. Had the hydraulics not failed the aircraft might even have reached Le Bourget, less than a mile beyond the crash site, but many of the passengers would be dead−those in the rear had already died from toxic fumes before the aircraft hit the hotel.
The idea floated by John Hutchinson that the filling of Concorde’s fuel tanks was non-standard procedure is nonsense−it was enshrined in the BA Concorde Navigation Manual under ‘High Level Incremental (HLI) Fuel’ which says up to 1,200kg extra can be loaded if required. Indeed, Captain Marty
Whatever is said... the crew did a near exemplary job of keeping it in the air
could have been criticised had he not taken on extra fuel; the perennial problem with Concorde was too little fuel, not too much. Air France’s Chief Concorde pilot, Edgard Chillaud told me the Paris controllers didn’t understand how critical fuel was in Concorde, and he once started a row when they vectored him so far east on take-off that he asked whether they were diverting him to Moscow. Indeed, John Hutchinson’s co-complainant on the TV programme Brian Walpole was permanently grounded by BA in 1988 after landing a New York Concorde with so little fuel that the aircraft was unable to taxi to the terminal at Heathrow. BA Concorde captains routinely took on HLI fuel−on the scheduled flight to Barbados, for instance, you had to. Marty had a heavy aircraft, and Paris is 180 miles further from New York than London. In taking legitimate HLI fuel, he did nothing unusual or wrong, despite Hutchinson’s inferences.
The missing undercarriage spacer, inexcusable engineering error though it was, is a red herring. Fast-taxi tests with an Air France Concorde at Istres showed that if anything, it would cause Concorde to run right, rather than left as it did after the tyre shredded.
Whatever forced early rotation on Marty, the aircraft flew. When the fire warning sounded on the number two engine Gilles Jardinaud pre-empted by a few seconds Marty’s fire drill call by shutting down the engine−when Marty asked for “fire drill” Jardinaud replied “already done”. Jardinaud showed some hesitation when faced with inexplicable surges on engines one and two, but he didn’t ever panic, and he was not responsible for the deaths of everyone on board.
A dozen factors, some of them so unlikely as to be barely believable, led up to the accident, but Concorde crew who have run endless simulations say that the aircraft flew until hydraulics and number one engine failed, and control was lost. It was never possible for the crew to save it, and they don’t deserve the opprobrium Hutchinson heaps upon them. The BEA report falls short because the French judiciary had priority over the accident investigators and got in the way, but the vast conspiracy Hutchinson alleges is hot air, and the knee-jerk Francophobes who lap it up need to take a reality check.
Concorde went back into service with Kevlar tank linings, which Andre Turcat told me were never necessary because the Goodyear tyres had been replaced by special-compound Michelins which would not have exploded. But it was not BA’S inability to afford the maintenance that finally killed Concorde, as Hutchinson’s TV programme claimed, it was the second Gulf War. The French had invested a lot in Saddam Hussein and didn’t want him removed, and their refusal to support Bush caused fury in the States. French fries were renamed Freedom fries, French mustard was taken off the shelves and there was an almost total boycott of Air France. Americans made up more than seventy per cent of Concorde passengers, and with its Concordes leaving New York with as few as five passengers, Air France was losing around £1 million a week on the service and permanently grounded the fleet. It was politically inconceivable that the British should be allowed to continue to fly Concorde when the French could not, so Airbus pulled the type certificate and that was the end.
Not a pretty story, but not the story Hutchinson tells. He needs to stop grinding his axe and let the blameless Marty, Marcot and Jardinaud rest in peace.
Pat has worked as a journalist on three continents and is a fixed-wing pilot and former helicopter instructor with 1,500 hours TT