Like all of those who witnessed the final, desperate moments of the doomed aircraft, Willy Corenthin still cannot quite believe what he saw last Tuesday afternoon. The 29-year-old electrician, a native of Martinique, was driving his truck along a road near Charles de Gaulle airport, north of Paris, when he heard a roaring noise. "I looked to my left," he recalled, "and, to my astonishment, there was an airplane coming right at me, very close, almost on the top of the fields. It was a Concorde. The wing was on fire. It flew right over my truck. I saw the engines on the left side in flames and then, as the plane banked, it suddenly fell onto its wing and crashed right into the hotel Hôtelissimo. I saw a woman run out of the hotel, her hair and arms on fire. There was panic everywhere. My truck was covered in burning debris. I did not know where to go, what to do. And then I could not see anything, only a huge cloud of black smoke."
The next morning, Corenthin was back at the scene, standing on a wooded hillside, telling his story. On the field below lay blackened devastation, all that was left of the 40-room Hôtelissimo and Air France Flight 4590. Amongst the wreckage were dozens of red-and-white striped plastic traffic cones, each marking the mangled, carbonized remains of the victims - 100 passengers, mostly German tourists, and nine crew members, all French, as well as five people at the hotel: two Poles, a Mauritian and a local French woman, all staff members, and another victim who remained unidentified at week's end. All died in a tragedy that may well mark a turning point in aviation history: the first crash of a Concorde, the distinctive needle-nosed, delta-winged, four-engined airplane that flies at twice the speed of sound. In 24 years of commercial service, the world's only supersonic airliner, a symbol of British and French technological prowess, has never fallen from the skies, let alone killed anyone.
But last week, one did, plunging to earth on Tuesday, July 25, on the outskirts of Gonesse, a dormitory town of 25,000 people, 14 km north of Paris. The plane's final flight lasted less than two minutes after taking off from Charles de Gaulle, the French capital's main airport and the eighth busiest in the world. Even before the Air France Concorde's wheels had left the ground, it was clear that the flight was in serious peril. "I knew it was in trouble," said Sid Hare, a pilot for Federal Express couriers, who watched the takeoff from a nearby hotel. "One of the two engines on the left side obviously had a catastrophic failure. It was trailing flames 200 to 300 feet behind the airplane. It probably wiped out the engine next to it, so the airplane was then trying to climb on only two engines. The pilot kept trying to get the nose up to gain altitude, which eventually caused a stall."
Hare was not alone in witnessing the unfolding tragedy. Dozens of horrified spectators observed Flight 4590's death throes, including a Spanish woman who videotaped the scene and a pair of Hungarian youths who captured still photographs of it. Air France chairman Jean-Cyril Spinetta, whose offices are located at Charles de Gaulle, watched the Concorde's ill-fated takeoff from his window. And just 56 seconds into the flight, as the plane tore down the runway, worried officials manning the control tower radioed the pilot, 54-year-old Christian Marty, that the back of his aircraft was ablaze. Preliminary data from the two black box flight recorders, recovered intact from the wreckage, indicate that the cockpit crew were aware they had a problem. In reply to the warning from the tower, either Marty or his co-pilot, Jean Marcot, radioed back the short, terse message: "Failure in engine No. 2."
By then, however, it was too late to abort the takeoff, with the Concorde accelerating to 400 km/h and well past the point pilots call "no return." Elisabeth Senot, the deputy public prosecutor who is leading a French judicial investigation into the crash, said it appeared "that the captain was no longer able to brake given that the thrust was too great." According to Senot, who has listened to the tapes of the cockpit conversation recovered from the black boxes, Marty decided to attempt an emergency landing at nearby Le Bourget airport. To reach Le Bourget, a minute's flying time southwest of Charles de Gaulle, he had to manoeuvre the stricken plane in a loop. "It was during this looping manoeuvre," said Senot, "that the aircraft crashed on the hotel in Gonesse."
Both at the crash site and in labs, investigators were looking closely at evidence that one or two tires blew out as the doomed Concorde roared down the runway, raising the possibility that debris from the blowout may have set off the blaze. In any case, both Senot's investigation and a parallel inquiry launched by the French ministry of transport's Accident Investigation Bureau will focus on the Concorde's No. 2 engine, not least because last-minute repairs to the very same engine had helped to delay the takeoff of Flight 4590 by 66 minutes. Air France officials admitted after the crash that the airline's engineers knew there was a problem with the No. 2 engine - located next to the fuselage on the port, or left side of the plane - when the aircraft returned to Paris on Monday from a flight to New York City. The pilot reported a defect in the engine's thrust reverser, the device that helps to brake a landing plane. But no repairs were initially carried out, apparently because no spare parts were immediately available and, according to the airline, thrust reversers are not considered essential to the aircraft's safety, either during takeoff, when they are not employed, or during landings.
Marty, however, refused to take off until the part had been replaced. "The piece was immediately taken from a reserve Concorde, and the repair was carried out in 30 minutes by a three-member team of mechanics, supervised by an engineer," said Air France spokesman François Brousse. The additional delay, he added, was caused by the late arrival of baggage for some of the German tourists booked onboard the Concorde. With the repairs made and the baggage in place, Flight 4590 was finally given permission to depart. Less than a minute later, as the Concorde passed the point of no return on the runway, the interior port-side engine - No. 2 - was belching flames and clouds of black smoke. So too, according to the black box recordings, was the No. 1 exterior port-side engine. Less than two minutes later, the plane hurtled into the hotel outside Gonesse, exploding, as Hare put it, "in a huge fireball, like a mini atomic bomb."
The passengers carried to their deaths included, in addition to the nine French crew, 96 Germans, two Danes, one Austrian and an American. Many of the Germans, among them three children, were affluent holidaymakers, bound for New York where they were scheduled to board the luxury ocean liner MS Deutschland for a leisurely 15-day cruise through the Caribbean and the Panama Canal to Manta, in Ecuador. A few planned to stay onboard the Deutschland until the vessel's scheduled docking in Sydney, Australia, in time for the coming Olympic Games. The tour had been arranged by the upmarket German travel agency, Peter Deilmann Reederei, a specialist in combining cruises with Concorde flights. In the wake of last week's disaster, however, the company's president, Peter Deilmann, vowed never to book passengers aboard a Concorde again. Appearing on Germany's ZDF Television, Deilmann, voice choking with emotion, said he was "deeply shocked."
Similar sentiments were voiced by many others in Germany. Flags flew at half-mast throughout the country. German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder led his cabinet to his home town of Hanover for a solemn memorial service attended by some 350 mourners. "Germany is shaken and Germany is speechless," said Schröder. Nowhere was there as much gloom as in the north German city of Mönchengladbach, home to 13 of the dead. "There should have been 31 people from here on that plane," said Christian Strattrop, the local travel agent who booked the passages. "But at the last moment, there was not enough space. Still, this has torn a hole in our town. Most of the dead were customers I have known for years who often holiday together."
More than 100 relatives of the victims gathered last Wednesday in Gonesse, flown there by Air France. A memorial service, attended by French President Jacques Chirac, was held in the town's municipal hall. Afterwards, the relatives paid brief visits to the crash site, where they stared silently at the place where loved ones lost their lives. In a simple, poignant gesture, one young woman in black plucked a single stalk of wheat from the surrounding fields and tossed it gently onto the jumbled heap of ruin. Several of her companions soon did the same.
There is, as yet, no estimate of how long it will take the two parallel investigations to reach final conclusions, but the Accident Investigation Bureau expects to issue a preliminary report at the end of August. The judicial inquiry, headed by prosecutor Senot, is already contemplating laying charges of involuntary homicide and has seized the maintenance records. The transport ministry investigation has ruled out sabotage. And French civil aviation investigators doubt there is much possibility of human error from the cockpit crew. Pilot Marty was highly regarded, an accomplished flyer and avid sportsman who, 18 years ago, became the first person to Windsurf alone across the Atlantic Ocean. "He was very sharp mentally and physically," said fellow Air France pilot Eric Derivry. "He was passionate about mountain biking and, during stopovers, he would take his bike with him and disappear up some mountain." Co-pilot Marcot, meanwhile, had flown Concordes for a decade. Eight years ago, he was at the controls when the Concorde broke the round-the-world flying record for supersonic jets.
In the meantime, all five of Air France's remaining Concordes will remain grounded. British Airways is the only other airline flying the supersonic jet, capable of winging across the Atlantic in 3 ½ hours at a cruising speed of 2,160 km/h. In the wake of the Air France crash, BA initially also grounded the seven Concordes in its fleet. But last Wednesday, 24 hours after the disaster at Gonesse, BA's twice-daily flights between New York and London were once again in operation. As usual, the customers onboard were well-heeled, with pockets deep enough to pay the $15,000 ticket price. Director Mel Brooks and his actress wife, Anne Bancroft, were on the first Concorde flight into London after the Paris crash. "We had no worries," smiled Brooks on arrival. "It was British Airways so we knew it would be as safe as houses."
Others are not so sure. Alice Brooking is certain she will never fly the Concorde. It may be some time, in fact, before she boards any kind of airplane. The 21-year-old British woman was a guest in a second-floor room at the Hôtelissimo when the Concorde slammed into it. "I was talking to my sister in London when we heard this enormous bang," she recalled last week in Paris. "My room shook violently. I ran to the door, but the landing was covered in a solid wall of yellow flames. I ran back into the room and towards the window, which, luckily, I had opened. I saw the hotel's receptionist standing in the parking lot a floor below. 'What should I do?' I shouted. He said 'Jump,' so I did. I just jumped and ran as far away from the hotel as I could get." The young woman, originally thought to have been killed, was treated for a burned hand at a local hospital and released. "It was a truly miraculous escape," she said. "I know I shouldn't be here but I am. I'm alive." One hundred and fourteen other people, who were in the same place at the same time as Brooking last Tuesday afternoon, were not as lucky.
Maclean's August 7, 2000