- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 27, 2000

PARIS Investigators into the first-ever Concorde crash focused yesterday on the Rolls Royce engines that powered the doomed Air France jet, after learning the pilot delayed the flight for emergency repairs on an engine thruster. Seconds after takeoff, that same engine burst into flames.
Dramatic video footage showed the crippled supersonic plane's last seconds Tuesday, flying over a road with bright orange flames enveloping the left side of the fuselage. Thick black smoke trailed far behind.
In the grainy, shaky pictures of the 15-second video, shown on French TV, the flames appear to have engulfed the rear end of the jet by the time it leaves the camera frame. The amateur footage was shot by the wife of a Spanish truck driver as the couple drove outside Paris.
The pilot of flight AF4590, Capt. Christian Marty, made a desperate attempt at an emergency landing before the plane crashed into a hotel outside Paris, killing all 109 people onboard and four on the ground.
Capt. Marty heard from the tower 56 seconds off the ground that he was trailing fire, investigators said. He wrestled the crippled supersonic airliner through a tight bank away from the populated town of Gonesse and to the left toward nearby Le Bourget airfield.
Terrified witnesses below watched the Concorde's distinctive needle nose point downward. The plane dive-bombed into a small hotel in Gonesse. Its 100 tons of fuel exploded in a fiery column with a mushroom of black smoke.
The repaired engine No. 2 on the plane's left wing emerged as a likely cause in Tuesday's spectacular crash.
Air France said the plane had returned from New York on Monday with broken reverse thrusters on its No. 2 engine. Although this fell within the manufacturer's technical tolerances, the pilot ordered the part replaced before he would take off, the airline's statement said.
Thrusters, which are used to slow the plane upon landing, were found from a spare Concorde and the repair was made. A late connecting flight further delayed takeoff from Charles de Gaulle airport, the brief Air France communique said.
"Only after the spare part was replaced and the luggage loaded did the captain make the decision to depart," it concluded.
Experts cite insufficient thrust and the configuration of the engines as possible causes of the disaster.
As flames began to spout from his plane, Capt. Marty radioed the tower that his No. 2 engine had failed a particularly critical problem in the Concorde, veteran pilots say, because the swept wing aircraft has two engines close together under each wing. One is vulnerable to damage from the other. The veteran Concorde captain said he was trying to reach Le Bourget, a smaller and more accessible airport than Charles de Gaulle.
"It is during this looping maneuver that the aircraft crashed on the hotel," said Elisabeth Senot, the local prosecutor in charge of the crash investigation.
As crash details trickled in slowly, authorities ordered all Air France Concorde flights indefinitely grounded. France remained in shock at the loss of life in their beloved Concorde.
President Jacques Chirac, somber in a dark suit, visited a community hall near the crash site. His wife, Bernadette, seemed devastated with grief.
Forensic experts sought to identify the dead, 96 of them Germans headed to New York for a luxury cruise to the Caribbean and, for some, on to the Sydney Olympics. Two Danes, an Austrian and an American retired Air France employee Christopher Behrens were also passengers. Nine crew members died, along with four people in the hotel, including two Polish hotel trainees.
As family members arrived in Paris, German Transport Minister Reinhard Klimmt and about 50 psychologists worked to console them. The relatives were kept far from reporters and cameras.
Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said in Germany that his nation was in shock. Pope John Paul II sent condolences.
At the crash site, investigators picked carefully through ashes and rubble for more clues. Two recovered flight recorders were being examined.
French Transport Minister Jean-Claude Gayssot told reporters that he needed to see early results from the official inquiries before clearing French Concordes for takeoff again.
But British Airways resumed its London-New York Concorde flights yesterday after briefly grounding them for safety checks. And Mr. Gayssot said that despite the crash, he still believes the Concorde has a place in the modern world.
"Supersonic technology is still the technology of the future," he said.
Nonetheless, requiems have already begun for the money-losing aircraft, which never caught on outside of France and England. In recent days, engineers in both countries found cracks in the wings in some of the 13 Concordes in service.
"The Concorde without a doubt died yesterday," Le Figaro, a leading Paris daily, wrote. "It had just turned 31. For France, it's a day of mourning. The myth of a beautiful white bird will remain."
This was the first Concorde crash after three decades of service. The Rolls Royce engines, built for the Concordes in Bristol, England, have totaled a million hours of flying time, crisscrossing the Atlantic at 1,350 mph.
Steve Fushelberger, a spokesman for Rolls Royce in London, said yesterday the engine has functioned without trouble since the first Concorde passenger flights in 1976.
"This engine has been in service for 24 years," Mr. Fushelberger said. "It has an excellent safety record."
Capt. Marty, known for skill and prudence as a pilot, was also a popular sportsman. He set a world windsurf record in 1982, crossing the Atlantic from Dakar, Senegal, to French Guiana in 37 days.
In Gonesse, residents praised the pilot as a hero who saved uncounted lives in their town of 23,000 near Charles de Gaulle airport, nine miles from Paris.
"We avoided catastrophe thanks to the pilot's presence of mind," Mayor Pierre Blazy said, explaining that the plane turned just before it reached the hospital and the town beyond.
Father Claude Porcheron, a local priest, also said he believed the pilot made a last-gasp attempt to save lives. "It was the most beautiful act in the world," he said, tears welling in his eyes.
Near the demolished Hotelissimo, prayers of thanks were fervent. A group of 45 Polish tourists had left for a day of sightseeing. They returned to find smoldering ashes in a wheatfield where their rooms had been.
Almost as many teen-agers from southeastern England never made it to the hotel. Their bus got stuck in traffic.
Alice Brookings, a 21-year-old Cambridge student, made it on time from England and was on the phone to her sister when the plane fell. She opened the door to a wall of flame, then leaped back across her bed and jumped out the window.
"The heat was amazing," she said. "It was an oven."

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