Yet another disaster that could have been prevented

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BBC News, Saturday, 29 July, 2000, 15:27 GMT 16:27 UK. As attention in the Paris Concorde disaster focuses on a possible tyre blow-out, a regular Concorde passenger has told the BBC he was on a previous flight when debris from a burst tyre pierced the wing, rupturing the fuel tank. Bill Lightfoot said the drama happened on an Air France Concorde, flying from Washington to Paris in June, 1979. He says he was told by the crew that it was not the first time a tyre had burst - but the co-pilot went grey when he saw the hole.

Speaking on BBC World Service radio, Mr Lightfoot said the drama had begun as the plane had been preparing to take off. "There was a shuddering sensation, like a car would feel if you had blown tyres, and something went vertically past my window," he said. "When I loosened my seatbelt and peered down through the three layers of glazing, I could see a hole in the wing. It appeared to be a good size, with pieces of ripped aluminium or some other alloy, and huge amounts of liquid spewing out of this hole. It became clear the tyres had blown, and dropped the wheels onto the pavement. They shattered and pieces spun off, ripping through the wing and through at least one fuel tank."

Mr Lightfoot, an aviation consultant at the time, says he tried to alert the crew to the damage as the aircraft accelerated. Cabin crew at first tried to insist he had mistaken the flaps for a hole, but when he persisted the steward agreed to go to the cockpit. "He came back and said: 'The pilot says he knows he's blown some tyres and it's happened before' - which is interesting as already in June 1979 they knew they were blowing tyres."

Mr Lightfoot says he again insisted something was seriously wrong, and finally the French co-pilot came to the cabin to investigate. "I grabbed his head and pushed it over by the windows so he could see. "He said: 'Mon Dieu'. He just blanched, he turned grey, ashen." Since the Paris crash, US investigators have revealed that on at least four occasions between 1979 and 1981, Air France Concorde did suffer burst tyres on take-off. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) confirmed that in the June 1979 incident, two tyres on the left-hand side had burst, showering tyre debris and wheel shrapnel into number two engine, puncturing three tanks and the severing several hydraulic and electrical wires. A large hole was also torn in the skin of the top wing.

Mr Lightfoot says he believes the plane which crashed in flames had suffered exactly the same fate - but the only difference was that the fuel leaking from his plane had not ignited. "In the incident I was in, fragments of the wheel went into number two engine," he said. The same thing happened in a later accident. So in the Paris incident, when they said the number two engine failed I said: 'Yeah - that's where the wheel fragments keep going.' It made perfect sense."

"Exploding tires have been a problem on the Concorde in at least seven cases, USA Today said, citing aviation databases, causing severe fuel tank leaks, severing hydraulic tubes and damaging engines. In an incident at London's Heathrow Airport on Oct. 25, 1993, a tire exploded on a Concorde, causing a 'substantial' fuel leak, USA Today said, quoting the English Air Accident Investigation Branch (AAIB)." (, "French decline comment on Concorde tire guard report", August 3, 2000, Web posted at: 1440 GMT)
The search for the cause of the fire that brought down Swissair Flight 111 on the evening of September 2, 1998, killing all 229 people aboard, took over four years and cost $39 million. It was one of the most exhaustive airline crash investigations ever mounted. In this interview, airline safety expert David Evans takes an authoritative look at the investigation and what he calls a "confederacy of complacency" in the airline industry regarding safety improvements following this and other major accidents. The interview was conducted in October 2003 at the offices of Air Safety Week, a widely respected airline safety newsletter that Evans edits: "...Behind every major aviation accident is a history. In the case of Swissair Flight 111 and the thermal acoustic insulation blankets, the Chinese had experienced a number of cases of in-flight fire and damage in which the blankets had burned. And the Chinese authorities had contacted our Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and advised them 'Guys, you may have a flammability problem here.' Action taken: None.... What strikes me is that so many of these accidents about which I have written over the years had precursor events that, had action been taken with alacrity, if we had not been in the Rip Van Winkle mode of regulatory torpor, could have been prevented. So the issue to me is not whether you can fly for a thousand years before you're going to be involved, statistically speaking, in an aircraft accident. The question is: How many of these accidents were avoidable and preventable? I haven't seen one yet where structure and systems were involved where it wasn't avoidable and preventable beforehand. And therein lies the tragedy. Therein lies the culpability." ("Dissection of a Disaster: Crash of Flight 111", NOVA (PBS) website, Created Feb04)
See the metal strip that fell off another plane onto the runway, that blew the concorde's tire as it ran over it, causing pieces of the tire to puncture the concorde's fuel tank, releasing fuel which caught fire and caused the crash....
[ Take another very short plane ride! ]Learn more about Concorde supersonic transport (SST).
Have a look! Archeologists discover original Concorde prototype (humor).
Ask an obvious question (pointed air-safety humor).
Read about Russian nuclear submarine Kursk tragedy (12Aug00).
Read Prof. Henry Petroski's engineering safety principles.
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24 January 2007 (2007-01-24 ISO 8601)
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