Burying Their Heads

First published December 2010.

Wiki could have done some first class leaking had it exposed the long standing problems Concorde had with her tyres from the onset of her operations. As it was Wikileaks was not around and we, the operators and manufacturers, kept it quiet, plodded on, and successfully ran the World’s first supersonic transport, SST, for twenty-six years before we were found out.

There were lots of tyre incidents in those first few years from 1976 through to the early eighties in which we learned not to use remoulds on the rears: then not to use them at all. For a while we were restricted to 225 miles an hour on the ground, the limiting speed for the early tyres, which restricted quite a lot of summertime operations because Concorde needs to go very fast when loads are high, but we pressed on determinedly.

Things improved as we learned to treat the wheels and tyres more carefully, and the maintenance guys learned the wear, and damage levels, for safe flight. The manufactures eventually produced tyres for the higher speeds, which gave us a lot more freedom and less incidents. Then there was a setback. a period when the hydraulic systems were experiencing failures of the neoprene seals, leaving us without the anti-skid system sometimes, which caused some damage, but we managed until engineering came up with answers. Good job Wiki didn’t come around then, leaking our info to all and sundry, or SST might have been nipped in the bud.

The heavyweight take off in summertime always sharpened our concentration because that was the toughest operation for our tyres. Unlike most sub-sonic aeroplanes  Concorde’s wings did not generate much lift until the pilot pulled back on the controls to lift the nose into the air. Once her head was up Concorde’s wings bit into the air and lifted her off the ground beautifully. Until that moment though, the tyres were becoming hotter, and hotter, as she charged down the runway towards 250 miles an hour.

Once she passed 180 miles an hour she would be unable to stop, even if needs must, so would have to continue regardless of tyre, engine, hydraulic, or any other failures, and take her problems into the air, which was fine. It was fine if one engine stopped, or one hydraulic system leaked, or even if all the tyres burst; she could handle that. If two engines failed she had a serious problem, as do most civil airliners. If two engines failed the pilot needed to take her into the air judiciously: taking great care to lift her head just enough to generate the lift to keep her in the air without allowing her to lose the speed she had. If that was done correctly, and the Flight Engineer selected contingency, extra, power on the remaining engines, and started dumping fuel, which goes out at 2,000 tonnes per minute, the aircraft could gain altitude as the weight decreased.

We used to practice our skills in what we, in British Airways, called the ‘Double Engine Failure Drill.’ Sometimes we had it wrong: if the pilot let her head come up too much and she slowed too much to fly; if the flight engineer selected the wrong fuel valves, starving the good engines, which were very greedy at that stage, or if he was distracted by the flashing engine fire warnings urging him to fire drills, but with practice, we had it right, and went on to fly another day.

On the 25th July 2000, Airfrance 459 did not go on to fly another day. It was her, and 113 humans’, last day. They died because: the weather was hot; the aircraft was overloaded and out of trim; there was sharp debris on the runway; there was a spacer missing from the port undercarriage bogey; the pilot rotated the controls at 170 knots; the flight engineer did not select contingency power, or dump fuel; he did a fire drill instead.

You can add other factors that include: sloppy work by baggage handling that left 19 bags unaccounted on the load and balance sheet; bad practice by the flight engineer in other aspects of engine, and fuel management; negligence by pilots, and the dispatcher, in not adjusting for the change in the wind direction; Continental Airlines for the debris; Airfrance engineering maintenance for the whopping mistake that allowed the port bogey to drag.

You can take into account all those factors, and more, but you cannot, in all conscience, just blame another airline. Had Wiki been leaking the true story we might have re-enforced the vulnerable fuel tanks before the accident. Had Wiki been leaking the crew training stories Airfrance crews might have been better prepared

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