BA 'confident' of fleet despite cracks on wings

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The Independent Online

British Airways last night remained confident of the safety of its fleet of seven Concorde aircraft but suspended scheduled flights in the immediate aftermath of the Paris crash.

British Airways last night remained confident of the safety of its fleet of seven Concorde aircraft but suspended scheduled flights in the immediate aftermath of the Paris crash.

Until yesterday none of the planes - six owned by Air France and seven by British Airways, out of 16 that were built (three having been retired) - had been involved in an accident. The crash yesterday involved a Concorde owned and operated by Air France.

A Civil Aviation Authority spokeswoman said: "It is inappropriate to take any action regarding UK-registered Concordes until the French authorities reveal the findings of their investigations. "We will continue to work with British Airways and British Aerospace to monitor UK aircraft."

BA is awaiting the finding into the crash investigation before deciding on the long-term operation of its aircraft.

But, while it had not been involved in any major accidents, Concorde has been involved in many smaller incidents. In January a BA Concorde had to make an emergency landing seven miles from its Heathrow destination following an engine failure. At the same time all four engines on another BA Concorde had to be replaced after dust got into the compressor blades - which effectively propel the aircraft - during a repainting job.

And on Sunday night BA admitted that it had found cracks 7.5cm (2.5in) long in the wings of all its planes; one was withdrawn from service. The crack in a 68ft-long internal cross-beam strengthening the wing had been spotted two months before but had lengthened when re-inspected.

A BA spokesman said then that the cracks were "not a safety-critical part of the plane". But it signalled perhaps a crucial point in the plane's life.

Even before that there had been signs of problems with various planes. In the 12 months between August 1998 and July 1999, the Civil Aviation Authority logged 130 incidents involving Concordes in British airspace.

In October 1998 nearly half of the lower rudder of one plane snapped off while it was flying over the Atlantic: the Air Accident Investigation Board, which investigates such incidents, has not however reported on why it happened.

The CAA insists that the number of incidents is not disproportionate to the number of aircraft, and that it did not indicate any special flaws with them. It has certainly searched for them.

For example, it always sounds impressive when one hears that thermal expansion means that during flight the 204ft (62m) Concorde becomes eight inches (20cm) longer. But that is only 0.3 per cent. More important is temperature: at its cruising altitude of 60,000 ft the normal air temperature is -76F. But Concorde's high speed generates friction which heats the air by more than 400F as it passes the tip of the aircraft's nose - which would melt the metal if the plane were not so streamlined. The air just outside the aircraft windows is thus hot enough to boil water.

The CAA investigated how damaging this heating really was in 1994 by stripping down one of the first Concordes to have gone into service. David Learmount, operations editor of Flight International magazine, said: "They were looking for all the signs of problems - metal fatigue, caused by expanding and shrinking plus the force from internal pressurisation, and the stresses and strains of take-off and, especially, landing. It got the OK."

The planes could have been approved for another 20 years' use, and on their present record could be licensed until 2005.

Perversely, part of Concorde's safety record and apparent longevity stems from the fact that it travels at twice the speed of sound: this means it suffers less wear and tear in terms of flying hours than more traditional "workhorses" such as Boeing 747s.

However, that will all be on abeyance until the findings emerge from yesterday's crash - and if that disaster was in any way age-related it could spell the end of a magic show that began more than 30 years ago but which has looked increasingly tired.

Even if every other Concorde is cleared it has also taken away a cachet that the planes had: no crashes. After yesterday nobody can ever feel quite the same about stepping on to a Concorde again.