Concorde inquiry centres on last-minute engine repairs demanded by the captain

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The Independent Online

A hasty engine repair in the minutes before take-off emerged yesterday as the likely cause of Tuesday's Concorde crash near Paris which killed 113 people.

A hasty engine repair in the minutes before take-off emerged yesterday as the likely cause of Tuesday's Concorde crash near Paris which killed 113 people.

Air France revealed that the captain of the doomed flight AF4590 had insisted on the replacement of a faulty part in the reverse thruster of his number two engine - the one that caught fire - as the aircraft waited on the apron at Charles de Gaulle airport.

The plane could have taken off with this non-vital fault untouched but the captain - Christian Marty, one of the most experienced pilots on the Concorde roster - refused to leave until the repair was done.

His scrupulous attention to safety and detail may have led, paradoxically, to the disaster. A criminal investigation for manslaughter, formally launched in France yesterday, will focus on the possibility that the repair may have introduced another fault.

Since no spare-part was available, a piece was stripped from another Concorde, which was out of use, and fitted to the New York-bound Concorde, aircraft number F-BTSC. The switch took 30 minutes.

Preliminary study of the cockpit voice recorder shows that the pilot realised that there was a serious fault as the aircraft began its take-off but had already reached the speed of no-return. He informed air-traffic control that he intended to try an emergency landing at the smaller Le Bourget airport, six miles away. Aviation experts said that it should have been possible for an experienced Concorde pilot to land safely on three engines. But the aircraft dropped gently from the sky - one witness said it "fell like a leaf in autumn, tail and one wing pointing downwards" - as it tried to turn towards its emergency landing site.

Investigators believe the blaze in the number two engine must have spread to the adjacent number one engine, unbalancing the delta-winged aircraft. A former Concorde pilot told Le Monde newspaper that the positioning of the Anglo-French, supersonic airliner's engines in two groups of two, close beside one another, had always been recognised as "Concorde's Achilles heel".

President Jacques Chirac led world leaders in offering his sympathy to the families of the victims at a moving ecumenical ceremony yesterday at Gonesse, near the crash scene, attended by scores of the victims' relatives.

The harrowing task of recovering the bodies, many of them badly charred or dismembered, continued throughout yesterday and will resume today. The rescue services are determined to avoid any possibility that relatives might be given the wrong, or incomplete, remains.

The death toll was provisionally confirmed yesterday as 113 - 100 passengers, almost all German, including six from members of one family from Bavaria; nine crew, all French; and four people on the ground, in the hotel Hotelissimo, which was struck by the falling aircraft. An English student and tour guide, Alice Brooking, 21, from Kent, who was believed on Tuesday to been one of the victims at the hotel, survived by jumping out of a first-floor window as fire took hold.

Crash investigators will be focusing their attention on the replacement of the Concorde's "reverse thruster" - a device which turns around the direction of the power generated by an engine. Its purpose is to help an aircraft to slow on landing or to abort a take-off. When Concorde F-BTSC, built in 1980, arrived in Paris on Monday, the pilot reported that the reverse thruster in number two engine had failed. Because no spare part was available, it was decided to take no action.

Under the Concorde's safety specifications, the aircraft is allowed to fly with the reverse thrust operating in only three engines. But when Captain Marty, 54, was informed he objected. Since his plane would be full, he insisted that it must be functioning perfectly.

Three investigating judges have been appointed to inquire into possible criminal responsibilities for the crash. There will also be inquiries by the French transport safety agency and by Air France. Analysis of the two "black box" flight recorders is due to be completed today or tomorrow..

The French government has ordered Air France to suspend Concorde flights until the results of this analysis are known. British Airways resumed flights yesterday.