Stray DC10 part downed Concorde

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The Independent Online

A stray length of metal which gashed a tire of a supersonic Concorde, leading to a fuel tank fire and dooming the flight, probably came from a Continental Airlines plane that took off on the same runway four minutes earlier, French investigators announced Monday.

A stray length of metal which gashed a tire of a supersonic Concorde, leading to a fuel tank fire and dooming the flight, probably came from a Continental Airlines plane that took off on the same runway four minutes earlier, French investigators announced Monday.

The discovery after a dogged search appears to end one glaring mystery in the technical investigation of the July 25 accident that killed all 109 people aboard the supersonic plane and four on the ground.

Meanwhile, Air France Chief Executive Officer Pierre-Henri Gourgeon raised the possibility that the Concorde could be airborne again by May 2001. It was the first time any date has been given since France and Britain officially grounded their fleets in August.

"There are many uncertainties and May would seem to be the earliest possible date," he told reporters. "Experts haven't yet made their recommendations," so costs to modify the aircraft are not known, he added.

French Transport Minister Jean-Claude Gayssot has said the plane will not be certified as airworthy until investigators can unlock the "catastrophic chain of events" that led to the crash.

Investigators were convinced early on that the metal part destroyed a left forward tire, sending huge chunks of high velocity rubber toward the fuel tanks in the Concorde's delta-shaped wings, causing a fuel leak and a huge fire.

The flight, filled with German tourists, dived into a small hotel, less than two minutes after takeoff.

A Continental DC10 had a missing part "which appeared to be identical to the metal piece found on the runway" at Charles de Gaulle airport, said a statement issued by France's Accident and Inquiry Office, or BEA.

The BEA's preliminary report on the accident, made public Thursday on the Internet, showed a picture of a bent metal strip, with rivet holes, 43 centimeters long and an inch wide. One side was painted with a greenish epoxy and the other covered with a reddish putty.

BEA investigators inspected the aircraft Saturday in Houston, where Continental is based, officials said, accompanied by officials from Continental, the National Transportation Safety Board and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.

A Continental statement said the officials "determined that a piece of a metal wear strip, similar in shape to the piece of metal found on the runway in Paris, was missing from the space between the fan reverser and the core door on the right-wing engine of the Continental DC10."

The BEA statement described the part in question as part of a hood on a thrust reverser.

It was not immediately known whether there might be any legal implications for Continental. The airline noted that "it has not been determined definitively" that the missing part on its aircraft was the piece found on the runway. BEA spokeswoman Helene Bastianelli said that it was "probably" the same part.

A parallel judicial investigation by French authorities is underway to determine eventual responsibility for the crash, but officials were not immediately available for comment.

The discovery would clear a doubt cast on the state of runway 26, which had not been fully cleaned for some 12 hours before the Concorde took off. A cleaning due to take place at 3 p.m. - less than two hours before the Concorde flight - but was canceled for a fire drill.

The find comes after a detailed search for the part by BEA investigators who examined all planes that had used runway 26 ahead of the Concorde as the aircraft returned to Paris. Investigators tracked down on home territory those airplanes which did not come back, like Continental's DC10, Bastianelli said in a telephone interview.

She said the plane in question took off about four minutes before the Concorde flight.

"There is a gap that has been filled in the scenario," she said, adding, however, that the discovery does not advance the core issue - how to prevent this kind of accident.

It was the first accident by the supersonic Concorde since it entered commercial service 24 years ago. The only two existing Concorde fleets - in France and Britain - were both officially grounded in August until further notice.

The Concorde, which flies across the Atlantic at Mach 2, twice the speed of sound, had been the most elite form of commercial transatlantic air travel.

Gourgeon, the Air France official, said it was adding an early morning Paris-New York flight to its schedule to compensate for the canceled Concorde flights.

He said while the Concorde was important for Air France's prestige, it contributed to only one percent of overall annual revenues.

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