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What was the worst plane crash in the world?

What was the worst plane crash in the world?

We can’t choose one, so we will look at a number of awful events in the history of airtravel!

Death of a Dream : The crash of Air France Concorde flight 4590

Aviation

Concorde Crash

On the 25th of July 2000, travelers at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris watched in horror as a supersonic Concorde lifted off the runway in flames. Faced with a raging fire and two failing engines. The pilots fought to keep their unwieldy airplane aloft. Hurtling along just above the ground in a desperate race against time. It was a race they could not possibly win. Less than one minute after takeoff, Air France flight 4590 stalled and spun. And then crashed into a hotel in the Paris suburb of Gonesse, killing all 109 people on board as well as four on the ground.

The sudden and dramatic loss of a Concorde shocked the world.

The iconic supersonic airliner had flown for 24 years without a single accident, inspiring countless millions with its beautiful shape and its Mach 2 cruising speed. That this plane, in the 21st century, should crash just moments after takeoff seemed unfathomable. Investigators would find a chain of errors that led to the disaster, from its inception weeks earlier and an ocean away aboard a Continental Airlines DC-10, to the last-minute calculations of the aircraft’s weight, to the split-second decisions made by the crew as they lifted their burning airplane off the runway, a sequence that culminated in 46 desperate seconds that would change aviation forever.

Confusion on the Runway : Crash of USAir flight 5050.
Onlookers gather around an early model of the Concorde in the 1970s. (Conde Nast Traveler) Concorde Crash

At the beginning of the 1960s, the world assumed that the nascent jet age would be little more than a stepping stone on the way to something far greater: the age of supersonic transport. Jets had cut air travel times in half. But if airliners could break the sound barrier and cruise in the zone of optimum efficiency which lay beyond it, those times could be halved again. Major governments began to explore the development of such aircraft as early as the 1950s. And manufacturers expected that within fifteen years, “supersonic transports,” or SSTs, would come to dominate the market. Boeing even designed the 747 with cargo operations in mind. Boeing had expectations that it would soon become obsolete in passenger service due to the arrival of the SSTs.

But it was not to be. The engineering was sound.

The basic principles of how to make an SST were already known — but the biggest barrier proved to be practicality. SSTs needed enormous runways, and they needed to fly most of their routes over water, because sonic booms over populated areas tended to cause widespread damage and popular discontent. As the number of feasible supersonic transport routes narrowed, governments and manufacturers began to lose interest, until only one Western SST remained in development: the joint British-French project known as Concorde.

Confusion on the Runway : Crash of USAir flight 5050.
Concorde was known as one of the most beautiful planes ever to fly. (Conde Nast Traveler) Concorde Crash

Concorde was indeed much faster than regular jets, but it never achieved the main goal of the SST, which was to be not only faster but more efficient as well. Limited to a few transatlantic routes, plagued by maintenance issues. Furthermore, banned from going supersonic over inhabited areas, British Airways and Air France — the only airlines that ended up buying the Concorde — found that it was much more effective as a status symbol than as a means of transport.

Confusion on the Runway : Crash of USAir flight 5050.

Concorde represented a triumph of British and French engineering and a milestone of human technological achievement, never mind that tickets were too expensive for ordinary people; the planes spent more time in maintenance than they did in the air; and all the orders from independent airlines were cancelled before it even went into service. But as soon as one caught sight of Concorde’s sleek, white form streaking overhead, all criticism melted away: the plane was beautiful, it was awe-inspiring, it was magnificent.

To fly Concorde was the dream of every aspiring pilot; for prospective passengers, just being on it was enough to elicit childlike excitement. It didn’t much matter that its cabin was cramped, that its windows were tiny, or that its high-speed takeoffs and landings induced emotions ranging from mild alarm to outright terror. What did any of that mean if you could come back home and tell your friends that you flew aboard Concorde at twice the speed of sound?

Despite the terrifying thought of something going wrong at Mach 2, Concorde was much like other planes in that takeoffs and landings were by far the most dangerous part of each flight. The plane was designed to fly at high altitudes at great speed; that was where it was at home. But on the approach to an airport, or right after takeoff, it felt and looked more like a fish trying to make its way on land. Its massive, sweeping delta wings were optimized for supersonic flight but were inefficient at low speed. And its long, aerodynamic nose had to be lowered out of the way during taxiing so that pilots could see where they were going.

Furthermore, every Concorde flight required another Concorde to be on standby in case a problem arose with the first one, which happened frequently. After all, the passengers had paid for the specific privilege of flying on Concorde. And could not be placed on a normal alternative flight.

Despite all these difficulties, by the year 2000, Concorde had been in service for more than 24 years without any serious safety issues. The idea that one could simply fall from the sky was, to most, unthinkable.

On the 25th of July 2000, one hundred passengers gathered at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, ready to board Air France flight 4590, a chartered Concorde service from Paris to New York. At Concorde’s cruising speed, they could expect to arrive in New York in a little over three hours, twice as fast as a regular commercial flight. But Concorde was often delayed. And today was no exception: boarding occurred 45 minutes late in order to allow mechanics time to fix a broken thrust reverser. Nor could Air France have used the standby plane, because this was already the standby plane, the original having been pulled from service due to an unrelated mechanical problem.

The passengers were almost all German tourists who had purchased a package tour including a Concorde flight to New York, followed by a cruise to Ecuador. Some had coughed up the extremely expensive tickets without a second thought, but for others, this was a dream that had been years in the making; one couple, a pair of school teachers, had saved for two decades to afford the trip.

In command that day was Captain Christian Marty, who was in every way a remarkable man. Marty was not just a Concorde pilot, but also an extreme athlete; most notably, in 1982 he became the first person ever to windsurf across the Atlantic Ocean. Flying Concorde was the next logical step for the ambitious 53-year-old father of two, and he had accumulated around 317 hours on the supersonic jet since upgrading in August 1999. Joining him that day were 50-year-old First Officer Jean Marcot, who had more than 10,000 flying hours, including 2,700 on Concorde; and 58-year-old Flight Engineer Giles Jardinaud, a seasoned crewmember who had been operating Concorde systems since 1997.

On flight 4590, the crew and their dispatchers faced a difficult logistical puzzle. The plane was completely full with 100 passengers, nine crewmembers, a large load of baggage. And 95,000 kilograms of fuel, enough to fill every tank to capacity. Some wrangling of the numbers had to be performed in order to get the plane under its maximum takeoff weight of 185,070 kilograms, but even after the pilots concluded that they were within limits, a number of discrepancies remained. Nineteen bags were loaded into the aft baggage compartment without being added to the load sheet. And the pilots counted on burning the Air France standard of 2,000 kilograms of fuel during taxi, which turned out to be unrealistically high. Even without accounting for these faulty assumptions, the pilots concluded that they would take off at the structural limits of the airplane.

Expert calculations would later show that the plane was in fact operating outside its approved envelope. The real weight of the plane was at least 700 kilograms more than the maximum takeoff weight under the conditions. And the center of gravity was at least 54.2% aft, farther back than the maximum of 54%. And these were the conservative estimates — the actual exceedances might have been considerably greater. Of course, these limits are not a hard line beyond which the plane will not fly, but by going over them, the crew of flight 4590 stripped away a significant portion of the margin of error protecting their plane against unexpected events during takeoff.

No doubt with some small flicker of pride, First Officer Marcot asked the controller for permission to use the entire 4.2-kilometer-long runway 26 Right. As the plane lined up for takeoff at 16:40, Flight Engineer Jardinaud commented that they had used 800 kilograms of fuel, less than the 2,000 allotted for taxiing. Given that they were already at their max takeoff weight even without this extra fuel, the pilots should have sat at the threshold and burnt the remaining 1,200 kilograms. But instead Captain Marty simply replied, “We haven’t left yet, have we?”

After finishing up a few final checklist items, the crew received takeoff clearance at 16:42. Captain Marty advanced the throttles to takeoff power, and the four Rolls Royce Olympus engines roared to life. Passengers felt themselves pressed back against their seats as the incredible acceleration picked up the plane and hurled it down the runway. Heads turned all over the airport at the sound of that deep, earth-shaking bellow, the unmistakable sound that told everyone within several kilometers that Concorde was on the roll.

Twenty-three seconds into the takeoff run, First Officer Marcot called out, “One hundred knots,” followed nine seconds later by “V1,” the highest speed at which the takeoff could be aborted. And then, at 16:43 and 10 seconds, disaster struck.

The metal strip hit by flight 4590, photographed where it came to rest on the runway. (BEA) Concorde Crash

Traveling at immense speed, the inner front tire on Concorde’s left main landing gear ran over a metal strip lying edgewise on the runway. The strip instantly sliced deep into the highly pressurized tire, causing it to disintegrate with enormous violence. Within a fraction of a second, chunks of rubber and metal began to fly in every direction, ripping through wires, damaging the landing gear doors. And smashing into the underside of the wing. Fuel immediately began to stream from a hole in fuel tank #5, streaking back in front of the engine intakes and the landing gear bays, where a short-circuiting wire, damaged by flying debris, immediately set it alight.

As a huge plume of flame erupted beneath the left wing. The ingestion of fuel and turbulent air caused both engines on that side to lose power. Violent surges rocked engines one and two as highly pressurized air from the combustion chambers forced its way back out through the inlets. The plane started to veer to the left. The asymmetric thrust and damaged left gear dragging it away from the runway centerline.

A photo taken from a nearby plane shows the first stage of the fire. (BEA) Concorde Crash

Just ahead of Concorde, stopped on a taxiway off the left side of runway 26R, was a fully loaded Boeing 747 containing French President Jacques Chirac, who had just returned from a trip to Japan.

As the crippled Concorde veered toward the 747, First Officer Marcot shouted, “Watch out!”

Captain Marty, knowing that the plane would not become airborne and would likely strike the 747 if it went into the grass, jammed the rudder hard to the right and raised the nose for liftoff. The plane was still 11 knots below its normal rotation speed, but Marty felt that he had no choice. Flight Engineer Jardinaud, aware that the plane would be in serious trouble if it took off with two dying engines, said “stop,” but his exclamation was drowned out by a message from air traffic control: “Concorde four five nine oh, you have flames behind you!”

While passengers aboard Chirac’s 747 watched in horror, the burning Concorde ran over several runway edge lights and then lurched into the air, streaking past the cockpit as the pilots looked on in stunned disbelief. In the passenger cabin, someone snapped photographs of the fiery takeoff, immortalizing the moment on film.

Aboard Air France flight 4590, Flight Engineer Jardinaud announced, “Failure eng… failure engine two!” One second later, a fire alarm bell sounded as the heat of the blaze triggered the #2 engine fire warning circuit. “Shut down engine two!” he said.

“Engine fire procedure!” said Captain Marty.

Jardinaud immediately pulled the fire extinguisher handle. Simultaneously, the #1 engine, which had begun to recover from the initial surges, started to lose power again as pieces of the burning wing fell back into the engine intake and damaged the compressor blades. Their speed began to drop as the heavy airplane struggled to stay airborne with only two properly working engines. “Watch the airspeed,” First Officer Marcot shouted, “the airspeed, the airspeed!”

Over the air traffic control frequency, the pilot of another aircraft said, “It’s really burning, eh?” A few seconds later someone added, “It’s really burning and I’m not sure it’s coming from the engines.”

In order to reduce drag and increase airspeed, Captain Marty ordered, “Gear on retract!”

“Gear! Jardinaud said.

“Four five nine oh, you have strong flames behind you!” said the controller.

“Yes, roger,” said Marcot.

“The gear, Jean!” said Jardinaud. “Gear!”

“So, do as you wish,” said the controller, “you have priority to return to the field.”

“Gear retract!” Marty said again. The fire alarm in the #2 engine came back on, even though the extinguishing system had been activated.

“I’m trying!” Marcot replied. He moved the gear handle to the stowed position repeatedly, but the landing gear refused to retract. Damage to one of the gear doors prevented it from opening properly, stalling the entire gear retraction sequence.

“I’m firing it,” said Jardinaud, responding to the second fire alarm by cutting fuel flow to engine #2. Its parameters clearly showed that it was not generating power anyway.

“Are you shutting down engine two there?” Marty asked.

“I’ve shut it down,” said Jardinaud.

“The airspeed!” Marcot warned again. “The gear isn’t retracting!”

By now both engines one and two had ceased to produce power. Its remaining engines straining to keep it in the air, Concorde continued its tenuous, lurching flight, never managing to climb more than about 200 feet above the ground. As the plane passed over a cluster of airport buildings, pieces of the left wing began to fall onto the rooftops below; so low was its altitude that the flames melted the shirt of a courier caught beneath the flight path. Flight 4590 then crossed over the A1 motorway before turning to roughly parallel the southbound lanes, where a truck driver’s wife managed to capture video footage of Concorde engulfed in flames through their driver’s side window.

By this point Concorde had already embarked on an irreversible path ending in its inevitable destruction. At max takeoff weight and max aft center of gravity, with two engines out and the landing gear extended, a speed of well over 300 knots would maintain altitude. The only way to reach this speed was to pitch down and descend, but there was no room to do so. At the same time, the fuel leaking from the forward tanks caused the center of gravity to creep even farther backwards. And the fire consuming the left wing was destroying its ability to produce lift. With its speed well below 200 knots. And falling fast. The time remaining before disaster could be measured in seconds.

As the plane began to descend, the ground proximity warning called out, “WHOOP WHOOP, PULL UP! WHOOP WHOOP, PULL UP!”

Meanwhile, the tower tried to establish contact with the fire crews. “Fire service leader, er… the Concorde — I don’t know his intentions. Get into position near the southern double runway.”

“De Gaulle tower from fire service leader, authorization to enter twenty-six right.”

“Fire service leader, correction, the Concorde is returning on runway zero nine in the opposite direction.”

But the crew had other plans. Almost directly ahead of them lay the municipal airport of Le Bourget, only a couple kilometers out. The runway was too short for Concorde, but it was their only hope. “Le Bourget, Le Bourget!” First Officer Marcot exclaimed. Keying his mic to talk to ATC, he said, “Negative, we’re trying for Le Bourget!”

Another grainy photograph captured the burning plane in flight. (9News) Concorde Crash

But Concorde was out of time, and out of airspeed. At that moment the plane decelerated below the minimum speed required to maintain directional control with two failed engines. The left wing dipped and the plane rolled 113 degrees to the left, spiraling inverted toward the ground. Captain Marty immediately rolled back power on engines three and four in an attempt to reduce the asymmetry and regain control, but it was too little, too late. The final word recorded on the cockpit voice recorder was First Officer Marcot’s last, desperate “No!”

Still banked steeply to the left, descending at 1,800 feet per minute with a forward airspeed of just 99 knots, Concorde plowed into the back of l’Hôtelissimo just outside Gonesse. The plane cleaved the hotel in two, throwing up a massive fireball that surged down the hallways and into the rooms as the shattered jet emerged from the other side, spewing debris across the parking lot and into a field.

The path of Concorde’s brief flight. (Google + own work) Concorde Crash

Inside the hotel, panic gripped those who survived the initial impact and fireball. Four employees died instantly, including a teenager on her second day at work, but additional staff members and several guests now faced a terrifying battle to escape. Within moments the hotel was almost totally in flames. And some sections immediately began to collapse in upon themselves. Guests who had just moments earlier looked up to see a burning Concorde heading straight for them now found themselves forced to jump from second-floor windows to escape the rapidly advancing fire. Witnesses who rushed to the scene managed to catch several of them as they fell, while others were able to flee through the ground floor exits.

This rare photo is one of the only images to show the hotel after the crash but before it completely burned to the ground. (La Depeche) Concorde Crash
British tabloids did not hesitate to run special issues on the disaster. (The Sun) Concorde Crash

By the time fire crews arrived from the airport and nearby municipalities, the hotel and the remains of the Concorde had already mostly burned to the ground. Firefighters rushed to extinguish the flames, but it was clear that none of those aboard the plane could have survived. All 109 passengers and crew were dead, along with the four hotel employees, bringing the death toll to 113. A further six people, all staff members and hotel guests, were taken to hospital with varying degrees of injury.

The crash of the Concorde shocked the entire world. There was nothing about Concorde which made it impossible to crash, and yet nobody had imagined that it would. Grainy images of the plane, surrounded by fire as it staggered through the air, plastered the front pages of global newspapers. French authorities gave press conferences vowing a thorough investigation. But the cause, initially suspected to be an engine problem, proved to be a surprise to everyone.

An aerial view of the crash site the following morning shows that little remained of the hotel. (Le Telegramme) Concorde Crash

Part of the story could be through the pieces of Concorde. Which were not at the crash site. But still on runway 26 Right at Charles De Gaulle. Among them were several pieces of a tire, a section of skin from fuel tank #5, and an unidentified strip of metal. One of the tire sections displayed a transverse cut that matched the shape of the metal strip. Laboratory tests would later confirm that such a strip, laid on edge, could slice straight through a Concorde tire and cause it to burst, throwing large chunks of rubber in all directions.

Investigators identified around half a dozen previous cases involving the Concorde in which a burst tire led to damage to the wings, landing gear, or fuel tanks. Most serious among them was a 1979 incident in which a tire burst as a Concorde took off from Dulles Airport near Washington, D.C., causing debris to penetrate the fuel tanks in several locations. Fuel leaked from the wing and the crew could not retract the landing gear; however, there was no fire and no damage to the engines, so the pilots were able to turn around and land safely. Moreover, the incident did however compel the manufacturer to strengthen Concorde’s tires. And add protection to the wiring in the landing gear bays.

In the case of Air France flight 4590. The extent of the damage to fuel tank #5 could not be known. Because most of the fuel tank could not be found. However, the damage to the piece of skin found on the runway. Showed that it had somehow ruptured from inside to outside. The opposite of what would be the expectation if it were struck by a piece of debris.

Extensive tests were unable to precisely replicate the mechanism, but calculations did show that some combination of debris impacts and tank penetrations could have displaced enough fuel to burst the tank. Because jet fuel is not compressible. When it is displaced by an impact it must go somewhere else. And in a full tank, a sufficiently large and sudden displacement will cause fuel to burst through the wall of the tank somewhere other than the point of entry. This was almost certainly what caused the main fuel leak aboard flight 4590.

Once the fuel leak began. Furthermore, the vaporized fuel cloud ignited almost immediately. But British and French investigators could not agree on the cause of the ignition. French experts favored contact between the fuel and hot engine components. Which required explaining how the fire propagated forward on the wing against the airflow. While British experts believed that the ignition occurred because of short-circuiting wires. Which would require the flying debris to have severed wires in the landing gear bay. Which were specifically strengthened to withstand such an event after the 1979 incident. Both explanations are theoretically possible. But over time most accounts of the disaster have tended to settle on the British scenario.

Following ignition, engine #1 ingested debris, and both of the left engines experienced airflow disruption due to the fuel leak and fire. Several surges occurred, resulting in a significant power loss on the left side. At this point the plane was already traveling much faster than V1. And calculations showed that if the crew had attempted to stop, as the flight engineer suggested. The plane would have run off the runway at a speed of more than 100 knots while also on fire. Likely resulting in mass fatalities. Whether the outcome would still have been preferable to taking off is debatable. In any case, the pilots did not have a complete understanding of the scale of the problem facing them. And could not have objectively weighed their options.

As the asymmetric thrust and damaged landing gear caused the plane to drift to the left. The captain feared a runway excursion or even a collision with the 747. Explaining his decision to lift off the runway before reaching the normal rotation speed. However, this act further destabilized the tenuous flight which Concorde did manage to achieve. By this time the pilots knew that something was wrong with at least engine #2. But, they had lifted off the runway before reaching the minimum climb speed with one engine out. Which was 220 knots (although reaching this speed may have been impossible under the circumstances). In fact the speed of the plane peaked at 200 knots. And then continuously fell until the end of the flight.

Some Concorde pilots believe that the pilots could have extracted more performance from the plane than they actually did. In response to a fire warning. Flight Engineer Jardinaud shut down engine #2 without consulting the captain at a height of only 200 feet. Despite the fact that standard operating procedures called on pilots to delay shutting down any malfunctioning engines. Until reaching a height of at least 400 feet above the ground. Most likely, Jardinaud was following the contradictory engine fire procedure. Which instructed him to shut down the engine right away without making any mention of altitude.

The problem was that engine #2, unlike its neighbor, had suffered little or no damage prior to impact. And had it not been shut down early in the flight. It could very well have recovered from its initial surges and continued to produce power for an indeterminate period time. Would this have been enough to get them to Le Bourget? It seems doubtful, but we will never know for sure.

Once Concorde was in the air, there was very little that the pilots could do to prevent a catastrophic crash. Without enough speed to maintain altitude on two engines. The only way to keep the plane from descending into the ground was to increase the angle of attack. Which in turn increased lift, but also caused the plane to lose even more speed. This deadly feedback loop continued until the speed dropped below about 157 knots. The damaged left wing stalled, and the plane rolled over into a spiral descent from which recovery was impossible. The entire flight, from liftoff to crash, lasted just 46 seconds.

The main fuselage section containing most of the victims came to rest in the field.

The fact that the plane was too heavy. And its center of gravity was out of limits playing a subtle but potentially important role in this outcome. Both of these factors increased the speed and power necessary to stay airborne. Thereby hastening the final stall and loss of control. Once again, it is not possible to say for sure whether operating within limits would have bought them enough time to reach Le Bourget. But if proper accounting had been performed. And the exceedance discovered. It might have proven impossible to get the weight under the limit, and the flight might not have taken off at all.

However, the BEA did note that the weight and balance issues. The pilots’ failure to acknowledge an ultimately erroneous report of a tailwind just before takeoff, and the fact that First Officer Marcot’s medical certificate had expired nine days before the flight, all suggested an informal, close-knit culture at Air France’s Concorde division which valued completing the mission above all else. If Concorde did not fly, pilots seemingly felt that they would let down themselves, their passengers, and the whole nation. Besides, what were a few extra kilograms of fuel or a few extra percentage points on the aft CG? This was Concorde; there was no time or need, it seemed, to worry about such trifles.

This aerial photo of the marks on the runway clearly shows that Concorde began to veer left only after it caught fire. (BEA) Concorde Crash

It has also been argued that one final factor played a role in the sequence of events. A missing spacer in the left main landing gear bogie. The spacer sits on the landing gear strut and helps keep the wheels aligned correctly. But the last several flights had been undertaken without it due to a maintenance error. A few days before the crash. Air France mechanics replaced the entire landing gear bogie, an operation which had never been performed at Air France before. During the process, the spacer was removed and the mechanics simply forgot to reinstall it.

In a 2001 article in The Guardian, journalists and Concorde pilots argued that the missing spacer might have been the cause of the drift to the left which forced Captain Marty to rotate early. The article even suggested that this drift to the left began before the plane ran over the metal strip. However, photographs of the runway clearly show that staining from the fire began near the runway centerline and only began to diverge later, proving that the plane was properly centered when it first struck the object. Furthermore, the BEA, the French accident investigation agency, later calculated that even the maximum possible landing gear misalignment induced by the missing spacer would have produced negligible drag in comparison to the power delivered by the plane’s engines, and would not have resulted in a noticeable pull to the left.

One question remained, however: what was the metal strip, and where did it come from? This question quickly opened up an entirely parallel avenue of inquiry. Initial examination of the strip left investigators doubtful that it was even a part of an aircraft, given its extremely poor workmanship. It was 44 centimeters long, made out of a titanium alloy, and was covered in a red mastic adhesive; its width varied from 29 to 34 millimeters, and it contained several rivet holes of various sizes drilled at seemingly random intervals. However, the fact that it was made from titanium and was coated in aviation glue left little room for a non-aeronautical origin. Investigators eventually narrowed down the list of suspects to all the aircraft which took off from runway 26R between the last runway inspection and the departure of flight 4590.

N13067, the plane which dropped the metal strip. (Remi Dallot) Concorde Crash

Then, on August 30th, a BEA investigator happened to spot one of these suspect airplanes parked at the gate at Charles De Gaulle Airport. The plane was a Continental Airlines McDonnell Douglas DC-10. Which took off from runway 26R five minutes before Concorde on the day of the accident. Furthermore, something about the plane’s left engine looked strange. The BEA decided to track the plane down. Finally catching up with it in Houston, Texas a day or two later. When they inspected the plane’s left engine. They found the smoking gun: a metal wear strip, which had been attached to the inside of the engine cowl door using red mastic, was missing.

The wear strips were relatively unsophisticated lengths of metal. Attached to the inside edges of the frame of the cowl door. In order to absorb wear and tear in lieu of the door itself.

While the plane was in flight, the door tended to oscillate slightly in its frame, causing wear to the door; but if the door closed flush against a wear strip made of a less durable material, the strip would wear down instead. Because the wear strips were so minor and expendable. Mechanics were allowed to fabricate new ones directly on site, as long as they followed certain guidelines.

The place where the missing wear strip was previously attached. (BEA) Concorde Crash

It turned out that several new wear strips installed on this plane in early June by a company in Tel Aviv were faulty, and just a couple weeks later a Continental mechanic saw one of them sticking out of the gap between the door and its frame, a highly abnormal position. He consequently removed the broken wear strip and set about making a new one. However, he did not follow the directions correctly: he made the strip out of titanium instead of stainless steel; he didn’t cut it evenly. And he made the mistake of not ensuring that his rivet holes did not correspond with the existing holes.

The result was a wear strip with an awkward shape. Full of holes that didn’t necessarily contain rivets, and barely fit into its assigned space. This type of poor workmanship appeared to be commonplace. Since the wear strip next to it was too long, was missing a rivet. And didn’t sit flush with the support, which caused difficulty closing the cowl door properly.

A memorial now stands on the former site of l’Hôtelissimo Gonesse. (Marc Bonas) Concorde Crash

Investigators concluded that this improperly manufactured and installed wear strip worked its way loose until it finally fell off as the DC-10 sped down runway 26R at Charles De Gaulle Airport on the 25th of July. Five minutes later, Concorde ran it over.

Given the short timeframe between the deposition of the strip and the accident. It was impossible for the airport’s regular runway inspections to have caught it in time. The airport carried out runway inspections two or three times a day. Roughly following guidelines published by the International Civil Aviation Organization. But France had no specific regulations pertaining to these inspections, and their effectiveness was sadly with severe limits. The only thing that could have prevented Concorde from hitting the metal strip was an automated debris detection system. A technology which did not yet exist in 2000. In its final report, the BEA made a recommendation that such systems should be under development. And it appears that today a number of companies are selling them.

Following the publication of the BEA’s report. A French court found Continental Airlines and the mechanics who worked on the wear strip criminally liable for the disaster. In addition, handed down several suspended sentences to those involved. However, Continental appealed, and a higher court overturned the convictions. Stating that the defendants’ actions, while still exposing them to civil liability, did not rise to criminal levels. As late as 2012, however, Continental Airlines continued to argue that Concorde was on fire before it hit the metal strip. Moreover, its poor maintenance had nothing to do with the accident.

The disaster also raised safety concerns about Concorde itself. Shortly after the crash, French and British authorities made the decision to ground all Concordes until the cause of the accident could be determined. This decision ended up lasting more than a year while the Concorde fleet was retrofitted with stronger tires and Kevlar-lined fuel tanks.

But by the time Concorde returned to service in late 2001, the world had moved on. The crash and the long grounding permanently damaged public confidence in the airplane. Moreover an increasing use of the internet was driving down demand for fast business travel between the US and Europe. Finally, the September 11th attacks resulted in a worldwide decrease in air travel. Furthermore, including an especially sharp drop in flights to and from New York, which was Concorde’s primary destination.

Journalists and airline officials observed that Concordes were flying back and forth across the Atlantic almost totally empty. Even in the best of times, Air France and British Airways had trouble consistently profiting from Concorde flights. In addition, with this severe drop in demand, they could find no good reason to continue. In April 2003, the airlines made an announcement that Concorde would be retired. Furthermore, the majestic supersonic airliner carried passengers for the last time on the 24th of October that year. As the last Concorde landed at Heathrow in front of an emotional crowd. Reporters commented that for the first time in living memory, technology seemed to have taken a step backward.

Cheering crowds gathered to watch Concorde on its last ever flight to storage in Bristol on November 26th, 2003. (CNN) Concorde Crash

Looking back today, retiring Concorde was the right call, as hard as the decision may have been. The plane served a niche which never really existed; the design and construction used 1960s technology; and the fleet was becoming increasingly difficult to maintain. One may rightfully question whether the retirement of Concorde was really a step backward. Or simply the closing off of a technological dead-end. A fascinating but ultimately useless side track on the great railroad of progress. Other, lesser supersonic transports are in development today. But their potential use cases remain unclear. And many aviation experts doubt that they will ever be built. The speed and efficiency offered by SSTs has always paled in comparison to the drawbacks.

And yet we remain drawn to the majesty of Concorde. The soaring white bird that stood apart from all other airplanes. Concorde was not merely a plane: it was a symbol of human achievement. An expression of raw industrial beauty, and the manifest dream of a more hopeful era. But 20 years after the disaster in Gonesse. As a new generation grows up without having known Concorde’s signature earth-shaking roar. We can say that the dream died on the 25th of July 2000, on board Air France flight 4590.

Concorde Crash Written by Kylan Dempsey

See more of Kylan’s work including his piece above!

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Confusion on the Runway : Crash of US Airways flight 5050
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Confusion on the Runway : Crash of US Airways flight 5050 On the 20th of September 1989, a US Airways Boeing 737 began its takeoff roll on a stormy night at New York’s LaGuardia Airport. But as the plane sped down the runway, it began to pull to the left with increasing force. Fearing that they would crash, the captain decided to abort the takeoff — without checking whether or not it was already too late.

As the pilots tried desperately to stop it. US Airways flight 5050 skidded off the end of runway 31 and plunged into Bowery Bay, where it struck a pier and broke into three pieces. By the time everyone was pulled from the water more than 90 minutes after the crash, two people were dead and another 21 injured. Investigators would find that they didn’t need to die: the plane could have been stopped on the runway, and the initial pull to the left was caused not by the weather, but by the pilots themselves, who failed to check that the rudder was properly adjusted for takeoff. From there, errors compounded upon one another, building up in rapid sequence to send a perfectly sound airplane off the end of a runway that should have been long enough to allow it to stop.

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In the latter half of 1989. Legacy carrier US Airways was in the final stages of acquiring Piedmont Airlines. In what was then the largest airline merger in history. In order to smooth out what would surely be a complicated process. Piedmont airlines had agreed to begin training its pilots according to US Airways procedures well in advance. By the time Piedmont hired 29-year-old rookie First Officer Constantine Kleissas. In May of 1989, the merger was nearly complete. And he received the same training as anyone else at US Airways. In fact, Piedmont Airlines no longer existed by the time he graduated. In addition, when he arrived at Baltimore-Washington International Airport on September 20th for his first real unsupervised flight as a Boeing 737 pilot, the name on his plane read ‘US Airways.’

Route of USAir flight 5050. (Google + own work)

Confusion on the Runway : Crash of US Airways flight 5050

Joining him on the crew roster that day was 36-year-old Captain Michael Martin. Who held the rank of Major in the Air Force Reserves. And still sometimes flew the Lockheed C-130 Hercules during his off days. After a brief stint as a flight engineer on the Boeing 727. Martin had gone through the same US Airways-based 737 training program as Kleissas. Following just under three years as a first officer, he upgraded to captain exactly two months before the fateful flight. He had over 5,500 total hours, including 2,600 on the 737. But only 140 of them were as pilot in command. This was still much more than his extremely green first officer. Who had yet to complete an unsupervised line flight and had accumulated just 22 hours in the real aircraft.

Martin and Kleissas flew from Baltimore to New York’s LaGuardia Airport that afternoon without incident. However, bad weather and traffic problems in the New York area had caused widespread delays and cancellations. With most flights out of the airport pushed back by several hours. Their next trip, US Airways flight 1846 to Norfolk, Virginia, had already boarded when US Airways informed them that the flight would be cancelled; the company instead wanted them to ferry the aircraft without passengers to Charlotte, North Carolina.

Where it was needed more urgently. After disembarking the frustrated passengers back at the gate. Captain Martin was informed of yet another change of plans. The trip to Charlotte would carry passengers who had been stranded after the cancellation of a previous flight. Martin expressed his displeasure at the change. Which would cause the flight to take longer and push the crew close to the edge of their duty time limits.

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Nevertheless, the unscheduled flight to Charlotte, designated flight 5050, went ahead. While the plane sat at the gate. Captain Martin went to ask the dispatcher a number of pointed questions. Leaving First Officer Kleissas to supervise the boarding process. A number of people visited the cockpit during this time. Including a Pan Am captain riding as a non-revenue passenger, who sat in the cockpit jump seat.

Can you see how a person sitting in the jump seat to the left and aft of the center pedestal might accidentally move the rudder trim switch to full “nose left” if they put their feet up on the pedestal? (NTSB)

It is thought that when this captain sat down in the cockpit, he momentarily put his foot up to rest on the center pedestal, a fairly common habit among cockpit visitors. The pedestal is not a footrest, however, as it contains various controls, among which the foremost in this case was the rudder trim switch.

Confusion on the Runway : Crash of US Airways flight 5050

Rudder trim is a system which allows the pilots to bias the rudder in a particular direction, making it possible to compensate for asymmetric drag or a consistent crosswind without having to constantly depress the rudder pedals. But when cockpit jumpseaters rested their feet on the center pedestal, it was possible to bump the blade-style switch and swing it around to a left rudder trim position. Indeed, by the time USAir flight 5050 started its engines some while later, the switch was positioned to apply nearly maximum left rudder trim.

After Captain Martin returned to the plane, flight 5050 prepared to push back from the gate around ten minutes before 23:00. After the jet bridge was removed, a passenger service agent hailed Martin through the window and asked if they could put the jet bridge back and board additional passengers, but Martin refused, a decision that might have inadvertently saved lives.

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With 57 passengers and 6 crew on board, flight 5050 left the gate at 22:52 and taxied to runway 31 for takeoff. While taxiing, the pilots ran through the before-takeoff checklist, which included checking the position of the trim. However, the checklist specifically said “stabilizer & trim,” an item which was sufficiently ambiguous that the pilots only checked the stabilizer trim, and not the rudder trim. Nor did Captain Martin notice what should have been a significant pull to the left during taxi. Because the rudder trim also biases the nose wheel steering while on the ground.

Upon reaching the threshold of runway 31, First Officer Kleissas took control for the takeoff, as the pilots had previously agreed.

“You ready for it, guy?” Captain Martin joked.

“Here goes nothing,” Kleissas replied. He reached over to engage takeoff/go-around (TOGA) mode, but he accidentally pressed the autothrottle disconnect button instead. Consequently, when he properly pressed the TOGA switches a few seconds later. Nothing happened. So he decided to advance the throttles to takeoff power manually.

“I got the steering till you, uh — okay, that’s the wrong button pushed,” said Martin.

“Oh yeah, I knew that, er — ” said Kleissas.

“It’s that one underneath there,” said Martin. “All right, I’ll set your power.”

But despite his promise, he failed to fine-tune Kleissas’s rather imprecise power setting, in which neither engine was quite at full takeoff power and the left engine was about 3% slower than the right one.

As the plane accelerated down the runway, the rudder trim setting began to pull both the rudder and the nose wheel to the left, forcing Kleissas to hold his foot on the right rudder pedal to keep them going straight. However, Martin had said he would take care of the steering, and — unaware of his first officer’s rudder inputs — he simultaneously tried to hold the plane straight using the tiller, a small wheel next to the captain’s seat that controls the nose wheel steering.

But when a Boeing 737 approaches a speed of about 64 knots on a wet runway (and the runway that night was indeed wet), the aerodynamic force acting on the rudder becomes a more significant determinant of the plane’s direction than the nose wheel steering. Kleissas therefore needed to apply more right rudder to compensate for the increase in rudder authority at higher speed, but he didn’t, so the plane began to drift to the left. With Martin still holding the tiller straight as the plane veered left, the nose wheels started to skid, and at a speed of 62 knots one of them burst. Four seconds later, at a speed of 91 knots, a rumbling sound began to emanate from the wheels as the tires disintegrated.

An excerpt from the CVR recording shows how quickly everything unfolded. (NTSB)

At this point it would have been prudent to abort the takeoff. But instead, Captain Martin said, “got the steering,” an ambiguous phrase that only caused further confusion. Martin thought he said “you got the steering,” while First Officer Kleissas thought he heard “I’ve got the steering.” Consequently, both pilots stopped attempting to steer the plane straight. Flight 5050 immediately veered about seven degrees to the left, a course that would take them right off the side of the runway if they didn’t take immediate action.

Four and a half seconds later, Captain Martin decided to abort the takeoff. “Let’s take it back,” he said, pulling both throttles back to idle. He used differential braking to try to straighten their trajectory, which proved effective, and then applied maximum braking and reverse thrust about five seconds later.

What Martin failed to realize is that he had aborted after passing V1, the highest speed at which it is safe to abandon the takeoff. Before the flight he had calculated V1 to be 125 knots, but flight 5050 was moving at 130 knots when he announced they were stopping.

“USAir fifty fifty’s aborting,” First Officer Kleissas announced over the radio.

“Fifty fifty, roger, left turn at the end,” the controller replied.

But it suddenly became apparent that they were running out of runway. They should have had plenty of room to stop, but for some reason they didn’t! “Ah, we’re going off, we’re going off, we’re going off!” First Officer Kleissas shouted.

Still moving at a speed of 34 knots, USAir flight 5050 skidded off the end of the runway deck, dropped several meters, and slammed hard into the wooden pier that supported the approach lighting system extending into Bowery Bay. With a tremendous crunch. The pier collapsed and the plane broke into three pieces. Coming to rest with its nose up in the air against what was left of the pier while the tail dropped down into the water.

The separation of the fuselage just aft of the wings. Caused rows 21 and 22 to swing upward and smash against the ceiling. Crushing to death a Tennessee woman and her mother-in-law and trapping several others. The rest of the passengers and crew. Discovering that they had survived the crash with relatively minimal injuries, immediately began to organize an evacuation. Flight attendants rushed to open the doors. But the L1 door wouldn’t open, and the L2 door had to be quickly shut. After water started to pour in through the doorway. Those who evacuated through the overwing exits were able to stand on the partially submerged wings. With the help of the ditching lines, which some quick-thinking passengers had removed from their containers.

However, those who jumped from the R1 and R2 passenger doors found themselves in the water. Without any good means of flotation. At the time, flights didn’t have to carry life jackets. If they planned to stay within 50 nautical miles of shore.

Struggling in the water, several passengers became caught in a weak tidal current. And drifted underneath the runway, which was constructed on pylons extending over the bay. Flight attendants threw life preservers and seat cushions to those who couldn’t swim, but many found that the seat cushions provided insufficient buoyancy to keep them afloat. Two of the flight attendants ended up jumping into the water to save drowning passengers.

The rescue operation proved to be chaotic. The controller, upon noticing that the plane wasn’t going to stop in time. Activated the crash alarm before the crash actually occurred, and fire trucks were on the scene within 90 seconds. Extracting the passengers from the water was another matter entirely, however.

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Those who were standing on the wings. Including a single mother trying desperately to hold onto both a five-year-old and an 8-month-old infant. Were rescued about 12 minutes after the crash. It took considerably longer to find all of those who had gone into the water. And the helicopters and boats that came to look for them had a hard time spotting the passengers amid the floating debris.

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Several passengers nearly drowned after being caught underneath the rotor wash of responding helicopters; others suffered serious injuries after swallowing jet fuel. And one woman sustained a fractured ankle and a lacerated hand after she was run over by a rescue boat. Firefighters also had to enter the precariously balanced fuselage to help the lead flight attendant. In addition, help Captain Martin extract the passengers in seats 21F and 22A. Who were pinned in the wreckage and could not be freed until 90 minutes after the crash. Following the successful rescue, Martin finally left the plane, the last person to do so.

Despite fears that many had drowned, by the time everyone was accounted for it became clear that the two passengers who died on impact were the only fatalities; everyone else had been rescued. Twenty-one people were injured, including Captain Martin, whose leg was pierced when shards of the wooden pier punched through the cockpit floor inside his footwell. But the crash could have been much worse: investigators would later note that if the plane were filled to capacity, more surely would have died.

When investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board arrived on the scene the morning after the accident, they expected to quickly interview the pilots to get a sense of what might have gone wrong. They also wanted to conduct routine tests to make sure the pilots weren’t under the influence of alcohol or drugs. But a request to ALPA (the pilots’ union) ten hours after the accident was rebuffed.

ALPA first told the NTSB that they didn’t know where the pilots were, then eventually admitted that the union had moved them to an undisclosed location “so they could not be found by the media.” The NTSB wasn’t able to interview them until 44 hours after the accident, and even then ALPA only allowed it because the FAA threatened to subpoena them. By this time the pilots’ memories of the events were not as fresh and their urine samples would have been purged of any illegal substances.

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Although rumors to the contrary persist, the NTSB was unable to find evidence which suggested that either pilot had been under the influence of alcohol at the time of the accident; in fact, a police officer trained in recognizing signs of alcoholism spoke to the captain just minutes after the crash and reported that he sounded perfectly sober.

Confusion on the Runway : Crash of US Airways flight 5050

Meanwhile, an obvious question arose: why did flight 5050 overrun a runway that should have been plenty long enough to accelerate nearly to takeoff speed, abort, and then come to a stop? Runway 31 at LaGuardia was 2,140 meters long, while a 737–400 at flight 5050’s weight should have been able to reach V1 and then stop in a total distance of only 1,730 meters, even on a wet runway.

It turned out that, like nearly all runway overrun accidents, a series of seemingly minor events added to the required distance until the plane simply ran out of room. The NTSB was eventually able to identify three main factors that prevented flight 5050 from stopping in time, without any one of which the crash would not have occurred.

The first factor was insufficient takeoff thrust. Neither engine ever quite reached the correct takeoff power setting, because the first officer accidentally disengaged the autothrottle. The autothrottle would have automatically set the correct takeoff thrust as soon as one of the pilots pressed the TOGA switches, but no one ever turned it back on, nor did Captain Martin correct First Officer Kleissas’s very rough throttle setting. This added 97 meters to the distance required to reach the speed at which Martin aborted the takeoff.

Confusion on the Runway : Crash of US Airways flight 5050

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Second, Captain Martin aborted the takeoff after passing V1, a violation of proper procedures. Although V1 is defined as the speed after which the takeoff cannot be aborted without overrunning the runway. This is not always the case in practice; on flight 5050, the pilots derived V1 from a standard table of figures, while the runway was actually long enough to allow a successful rejected takeoff from a higher speed than the one they selected.

Nevertheless, Captain Martin did not look at their speed before making his decision. If he had, he surely would have continued the takeoff, as the situation was not so critical as to warrant an emergency stop after passing V1. In fact, it was perfectly possible to steer the plane straight with the rudder pedals, get off the ground, and then fix the rudder trim while in the air (and in case their word was not enough by itself, the NTSB found several cases of pilots doing exactly this). In any case, aborting at 130 knots, instead of the V1 speed of 125 knots, added 151 meters to the stopping distance.

Confusion on the Runway : Crash of US Airways flight 5050

Finally, Captain Martin could have applied the brakes much faster than he did. Not believing stopping distance to be a major concern, he focused first on using differential braking to straighten their trajectory before applying maximum brake pressure. This delayed the onset of max braking by about three seconds relative to his usual reaction time, which added 240 meters to the stopping distance.

Martin also could have reduced this time even more if he had armed the autobrakes before takeoff. Both Boeing and USAir procedures recommended that pilots arm the autobrakes so that they can automatically apply maximum brake pressure as soon as a rejected takeoff is detected. However, some pilots declined to do this due to the airline equivalent of an old wives’ tale: they believed that the autobrakes would jerk the passengers uncomfortably during a low speed abort. (This was in fact false, because the autobrakes would only activate if the rejected takeoff occurred at high speed.)

Investigators noted that this practice was dangerous because, while it was technically possible to make rudder inputs and apply maximum brake pressure at the same time, this required a pilot to place their feet in a very unnatural position; as a consequence, pilots could find themselves having to choose between braking and steering. Arming the autobrakes would eliminate this dilemma.

Confusion on the Runway : Crash of US Airways flight 5050

Added together, these three factors explained the difference between flight 5050’s theoretical and actual stopping distances. But investigators also needed to understand why the pilots rejected the takeoff in the first place. The problem began with the rudder trim, which was pulling the plane to the left. The flight data recorder showed that the rudder trim was set to neutral when the plane arrived at LaGuardia, but had changed to full left by the time the engines started again and the recorder came back online.

After the accident, investigators received at least 90 informal reports of the rudder trim switch moving to the full left position before takeoff, mostly because visitors to the cockpit sat down in the jump seat facing sideways and rested their feet on the center pedestal. Several reports also involved the switch being moved by objects placed temporarily on the pedestal, and some suggested that the switch could stick in a previously selected position if it was not returned to neutral with sufficient force.

In the case of USAir flight 5050, the Pan Am captain who visited the cockpit and sat in the jump seat denied having placed his feet on the pedestal; neither pilot touched the switch before or during the takeoff; and no evidence of a mechanical failure could be found. Investigators concluded that the Pan Am captain most likely put his feet up and then forgot, though they did not rule out the possibility that the switch moved when the first officer placed some papers on the center pedestal while the plane was at the gate. As a result of these findings, Boeing announced that it would change the rudder trim selector from a blade-type switch to a round knob which would not move when bumped, and that it would add a protective ridge around the knob to keep objects away from it.

Confusion on the Runway : Crash of US Airways flight 5050

No matter who accidentally moved the switch. The effects of the incorrect rudder trim position should have been evident during taxi. The rudder trim would have displaced the rudder pedals relative to each other by more than 11 centimeters. Easily enough to notice, and Captain Martin would have needed to make constant inputs with the tiller to keep the plane moving straight as it made its way to the runway. And yet, in his initial interview, he didn’t mention noticing either of these things. Only much later did he tell investigators that he was vaguely aware of the displaced rudder pedals. But thought nothing of it because such a condition is common on the C-130. Which he flew concurrently with the Boeing 737. Nevertheless, the NTSB felt that as a qualified 737 captain. He should have known that such a large rudder pedal displacement during taxi is abnormal.

The pilots also could have detected the discrepancy. If they had followed the intent of the before takeoff checklist. Which called on the pilots to check the position of the “stabilizer & trim.”

However, if the pilots were not rigorously taught that. This was supposed to include the rudder and aileron trim in addition to the stabilizer trim. It was understandable why they might have misinterpreted this line. In any case they checked only the stabilizer trim and not the others. (USAir later revised the wording to prevent confusion.)

Confusion on the Runway : Crash of US Airways flight 5050

During the takeoff itself, a breakdown in communication caused this relatively minor problem to escalate significantly. First Officer Kleissas did not tell Captain Martin that he was having difficulty holding the plane straight or that he was using the rudder to do so. Then, when a bang occurred at a speed of 62 knots, nobody suggested aborting the takeoff.

Instead, Martin announced “Got the steering,”. An ambiguous statement that did not make it clear who was supposed to be in control. This imprecise language led both pilots to relinquish control over the steering. And because First Officer Kleissas hadn’t mentioned that he was applying extra force with the rudder pedals. Or that he was about to remove this force, the sudden lurch to the left caught Martin totally by surprise. He tried to react using the tiller. Even though the tiller is not effective at high speed. In addition, he didn’t touch the rudder pedals at all, even though he could easily have used them to straighten the plane.

When the tiller failed to correct the drift to the left. He decided to abort the takeoff without checking their speed. As the pilot not flying. He should have been monitoring their speed in order to call out “80 knots”. And “V1,” but because of the steering problem and the lack of clarity about who was flying the plane, nobody did this. As a result, he chose to reject the takeoff after the point where this was no longer allowed.

By this point it had become clear that the crash was preventable on every level. There were numerous opportunities for the pilots to notice the rudder trim setting. And equally numerous opportunities for them to have used the controls available to them to straighten out and take off normally. None of these opportunities were taken. The pilots also could have prevented the crash. By correcting the takeoff thrust setting, arming the autobrakes as recommended by the airline. Or even by communicating more clearly about what they were experiencing as the plane sped down the runway. In the end, two people died. 21 people were injured, and a multi-million-dollar aircraft was destroyed because of complacency and inattention.

Confusion on the Runway : Crash of US Airways flight 5050

However, several of the critical decisions leading up to the accident could also be blamed on inexperience. The NTSB felt that it was unwise to pair a newly-promoted captain with a brand new first officer who only had 22 hours on the 737. Especially considering that this was First Officer Kleissas’s first unsupervised Boeing 737 takeoff, Captain Martin should have taken more steps to ensure he was ready (such as reviewing the rejected takeoff procedures), but his own inexperience might have prevented him from thinking of these contingencies.

After the 1987 crash of Continental Airlines flight 1713, another fatal accident caused by a series of banal errors before and during takeoff, the NTSB recommended that the Federal Aviation Administration require airlines to avoid pairing new captains with inexperienced first officers. However, the FAA had chosen to “promote” the policy rather than mandating it. Although such procedures are required today, they came too late to prevent the crash of USAir flight 5050.

Confusion on the Runway : Crash of US Airways flight 5050

The crash also might have been prevented if the pilots had received better training on how to communicate. Clear communication is a basic tenet of good crew resource management (CRM), a topic which was already being taught at several major US airlines. USAir, however, was not among them, and neither pilot had received any CRM training. (Although it is considered indispensable today, the FAA didn’t require airlines to provide this training until 1994.) If they had been trained on the principles of CRM, First Officer Kleissas might have mentioned that he was using the rudder to keep the plane straight, and Captain Martin might have made it clearer who would take control of the steering. This would have given the pilots the information they needed to stabilize the situation and successfully continue the takeoff.

In addition to the redesign of the rudder trim switch and the proposal to avoid pairing two inexperienced pilots, the NTSB also recommended that LaGuardia try to make the areas near the ends of its runways less hazardous to airplanes; that flight attendants receive hands-on water emergency drills; that airlines ensure pilots know how to extract maximum stopping performance during a rejected takeoff; and that pilots be required to arm the autobrakes (if available) whenever they take off on a runway that is wet or particularly short, among other suggestions.

Confusion on the Runway : Crash of US Airways flight 5050

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The NTSB also called on the Department of Transportation to create unified requirements for the provision of blood and urine samples from vehicle operators involved in accidents in all mass transit sectors. In its final report, the NTSB ripped into ALPA for holding the pilots so long after the crash, noting that this “complicated the investigation to a great degree.” Making no effort to hide their exasperation, the investigators then added, “The sequestering of the pilots for such an extended period of time in many respects borders on interference with a federal investigation and is inexcusable.” Indeed, if the pilots had tried to evade investigators for 44 hours after a crash without the protection of ALPA, they probably would have been arrested.

Confusion on the Runway : Crash of US Airways flight 5050

Unfortunately, despite the promised improvements. The events of the years following the crash of flight 5050. Have largely consigned the accident to a footnote in the margins of greater tragedies. In 1991, 35 people died when a USAir flight collided with a Skywest Metroliner at LAX. Due to an error by the air traffic controller. In 1992, USAir flight 405 crashed off the same runway at LaGuardia. Killing 27 of the 51 people on board, due to an accumulation of ice on the wings.

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Then in July 1994, USAir flight 1016 crashed near Charlotte after the pilots became disoriented in wind shear, killing 37; and two months later USAir flight 427 crashed in Pittsburgh, killing 132, due to a malfunction of the rudder. Although some of these accidents couldn’t conceivably be pinned on USAir. By the end of 1994 the airline had managed to accrue the worst safety record of any major US carrier. Today, however, USAir no longer exists, and most of the factors which led to the crash have been rectified. The last of the safety improvements sought by the NTSB. After flight 5050 came only in 2015, when LaGuardia installed specialized Engineered Materials Arrestor Systems on all its runways. Ensuring that no airliner will ever again run off the end and fall into the East River.

In the immediate aftermath of the crash of flight 5050, both pilots lost their licenses. But at least one of them did go back to work in the industry. Although the fate of Captain Michael Martin is unclear. First Officer Constantine Kleissas became an air crash investigator on behalf of the Air Line Pilots’ Association. Where he assisted the NTSB investigation into the loss of USAir flight 427. Having survived an accident of his own and investigated a far more tragic disaster, Kleissas declared in a 2002 article. “Being an accident investigator is ten times more stressful than being the surviving crew member.”

In conclusion, hopefully, the lessons of his crash will continue to save others from both these traumas for many years to come.

Confusion on the Runway : Crash of US Airways flight 5050

Confusion on the Runway : Crash of USAir flight 5050 Written by Kylan Dempsey who is a graduate student who writes articles breaking down plane crashes for both professional and lay audiences. You can find a body of his work on his Reddit and Medium pages. 

Confusion on the Runway : Crash of USAir flight 5050

Confusion on the Runway : Crash of US Airways flight 5050

What was the worst plane crash in the world?

What Was The Cause Of The Tenerife Airport Disaster?

The Tenerife airport disaster the worst and deadliest accident in commercial aviation history, claiming the lives of 583 passengers and crew members. Occurring on March 27, 1977, at Los Rodeos Airport (now known as Tenerife-North Airport) on the Spanish island of Tenerife, one of the Canary Islands, the tragedy shocked the world at the time.

Background

The Canary Islands are a popular tourist destination, and in the 1970s, they were experiencing a surge in air traffic. On March 27, 1977, a bomb exploded at Gran Canaria Airport, which caused all flights to be diverted to Los Rodeos Airport on Tenerife, including two Boeing 747 jumbo jets from Pan Am and KLM.

At the time, Los Rodeos was a small airport with limited facilities and only one runway. The airport was not equipped with modern navigational aids, such as radar, which made it challenging for air traffic controllers to manage the sudden influx of aircraft. Additionally, the visibility was poor due to heavy fog, which further compounded the difficulties for the air traffic controllers. Furthermore, the total parking space available at the airport was equivalent to the parking area of an average US grocery store. In addition, because it was a Sunday, the air traffic control office wasn’t fully staffed. Leaving only two men to park all of these airplanes on such a tiny space.

Rijn (foreground) and Clipper Victor (center) at Los Rodeos on the day of the accident.

In fact the Pan Am plane ended up becoming parked behind the KLM plane. So when they finnally received the green light for takeoff from the tower, the Pan Am could not disembark until the KLM plane moved. The captain of the KLM plane had elected to take on additional fuel. Which caused a delay for both planes.

KLM captain Jacob Veldhuyzen van Zanten featured in a 1977 advertisement for the airline.

Cause

As the fog worsened, the air traffic controllers were struggling to communicate with the pilots, and several aircraft were taxiing on the runway. The KLM flight, carrying 234 passengers and crew, became cleared for takeoff. While the Pan Am flight, carrying 396 passengers and crew, became instructed to taxi down the runway and exit at the third intersection. However, due to the poor visibility, the Pan Am crew missed the third turnoff and continued down the runway, the Pan Am crew reported visibility of just a few meters.

At the same time, the KLM crew became instructed to turn left on the runway. And taxi to the end to prepare for takeoff.

However, the KLM captain misinterpreted the instructions and thought he had clearance for takeoff.

The KLM captain then accelerated the aircraft, while the Pan Am flight was still on the runway. With only a few seconds to spare, the KLM plane attempted takeoff to avoid the Pan Am jumbo. But, ended up taking out the complete upper section. The two jumbo jets collided. Killing everyone on board the KLM flight. And the majority of passengers and crew on the Pan Am flight.

The Pan Am crew shouted at the KLM plane over the radio. They could see the plane coming towards them!

“There he is!”

Pan Am captain Victor Grubbs yells!

“Look at him! Goddamn, that son of a b**ch is coming!”

Taken from the publicly available cockpit voice recording.

Many point blame at the KLM captain for this decision. The KLM captain was one of several factors that contributed to the Tenerife airport disaster, but he was definitely not solely to blame for the tragedy.

The cause of the accident became attributed to a combination of factors. Including miscommunication between the air traffic controllers and the pilots, poor visibility due to heavy fog. And a lack of modern navigational aids at the airport. The KLM captain’s decision to take off without clearance was also a significant contributing factor to the disaster.

The KLM captain made a critical error when he decided to take off without proper clearance from air traffic control. However, it is important to note that he was under significant time pressure and believed he had clearance to take off, as a result of a miscommunication with the air traffic controller.

Furthermore, the KLM captain was operating under a hierarchical culture that was prevalent in aviation at the time. This culture placed a great deal of emphasis on the authority of the captain, which made it difficult for other crew members to question his decisions.

As a result, the KLM co-pilot, who may have had reservations about the takeoff; did not speak up and challenge the captain’s decision.

Lessons Learned

The Tenerife airport disaster prompted significant changes in aviation safety practices. The accident highlighted the importance of clear communication between air traffic controllers and pilots, even in adverse weather conditions. It also led to improvements in airport infrastructure. Including the installation of modern navigational aids and the construction of additional runways to handle increased air traffic.

In conclusion, the Tenerife airport disaster was a tragic event that resulted from a combination of factors, including miscommunication, poor visibility, and inadequate infrastructure. The accident prompted significant changes in aviation safety practices and infrastructure, which have contributed to a safer and more efficient air transportation system.

Lastly, one fact to note is that had the KLM captain took on more fuel than he needed. Had he taken only the amount that was necessary it is possible that his plane could have avoided colliding with the Pan Am flight.

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