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Probe after Concorde loses rudder

concorde tail
Part of the lower of four rudders was found to be missing

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CNN's Richard Quest says the supersonic airliner Concorde is expected to keep flying through 2009 (December 4)
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- British Airways has launched an internal investigation on Wednesday after part of a tail rudder from a Concorde supersonic jet fell off during a flight.

The incident happened last Wednesday on BA Flight 001 from London's Heathrow Airport to New York's JFK, which was carrying 96 passengers and nine crew.

A BA spokeswoman told CNN the plane landed safely in New York and that there were no injuries. Neither the passengers nor the aircraft were in any danger, she said.

After a normal landing, an inspection found part of the lower of four rudders on the tail fin was missing, the airline said.

BA has put extra safety checks in place following the incident, which revives memories of the crash near Paris in July 2000 in which 113 people were killed.

Concorde has experienced similar problems with its tail rudder on four previous occasions over a 13-year period.

David Learmount, operations and safety editor of Flight International magazine, told the UK Press Association: "The rudders are made at Toulouse and now everyone will have to look at ways of strengthening them.

"Concorde is an enormously high-profile plane, so anything that happens to it is big news. But really, all that happened in this latest incident was that a bit of the bottom quarter of the rudder was lost," Learmount said.

He did not believe the event was that serious: "Operationally, the loss had no effect on the plane. I understand the pilots felt a little 'pop' as they accelerated, but thought little of it as there was no apparent fault.

"They then noticed more sounds as they decelerated at the end of the flight. Although BA will want to get the rudder situation sorted out, rudder design for Concorde can cope with problems of this kind and the aircraft is completely controllable during such incidents," he added.

The tail fin affects the plane's horizontal balance, and BA said most passengers would have thought the aircraft was experiencing minor turbulence. However, air accident investigators told the BBC they were concerned last week's incident was "very similar" to a previous one in 1998.

CNN's Richard Quest explained what may have occurred on the flight: "What would have happened is that (upon the plane's descent) the passengers noticed vibration, clearly there wasn't the same control, the pilots certainly noticed that there wasn't the same control when landing the aircraft.

"If the whole rudder had fallen off, all four pieces of it, that would have been very serious. But it was the fourth piece, the bottom piece, the smallest piece that actually fell off," he said.

Given Concorde's recent overhaul, Quest believed such an event should never have occurred: "It shouldn't happen on Concorde, a plane that was stripped, taken apart, rebuilt and given a thorough once over less than 12 months ago when of course they made modifications after the crash (in Paris in 2000).

"They've had problems with the rudder four times over the last decade plus. It's always a part of the rudder that falls off and it's probably a result of vibration."

Quest highlighted the age of Concorde: "Although they've made numerous changes and they keep restructuring and they keep rebuilding to prolong its working life, BA says they'll have the next major review on how long Concorde can last in 2009. By then it will be over 40 years old.

"What's interesting, and BA say this again and again, is Concorde has fewer take-offs and landings, it only does one flight a day, it has less time in the air because it flies at such high altitude there's no humidity... and Concorde is actually in better shape than most planes half its age," he told CNN.

It is the fourth incident to affect Concorde over the past six weeks. A New York-bound BA Concorde was forced to turn back to London after an engine had to be shut down on November 3.

A warning light came on in the cockpit indicating a problem with one of the four engines. The engine was shut down by the crew and the plane, with 82 passengers on board, landed safely at Heathrow.

On October 30, a BA Concorde flying from New York to London was found to have suffered three tiny cracks on the outer layers of one of the cabin windows.

In another incident in November, engine failure forced an Air France Concorde to descend thousands of feet, causing panic among the passengers on board.

BA and Air France Concordes returned to passenger services on November 7 in 2001 following the Paris crash of an Air France Concorde.

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