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Concorde Crash Near Paris Kills 113; New Concerns Raised About Safety of Aging Passenger Aircraft

Aired July 25, 2000 - 1:57 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: We are continuing on. Lou Waters with Natalie Allen here at CNN. The crash this morning, 10:44 Eastern time -- which is late afternoon in Paris of course -- of a Concorde supersonic airliner operated by Air France and chartered by the Deilmann tour group carrying a German passenger tour to New York. It was supposed to arrive here in about 25 minutes or so to take a two- week cruise to Ecuador.

The flight never made it more than three miles after the foot of the runway at Charles de Gaulle airport.

Here's how an eyewitness near the crash scene described what he saw:

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED AIRPLANE CRASH EYEWITNESS: I could not even see the airplane because it was below the tree line. But I'm only a half-a- mile from the runway, so that's very unusual. Usually when the airplanes come by this hotel, they're already 1,000 feet in the air. But all I could see was smoke from the exhaust. And then, as it cleared some trees, I could see it was the Concorde -- and tremendously long flames coming out of the left engine of the airplane, trailing probably 100 feet behind the airplane, and it was obviously in trouble then.

The airplane was struggling to climb and obviously couldn't get altitude. And then he kept raising the nose and -- a little bit too high. And the airplane stalled. The nose went straight up into the air. And the airplane rolled over to the left and almost inverted when it went down in the huge fireball where it hit.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

WATERS: One development to this -- and we have just received word that British Airways has suspended its Concorde flights for today pending further decision.

Jim Bittermann, CNN correspondent's at the scene checks in now -- Jim.

JIM BITTERMANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Water and foam on what remains of the wreckage of the Concorde plane -- this debris field is about 100 yards wide. You can see quite clearly where the first impact occurred. We're about three miles off the end of the runway here at Charles de Gaulle airport. I can see the control tower from where I am. The crash occurred alongside a road, a small country road, and right next to a hotel, probably extending -- the damage, the debris field extends to within probably 50 yards of the hotel.

It also struck some kind of a building which we can now see through the smoke which has entirely burned. We can see parts of the structure of a building that was struck. We are told there are four people were killed on the ground. We believe that that's probably where they were, in that building. Also, as the smoke now begins to clear, we can see quite clearly some parts of the wreckage, including what looks to me like perhaps an emergency door, or else an exit door from either the rear or the front of the aircraft. But it's about the only discernible thing.

Basically, there's a lot of black pieces of twisted metal, to such an extent that we're not even sure whether or not there may have been some automobiles on the ground that may have been hit by the Concorde, as it went down. We see what looks to be some automobiles that have been burned out.

We're being kept away from the scene by French police. They have encircled the scene. Inspectors has been out at the scene. We saw a helicopter here just a few moments ago, circling the area, taking pictures. There is an inspection that has already begun. I think because of the fact that there are regular Concorde flights, a very high-profile aircraft, they will be looking very carefully for the black box, as quickly as they can in trying to get a readout it, as quickly as they can, about what may have caused this crash.

Pilots who are familiar with the Concorde are saying that, in fact, if the engine did catch on fire, one of the engines caught on fire, as witnesses report, in fact, the pilot would have had an indication of that in his cockpit.

There is an indicator light that indicates there is a fire in the engines. The Concorde has four engines, two on either side of the aircraft, because of the configuration would be probably difficult to know whether you had one engine on fire or several engines on fire.

In any case, eyewitnesses all reported that there was a trail of flame coming out of the left side of the aircraft.

I should also say that, while we're three miles from the runway at Charles de Gaulle, we're about one mile from the runway at Liberchet (ph) Airport, which is right next-door to Charles de Gaulle, and is an area where a pilot could make a landing attempt, if he were in trouble.

So it could be that the pilot was on his way, headed that direction, trying to make an emergency landing. In any case, he didn't make it, he hit the ground very close to a country road just on the outskirts of a small suburban Paris town -- Lou. WATERS: Jim, part of the problem for us, many thousands of miles away here, is determining casualties on the ground associated with a hotel -- a crash into or near a hotel, we heard in the early reports.

We see these pictures that we're getting in here of that white building; is that the hotel we're talking about?

BITTERMANN: There are two structures here. There is a hotel -- rather sort of a country motel kind of affair that was not hit by the aircraft. Then there is a damaged structure, which I can't determine exactly what it is. It could be a very small hotel or it could be a bar or restaurant that sort of thing. But it is a structure that have been quite heavily damaged. There is very little left of it. A few support beams and whatnot are still standing. But basically, it is a burned out shell. That pretty much took a direct hit by the Concorde.

I would say that any person inside there would have been -- would have had great difficulty getting out. It is almost completely burned. And the first impact is just next door to that building. So we have one hotel that just barely escaped, and another structure, perhaps a hotel, a small hotel, which took a direct hit.

WATERS: And that brings up more questions about the French government announcement that there were survivors, some in good condition. We don't know what that might be associated with, do we?

BITTERMANN: Well, I think they must be talking about the survivors on the ground. I know that a number of people were treated. You can probably hear an aircraft going overhead behind me. We're right on the approach path to the runway. The planes continue to land and takeoff along this path.

But, yes, there were a number of people treated, both at nearby hospitals and here at the scene. So there were a number of people who survived the crash, but they are almost certainly people on the ground. it seems inconceivable to me that anyone onboard the aircraft could have survived. There is virtually nothing left of this aircraft. There's just nothing but twisted blackened metal.

WATERS: Yes, that issue of survivors has yet to be sorted out. The vehicles we're seeing -- now we are seeing them on the lower part of our picture -- are those all emergency vehicles, or is this a heavily-traveled road where vehicles may have collected?

BITTERMANN: In fact, there's a lot of emergency vehicles around. They have blocked this off. In fact, it is an intersection, it is an intersection of three or four small country lanes that are around the airport. We're about three miles away, as I mentioned, from Charles de Gaulle, we are on the backside of Liberchet (ph) Airport. And there are small, two-lane roads that traverse this area. And this hotel was right at the intersection of -- at one of these intersection. And the crash occurred very close to that intersection.

There are some vehicles around. I see what I am virtually certain is a burned out van here very close to the accident scene. Looks like a van that may have caught fire from the flaming fuel. And there may be other vehicles as well.

WATERS: All right.

BITTERMANN: It's difficult to know.

WATERS: Jim Bittermann keeping watch there at the scene of the Concorde crash. As Jim pointed out, the area is sealed off by French police. He is collecting information as fast and accurately as he can. We will be checking with Jim from time to time.

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: Today's Air France crash is first in the Concorde's 30-year history, and the crash is, once again, raising concerns about the safety of aging passenger aircraft. Earlier this week, as we told you, British Airways announced it had grounded one of the Concordes in its fleet, after cracks were discovered in the plane's wing assembly. That happening just this week.

Joining us now to talk about today's crash and the Concorde's safety record is Jim McKenna, executive director of the Aviation Safety Alliance.

Mr. McKenna, we thank for coming in today.

JAMES MCKENNA, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, AVIATION SAFETY ALLIANCE: Good afternoon.

ALLEN: Have you ever flown on a Concorde?

MCKENNA: I have not.

ALLEN: What do you know about it and its safety record? why has the Concorde been such -- what has made it such a safe, full-proof aircraft?

MCKENNA: Well, of course, as you said, it has an outstanding safety record. It has been in service since 1969, and this is the first fatal crash in which it was involved. Part of that is due to the fact that it is used very lightly, compared to other airplanes that carry passengers and airlines service. This airplane flies almost exclusively between London and Paris and New York once or twice a day. So what the industry analysts call the utilization of this aircraft is very low.

The fatigue and the stress that that puts on the air frame of an aircraft, the structure of the aircraft, likewise is low, if the utilization is low, which means this airplane could operate without a problem for quite a long time, as it has in fact done.

ALLEN: So the fact that it flies much higher, much faster than other aircraft, it calls -- it is cause for more fatigue?

MCKENNA: The fact that it flies higher and faster than other aircraft requires that British Airways and Air France, which operate the airplane and the folks that built the airplane, keep very close tabs on any kinds of indications of flaws in the structure of the airplane, any evidence of fatigue on the airplane, which is why you saw British Airways earlier this week announce that it had found cracks in its wings, and therefore was taking the precaution of grounding those aircraft until it could check for the extent of cracks and the causes of those cracks.

Because this airplane operates in such extreme conditions, the operators have to be very careful to make sure that the plane is in perfect condition to fly safely.

ALLEN: Considering that, and the age of this aircraft, does that raise particular concern with you?

MCKENNA: It does not. Typically, an airline that operates an older aircraft, the manufacturer that supports that aircraft, or the manufacturers that support that aircraft, keep very close watch on how the airplane is doing as it gets older. And they keep even closer watch on the oldest airplanes in their fleets.

So any indication of a problem or a flaw or a failure that crops up in regular maintenance, either by mechanics or inspections by the pilots, is reported to engineers for thorough analysis.

Typically, you will see the operators and the manufacturers go through a rigorous procedure for verifying that the problems that they're encountering on the aircraft are expected, given the design of the aircraft, and that they are protected against in the maintenance program that's established for the aircraft.

ALLEN: Until today, there were 13 Concorde jetliners operated, seven by British Airways, six by Air France. Why is it never expanded beyond that? is it because of the cost involved of flying the aircraft and the cost to consumers whose would fly?

MCKENNA: It is a very difficult with which to make money. As we have seen, the Concorde is an aircraft that caters to the high end of the market: the celebrities, the very rich and famous people in the world. There's not a huge market for -- of those passengers that want the service that the Concorde provides, which is a very quick transatlantic flight. So there's never been any need to expand beyond the fleet that Air France and British Airways initially chose to operate and, in fact, those airlines have been scaling back their Concorde operations.

It still is the pride of the British Airways and Air France fleets. I is one of the most sophisticated commercial aircraft that has ever flown. But it's tough to make money with it. And the difficulty of making money with the Concorde was aggravated by the environmental constraints that were placed on it. Because it operates higher than the speed of sound it creates a sonic boom that is audible to anybody on the ground under its flight path.

The folks around the airports in London and Paris and in New York don't want to have to put up with that sonic boom. So the aircraft is restricted to a much less efficient subsonic speed when it's flying over land, which makes it even more difficult to make money with the Concorde. ALLEN: Do you know much about the Concorde as far as mechanics go? We've heard possible engine failure and that that could have impacted a second engine. Can you answer to whether that Concorde can take off if two engines had failed?

MCKENNA: Well, the investigators are going to obviously be looking very closely at any possible problems with any one of the four engines on this aircraft. The Concorde is set up so that the engines are paired under each wing. So there's two engines side by side under each of the right and left wings, which creates a possibility that if you had some kind of failure in which one of the engines in that pod broke up it might fling debris into the other engine and therefore cause damage.

The airplane should be able to continue a safe takeoff with engines out on one side of the aircraft. But typically, when you get a problem that severe with an engine on an airliner, it comes along with a whole host of other problems that makes it difficult for the pilots to control the airplane.

So clearly, an engine failure of some kind is going to be on the top of the list for investigators searching for a cause of this crash.

ALLEN: Jim McKenna with the Aviation Safety Alliance, thank you for joining us today.

MCKENNA: Thank you.

WATERS: Again, if you've just checked in, our top story, our only story of the hour, even admit other events of the day, including the collapse of Middle East peace talk and George Bush picking a running mate, continues to be the crash of the Air France Concorde. It went down at 10:44 Eastern Time late afternoon in Paris as it was taking off from Charles de Gaulle Airport. It went down with 100 passengers aboard, nine crew, all dead, four on the ground: 113 total deaths so far reported.

French police sealing off from the area near the airport, Charles de Gaulle Airport, about 3 miles from the foot of the runway. Witnesses said the jetliner flamed out at an altitude of 200 feet. A pilot who saw the plane go down in flames from his airport hotel window said, "It was a sickening sight."

The flight was due to arrive at New York's Kennedy Airport at 2:21, just a few minutes from now. According to the New York Port Authority in New York, the passengers, all Germans amid a German tour group bound for a 2:00 p.m. embarkation of the MS Deutschland to Ecuador on Thursday at 2:00 p.m.

The plane went down again at 10:44 Eastern this morning. We continue to cover this story. So far, developments in Britain, where a part of the Concorde fleet is based, that that fleet there will be grounded for today. We're expecting a statement from Air France within a few minutes. We'll be covering that live.

We're going to check in again with Peter Humi, our Paris bureau chief, who's keeping close watch on the story from his post in Paris.

Peter, what's new?

PETER HUMI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Lou, if I could just add a couple of bits of new information that we've had now. The president of Air France, Jean-Cyril Spinetta, he rushed to the site of the crash, not too far from his offices at Charles de Gaulle Airport, in fact.

Now, he has confirmed, in speaking with the French media, that the plane that crashed today, the Concorde that came down close to Charles de Gaulle Airport had last been given a complete overhaul, a complete technical overhaul in September 1999. So it's about 10 months or so ago now. That's the last time the plane had been stripped and given a complete and thorough check.

He added that the plane that crashed had about 10,000 flying hours on the clock, and he also confirmed that during the overhaul the engines were very carefully checked as well, as they do in all such overhauls. Once again, that's the last major overhaul and technical check of the Concorde that crashed today. That happened about 10 months ago.

As to what eyewitnesses have been saying and the president of Air France himself, he has indicated that it was an engine problem. Eyewitnesses we've heard have said that they did see smoke or certainly flames coming from one of the Concorde's engines, even as it was taking off from the airport, and that the plane failed to reach any significant height and crashed shortly there afterwards in the small town of Gonesse -- Lou.

WATERS: All right, Peter, just stand by there.

Among the eyewitnesses, as we mentioned earlier, will be perhaps many, many amateur photographers, one of which took these pictures of the crash, just moments after the crash, it appears. Investigators will want to see many of the photos taken. Because of the uniqueness of this aircraft, every time it takes off there are a number of people snapping pictures of it. Those pictures are being rounded up. CNN has gotten its hands on this amateur videotape of the crash moments after the plane went down, and what the pilot for Federal Express who saw it said was "a sickening sight" when it hit.

Witnesses also said the jetliner flamed out at that altitude of 200 feet with its nose up and went down in a huge fireball. These pictures bare that out.

And Peter Humi, if you're still there, I would imagine maintenance records will be on the top of the list for the impending investigation?

HUMI: That's right. I mean, they have to be. What the investigators will go, the first thing they'll look for is the data flight recorder, so-called "black box" amongst the debris of the crash, but also they'll be looking very carefully at the maintenance records of this specific Concorde and also the rest of the Air France Concorde fleet, and one would assume the rest of the Concordes that are flying elsewhere in the world, notably with British Airways.

It is very much a plane that has been in the air for 30 years, and it's been in commercial service for 24, 25 years now. And this is really -- this is the first fatal accident involving the Concorde.

There have been technical problems with the plane. British Airways grounded a Concorde earlier this week, reporting slight cracks on the plane. And there have been similar sorts of incidents. I don't have a full list of the exact specifics of that.

But over the years, obviously, as the planes have aged, they do need more and more care and attention, if you like, and certainly the manuals and the maintenance records will be very important indeed in trying to absolutely establish the reasons for this tragedy -- Lou.

WATERS: All right, Peter Humi, Paris bureau chief keeping watch in Paris.

A bit of background on the Concorde. In November of '62, France and Britain agreed to build the supersonic aircraft. In March of '69, the first flight of the Concorde in Toulouse. October of '69, first flight at supersonic speed, Mach 1. November 1970, first flight at Mach 2. And then in January of 1976, the first commercial flight on the Paris-Dakar-Rio route. In November of 1977, daily service between Paris and New York inaugurated. And as Peter pointed out, this is the first fatal accident of the British-French Concorde project.

And we are continuing to follow this story. We are going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll give you a better idea of what it's like to fly onboard the Concorde. Our space correspondent Miles O'Brien will join us here on the set.

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