20 Years Ago Air France’s Concorde Crashed In Paris

Yesterday marked the 20th anniversary of Air France Concorde flight number 4590 crashing into a hotel 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) from Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG). The aircraft, with registration number F-BTSC, had been chartered by German travel company Peter Deilmann Cruises to take passengers to New York to join MS Deutschland for a 16-day cruise to Ecuador.

Fight 4590 crashed two minutes after takeoff killing 113 people. Photo Getty Images

Before we get into what happened on that fateful summer day, let’s first look at what was and remains today the world’s only ever supersonic passenger jet except for the Tupolev Tu-144 which only ever made 55 passenger flights. An icon of beauty and style Concorde was much more than just an engineering marvel with every aspect of the aircraft designed for aerodynamic efficiency. Truly elegant and instantly recognized around the globe, Concorde was much more than a plane; she was society’s attempt to make the world a smaller place.

Concorde had afterburners

Able to fly on the edge of space faster than a speeding bullet, Concorde gave its passengers the chance to see the Earth’s curvature without the need for a G-suit and oxygen mask. Built as a joint venture between the United Kingdom and France when the aviation industry was fixated on supersonic travel, Concorde was a remarkably advanced and unique aircraft that was ahead of its day.

Concorde would lower its nose when landing Photo: Getty Images

Designed with a swept-back delta wing with no flaps or slats, Concorde was the first and remains the only passenger jet to have turbojet engines with afterburners that allowed it to cruise at Mach 2 (1,350 mph). Concorde was 800 miles per hour faster than any other transatlantic passenger jet to put it into perspective.

British Airways and Air France both had seven Concordes

Only 20 Concordes were ever built, with seven each being delivered to British Airways and Air France, who operated them on the lucrative London-New York and Paris-New York route. For passengers, the Concorde experience began at the airport with exclusive lounges before boarding the cigar tube-shaped plane that offered the same type of roominess you find on a Bombardier regional jet.

Airbus, British Airways, Concorde
Concorde could fly from London to New York in three and a half hours Photo: Airbus

With just 100 seats laid out in a 2+2 configuration, and toilets in the middle, there was no class distinction in the seating, yet people for some reason, wanted to always sit near the front. Flying Concorde was not about comfort but speed ferrying passengers from New York to Europe in an astonishing three and a half hours.

The problem with Concorde was noise

When Concorde was in service with Air France and British Airways, the noise was the chief complaint with the aircraft being extremely loud when taking off. Additionally, it was unable to break the sound barrier until it was out over the ocean.

Concorde Takeoff
Concorde is the only commercial aircraft to be built with afterburners. Photo: Getty Images

For 27 years, Concorde crossed the oceans with no crashes and barely any incidents until that fateful day on July 25th, 2000, when it departed Paris for New York. As the aircraft took off for New York JFK at 14:44 CET, the plane ran over debris, a metallic strip that had fallen from off a Continental Airlines DC-10 that had taken off minutes earlier.

113 people died when flight 4590 crashed

The foreign object’s encounter caused a tire to blow, sending debris into the bottom of the left wing and landing gear bay. The full fuel tank housed in the left wing became ruptured, with fuel now escaping at great force. Debris that entered the landing gear bay severed wires, making it impossible for the crew to retract the wheels as the plane was attempting to climb. Sparks produced by the broken wing ignited the escaping fuel producing a massive flame trailing behind the aircraft like a comet.

With the reduced thrust and unable to retract the landing gear, the pilots lost control of the plane, resulting in it crashing into a hotel after departing CDG. Subsequently, 109 people on board and four on the ground lost their lives.

The plane crashed into a hotel

Recalling that fateful day, the Hotel Hôtelissimo in Gonesse, Michèle Fricheteau, was preparing to welcome arriving guests when she heard a loud noise. When interviewed recently by Australia’s 9News, the 66-year-old retiree said,

“I heard a very, very loud noise…I said to [my assistant] Frank, ‘oh la là, that’s a lot of noise from the Concorde today’ – but I hadn’t even finished my sentence when there was an explosion in the hotel, a terrible explosion.”

Air France Flight 4590
Air France Flight 4590 crashed into a hotel. Photo: Getty Images

Ms. Fricheteau had sent many of the 44-room hotel staff home early and was waiting for a bus carrying young musicians that had been delayed on the road. 

“Our luck was unheard of,” she said. “Forty minutes later, everyone would have died.”

The hotel front desk saved her life

Ms. Fricheteau says that she credits the hotel’s wooden counter and her short height for saving her life despite still being severely burned on her face and arms. She says the hotel reception’s flimsy wooden counter and her “very short” height saved her from the blast. However, her face, arms, and hair were severely burned.

While trying to escape, she remembers telling her assistant Frank to climb out of a window adding:

“It was impossible to get out, impossible,” she said.

“Little Frank said to me, ‘listen, you won’t get through, it’s not possible,’ so, I went out through the window as well.”

“There were pieces of plane all over the ground, and I still did not think of the Concorde – I did not register, I had not made the connection between the accident and the noise of the Concorde.”

Learning to live with the disaster

In the months following the tragedy, Ms. Fricheteau, her husband, and their children sought out a new life in the South Pacific, moving to the French territory of New Caledonia. Despite being thousands of miles away from where the crash occurred, they have kept in touch with the families of the four hotel employees killed.

They were also planning to return to Franch to mark the disaster’s 20th anniversary at a ceremony held in Gonesse. Unfortunately, their flights got canceled due to the coronavirus, so they are now delaying any return to France until next year.

Following the crash, people were reluctant to fly on Concorde, and the plane was retired in 2003. Photo: Getty Images

Since that tragic day, Ms. Fricheteau credits her tight-knit family with helping her to cope with the aftermath of the disaster. Three years following the Paris crash, Concorde was retired from service ending what many people thought was just the start of supersonic travel.

Did you ever fly on Concorde? If so, we would love to read all about it in the comments.