Up until its fatal accident in July 2000, Concorde had an impressive safety record. The most serious accidents recorded before this involved damage to the aircraft rudder. The first time this happened was in 1989, involving a British Airways Concorde flying from Christchurch to Sydney.
Damage not noticed until landing
The incident in question took place on April 12th, 1989. A British Airways Concorde, registration G-BOAF, was operating a charter flight from Christchurch, New Zealand to Sydney, Australia. The aircraft lost the upper part of its rudder early in the flight.
Far from being a major incident, or even requiring an emergency landing, the crew experienced no warnings or handling difficulties. The flight went on to land normally before the ground crew in Sydney noticed the problem.
The incident is recalled in detail on the Civil Aviation Historical Society & Airways Museum, Australia, website.
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Losing part of the rudder
As the aircraft was climbing and flying around Mach 1.7 at FL440, the pilots heard a bang, which they thought came from under the flight deck floor. With no instrumentation warnings, they believed it to be caused by an engine surge and continued the flight normally.
There were no further abnormalities until the aircraft began descent and deceleration. Vibrations were felt when the aircraft slowed to Mach 1.4, and the pilots attempted to reduce thrust on each engine, but with no difference. After around 2.5 minutes, and when speed had reduced to Mach 1.0, vibrations ceased.
The aircraft went on to make a normal ILS landing in Sydney. The damaged rudder was first noticed by vehicles near the end of the runway and was reported to the aircraft and the airport emergency services.
Long term damage from moisture
Following the damage, the aircraft was removed from service and repaired. And the UK Air Accidents Investigation Branch carried out an investigation. You can read the full report on the UK government website.
It determined that the rudder skin had been separating from the structure for some time. This was caused by moisture seeping past the rivets in the rudder, over time causing the skin to separate from the panels it was bonded to.
This obviously should not have happened, and the report indicates that sealing procedures for the rivets had not been followed correctly. The rudder had never been removed since construction, but the aircraft was repainted twice (in 1981 and 1985). Stripping the paint could have contributed to the problem.
Worryingly, this would not have been spotted for some time. In its analysis, the Airways Museum notes that at the time of the accident, G-BOAF had flown 8,333 hours, and its next rudder delamination inspection would not take place until 12,000 hours.
A similar incident in 1992
Another British Airways Concorde, registration G-BOAB, suffered a similar problem three years later. On March 21st, 1992, it was flying from London to New York, and a similar ‘bang’ was heard, this time in the cruise at Mach 2. Again, there were no warning indicators or handling difficulties, and again vibrations were felt during the descent.
This time, the crew shut down one engine (this helped reduce the vibrations) and noted that increased rudder application was needed on approach. But the aircraft landed safely.
These incidents led to all British Airways and Air France Concordes having new rudders fitted.
Safe up to the end
Before its fateful crash in July 2000, Concorde had one of the best safety records of any aircraft. Up to 2000, it had operated for over 20 years without a major incident or hull loss.
As discussed in this interesting analysis by the Washington Post, the crash in 2000 significantly changed this. It went from the safest aircraft (ranked by hull losses per million flights) to the worst amongst modern airliners. It then had a rate of 11.64, exceeded only by the earliest jet aircraft (the Comet, the Caravelle, the Trident, and the VC-10 together have an average rate of 15.51).
Numbers like this, of course, are misleading, with so few Concorde built and each flying a relatively low number of flights per year, but it helps explain the change in safety perception.
G-BOAF – the last Concorde to fly
G-BOAF is a noteworthy aircraft in other ways too. It was the last Concorde to be built at Filton, originally with no confirmed customer (according to the history recorded by Aerospace Bristol). It was hoped it would go to Singapore Airlines or British Caledonian, but these purchases never happened. G-BOAF ended up being the sixth and final Concorde to be delivered to British Airways.
During its operational life, it held the record for the fastest transatlantic crossing for five years. It flew New York to London in two hours, 56 minutes and 35 seconds in January 1983.
And it was the last Concorde to ever fly. On November 26th, 2003, it flew from Heathrow to its new home at Filton, eventually going on public display.
Would you like to share any Concorde experiences, especially if they involve these two aircraft! Let us know in the comments.