Remembering the Concorde Flight AF4590 Crash

Today (25 July 2020) is the 20th anniversary of the flight AF4590 Concorde accident.

For those unfamiliar with the accident, the key points (taken from Wikipedia) are that the plane was an international charter flight, from Charles de Gaulle Airport, Paris to John F. Kennedy International Airport, New York, flown by an Aérospatiale-BAC Concorde. On the afternoon of Tuesday, 25 July 2000, the aircraft serving the flight (registration F-BTSC) ran over debris on the runway during takeoff, blowing a tyre, and sending debris flying into the underside of the left wing, and into the landing gear bay. The fuel tank that was inside the left wing was unusually full, and the resulting lack of air space in the tank caused it to rupture and send fuel pouring outward with great force when debris from the tire struck the wing thus creating a shock wave that weakened the tank. Debris, which flew into the landing gear bay, severed power wiring for the landing gear, making it impossible to retract the gear as the aircraft climbed. Sparks produced by the broken wiring ignited fuel from the ruptured fuel tank and along with the fire came a reduction of thrust from Engine 1 and 2. Lack of thrust, the high drag caused by the inability to retract the gear, along with fire damage to the flight controls, made it impossible to control the aircraft with the result that it crashed into a hotel in nearby Gonesse two minutes after takeoff, killing all 109 people on board and four more people in the hotel, with another person in the hotel critically injured. The flight was chartered by German company Peter Deilmann Cruises, and the passengers were on their way to board the cruise ship MS Deutschland in New York City for a 16-day cruise to Manta, Ecuador. It was the only fatal Concorde accident during its 27-year operational history.

I remember hearing about the crash on the news when I was in Sheffield for a few days doing some part-time teaching for a Japanese Studies Distance-Learning MA course at the University. Like many who remember the crash, I remember the video and images of the plane and its tail of fire that become public soon after the crash (it was one of the few such plane crashes – although many eye witnesses tend to refer to fire in other accidents despite the lack of fire).

What I didn’t know at the time that I would go on to do research related to a plane crash myself. But about seven years later I started my research about the JL123 crash and in 2010 decided to take a go from Cardiff via Paris to get to Japan for my final fieldwork trip for the book Dealing with Disaster in Japan: Responses to the Flight JL123 Crash so that I could use the time between the flights to visit the AF4590 memorial.

As I only had a few hours, I took a taxi. It took longer than expected – partly as I hadn’t really taken into account how far the plane had travelled away from the airport in its short (time-wise) doomed flight and partly as I stupidly tried to explain (in my very poor French) about the location of the site rather than asking for the hotel next to which the memorial is located.

I spent around 30 minutes at the memorial, considering how it was different to other memorials, particularly JL123, that I had visited, and taking some photographs.

A plane flying over the memorial
The side view shows more clearly the sharp design of the central part of the memorial, presumably suggesting the pointed shape of the front of Concorde

Compared to some of the memorials that I have been to, I have to say that I was somewhat underwhelmed with this memorial. It was one of the few that I had been to that didn’t have any of the names of the victims. Also, unlike for example the one for the Tenerife Disaster that I subsequently visited, I found it odd the only language used is French given that the victims were predominantly German. I also find it odd when memorials don’t provide more information about the accident itself, although there is a lot of variability in this regard.

While working on my article about the modifications made to one of the memorials of the flight JL123 crash, which was published in the journal Mortality, I was interested to discover that there had been a modification to memorialisation of the crash. Although I had found a number of cases in Japan, and focussed in on one of those in the article, I had only found one such case in the USA (TWA800) and one other in Europe (the Tenerife Disaster). As with the Tenerife case, the modification to the memorialisation of the AF4590 crash has involved the establishment of an additional memorial at another site. Although this memorial had been established in 2006, I wasn’t aware of it when I went via CDG in 2010, but I had planned on visiting the site in April 2020 during a trip to Paris, but as I discussed in another post that trip was cancelled.

The crash site and original memorial in Genosse is marked with the orange marker near Parc de la Patte d’oie in the bottom left corner of the map. The second memorial is to the south of the airport, located on a publicly accessible periphery road.

To the victims of the disaster itself, may you rest in peace, and to their families and others caught up in the disaster, I wish you all well.

[UPDATE 21/6/2022 – I have now visited the second memorial, see Reflecting on a Research Trip to Paris: The Concorde Memorials]

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