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World Perspective | AVIATION

With Jet Grounded, Concorde Pilots Make Virtual Flights

November 25, 2000|MARJORIE MILLER and JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

LONDON — Every day, a few Concorde jet pilots step into a flight simulator in the English city of Bristol, and for 4 1/2 hours--longer than the supersonic journey across the Atlantic--they fly the virtual aircraft.

This is aviation's equivalent of calisthenics. Taking off, climbing, cruising, the pilots have been keeping flying fit in simulators since the Concorde was grounded after an Air France jet crashed near Paris on July 25, killing 114 people.

"For all intents and purposes, it is identical to an airplane, with wonderful visuals," said Capt. Michael Bannister, flight manager for British Airways' Concorde crews. "It looks and feels like an airplane. . . . The main difference is that, no matter what you do, when you're finished, you're still in Bristol."

Like the other Concorde pilots at British Airways and Air France--the two companies that fly the world's only faster-than-sound commercial aircraft--Bannister hopes to be behind the controls of a real Concorde again soon.

"Certainly it won't be this year," he said, "but we're optimistic it will be before next summer."

His French colleagues, however, are more skeptical about the prospects for the quarter-century-old aircraft.

"We don't know if the Concorde will ever fly again," said an Air France executive in Paris who requested anonymity. "That's a decision that's not to be made by us, but as a result of an official investigation that is still underway."

Aviation officials in Britain and France revoked the Concorde's airworthiness certificate in August. Since then, airline officials and aircraft manufacturers have been working with air safety authorities to redesign key parts of the jet to prevent a repeat of the accident.

They are considering strengthening the tires and lining the fuel tanks with sheets of Kevlar--the tough material used in bulletproof vests--as is done in most military aircraft.

According to a French preliminary investigation, the Paris crash occurred when the plane hit a 16-inch piece of metal on the runway that is believed to have fallen from a Continental Airlines DC-10. The metal apparently caused a tire to blow out on the Concorde as it sped down the runway at nearly 200 mph. Pieces of the tire flew up, rupturing at least one fuel tank, and the leaking fuel caught fire as the jet lifted off, investigators say. Less than 90 seconds after the blowout, the plane crashed.

Some British officials have lambasted the French for what they see as slow progress in the investigation. France's Accident and Inquiry Office has responded that its staff is analyzing the information gathered so far, but some members have suggested that it could be years before final conclusions are ready--a possible death blow for the French jets.

Air France's chairman, Jean-Cyril Spinetta, said last month that the Concorde cannot be kept in mothballs forever. "After a year, it becomes difficult," he said. "My wish is that Concorde fly again as rapidly as possible."

But Patrick Auguin, spokesman for the French national airline pilots union, said Air France may begin retraining some of the 36 members of its Concorde cockpit crews next month to fly other aircraft. That is a step British Airways has not wanted to take with its 66 Concorde captains, co-pilots and flight engineers, saying it would take a year to train for other aircraft and then convert back to the Concorde.

British Airways has seven Concordes and was operating twice-daily flights across the Atlantic; Air France has five remaining supersonic jets and was flying once a day to New York.

While Air France apparently is concerned that the crash has tarnished the image of the supersonic jet, British Airways believes that its Concorde customers are eager to return to the aircraft, which can take them from London to New York in three hours and 20 minutes.

Aviation experts say that if French officials drag out their investigation and recertification, British Airways may decide to resume Concorde service on its own. The jet has always been a joint Anglo-French project, but British Airways could seek to buy out Air France's Concordes.

Meanwhile, pilots for both companies are continuing their virtual workouts.

"It is the most exciting, most fun aircraft to fly," Bannister said. "It is like a thoroughbred compared to a pony, or a Ferrari compared to a truck."

*

Miller reported from London and Dahlburg from Paris.

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