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France said on Thursday its fleet of Concordes would stay grounded for now in the absence of any certainty about why one of the supersonic airliners crashed in flames last week, killing 113 people. Investigators confirmed a USA Today report that debris from fiberglass water deflectors, used to reduce spray from tires on wet runways, had been found on the tarmac where the plane took off, but appeared to play down the significance. The newspaper said investigators were examining whether the deflector flew off and punctured a fuel tank, sparking the massive fire that trailed from the plane as it took off and then plunged into a hotel near the town of Gonesse. “I don’t know why it is suddenly such a scoop,” Paul-Louis Arsanian, head of the French Accident Investigation Bureau (BEA), told reporters. “It is not THE element of the inquiry. It is one of the elements of the inquiry,” he said. Air France (AIRF.PA) said in a statement it had not carried out modifications to the water deflector after an earlier incident involving a British Airways (BAY.L) Concorde. It said the changes, made by BA, were not obligatory in France. A BA spokeswoman said the firm introduced the modification in 1995, after an inquiry revealed that a water deflector had broken off and ruptured underwing fuel tanks when a tyre on a BA Concorde burst in 1993. “The modification meant the water deflector could no longer come away from the main deflector in the event of a tyre burst,” the spokeswoman said. Concorde flight AF 4590 caught fire as it took off from Roissy-Charles de Gaulle outside Paris on July 25 with a party of mostly German tourists on their way to New York. All 109 people on board the sleek, drop-nosed jet and four persons on the ground were killed in the crash. Investigators say they now know that one, possibly two, tires burst; there was an intense fire caused by a major fuel leak; the flight crew could not retract the landing gear; and there were problems with two of the four engines. But the Transport Ministry said it was still not clear what exactly went wrong and in what order. USA Today said the water deflector, also known as a “cow catcher,” had been linked to a fuel tank leak in 1993 when the part flew off after a tyre exploded on a British Airways Concorde, causing a severe puncture in a tank. Air France said British Airways had modified the deflectors on its Concordes in 1995 but that it had not done the same. The modification was not obligatory under French civil aviation rules, the carrier said in a statement. It said the modification would not stop the deflectors, which weigh less than five kilos (11 pounds), from coming away from the undercarriage in the event of a sudden impact. “It simply guarantees that (the deflector) will stay in one piece in the event that it comes loose after an impact,” Air France said. The British Airways spokeswoman appeared to contradict this, saying that the alteration, devised by French aeronautical firm Aerospatiale, meant that even if the deflector shattered, a cable kept it attached to the main arm of the undercarriage. “The cable holds the deflector together,” she said, adding that since 1995, the fiberglass deflector had never broken off.
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