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Concorde faced a doubtful future Tuesday after the shock decision by British and French aviation authorities to ground the supersonic jet. British Airways, the only airline in the world still flying Concorde since Air France grounded its fleet of the planes after last month’s disaster, abandoned Tuesday morning’s flight to New York only half an hour before it was due to take off. Nobody could say when its services would resume — if ever. The imminent withdrawal of Concorde’s Certificate of Airworthiness, confirmed by the British Civil Aviation Authority Tuesday, is an official judgement that the aircraft is not safe to fly, at least not without modifications. Aerospace experts said those modifications could cost more than Concorde’s profitability justifies. British Airways chief executive Rod Eddington said he hoped the grounding, the result of an Air France Concorde crash in Paris on July 25 which killed 113 people, did not mean the end of supersonic flight. But aerospace engineers pointed to the simple fact, revealed by France’s Accident Investigation Bureau last week, that a mere tire blowout could cause a Concorde to crash in a fireball. Aircraft tire blowouts are fairly common events, and the bureau said Thursday that a piece of rubbish on the runway — a metal strip — burst a tire on the Air France Concorde that crashed last month. With the aircraft traveling at around 315 km per hour (196 mph), chunks of rubber or metal burst into the plane’s wing, ripping open at least one of the fuel tanks within. The spilling fuel caught fire, perhaps because of the two powerful after-burning engines blazing a few inches away. Both of those engines eventually failed. The solution seems obvious: armor the wing, possibly with Kevlar, to repel lumps of high-speed rubber. “But I don’t know whether it would be a cost-effective solution,” said aerospace engineer Malcolm English, the editor of leading industry monthly Air International. The cost of such a modification, especially for development and testing, could be more than the Concorde’s profitability justified, English said. “You don’t have to change much on an airplane to run into a lot of costs,” he said, noting that the expense would have to be spread over only 12 surviving Concordes — five with Air France and seven with British Airways.
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