Thursday, November 22, 2012

the Concorde-Connections irony

So I'm re-watching the James Burke series Connections, first produced in the late 1970s with benefit of almost 40 years worth of hindsight, and because of that, noticed an irony in episode six. The episode, "Thunder in the Skies" recounts all the technological innovations required to create the internal combustion engine leading to cars and airplanes.

At the end of the episode, James Burke recounts the efforts of Wilhelm Kress to create an airplane. Burke explains that thanks to debris in its path, the Kress plane crashed.

Interesting to note that the Wikipedia article on Kress cite's the book version of Connections as its only reference.

The episode ends with James Burke on top of the Concorde which was in commercial service by 1976, so the new exciting thing in air travel when the episode was filmed.

The Concorde was taken out of service in in 2003 due to low passenger numbers as a direct result of the crash of flight 4590 in 2000.

Burke recounts  Kress's failure in a humorous, mocking way:
In 1901 Kress launched his contraption, and, massive engine (too massive) chugging, he spluttered along, far too slow to skip over some debris he suddenly saw, floating in his path. Ah, the rewards of genius. 
(Sound of a crash) 
Still other people did take up the idea of using an engine the way Kress had - well, not quite. It was to be another 30 years or so before the gasoline motorcar engine was dropped in favor of another one, and even then the new one still used Mayboch's fuel system and the scent spray idea. The latest versions of that engine cruise along, carrying hundreds of people at speeds that Kress could never have thought possible. They cross the oceans of the world without a thought for floating debris... so that's where this trail of events has brought us... the direct modern descendent... of Wilhelm Kress's failure is this - the Concorde.  (shot of Burke on the Concorde) The modern jet aircraft and all that implies. Because what Wilhelm Kress was trying to do was to get a sea plane off the water of the lake in Austria. And had he done so he would have beaten the Wright brothers' first flight by two years. And instead of a couple of American bicycle mechanics, all the glory - or the blame - would have gone to an Austrian piano-maker who dreamed he could fly.
The episode ends at that point with a model of Kress's airplane behind the credits.

But apparently it wasn't only Kress who was beaten by the debris-at-take-off problem... according to Wikipedia's entry on the Concorde:
According to the official investigation conducted by the Bureau d'Enquêtes et d'Analyses pour la Sécurité de l'Aviation Civile (BEA), the (2000 flight 4590) crash was caused by a titanium strip that fell from a Continental Airlines DC-10 that had taken off minutes earlier. This metal fragment punctured a tyre on Concorde's left main wheel bogie during takeoff. The tyre exploded, a piece of rubber hit the fuel tank, and while the fuel tank was not punctured, the impact caused a shock-wave which caused one of the fuel valves in the wing to burst open. This caused a major fuel leak from the tank, which then ignited due to sparking electrical landing gear wiring severed by another piece of the same tyre. The crew shut down engine number 2 in response to a fire warning, and with engine number 1 surging and producing little power, the aircraft was unable to gain height or speed. The aircraft entered a rapid pitch-up then a violent descent, rolling left and crashing tail-low into the Hotelissimo Hotel in Gonesse.[135] On 6 December 2010, Continental Airlines and John Taylor, one of their mechanics, were found guilty of involuntary manslaughter.[136]
I guess Kress has the last, bitter laugh.