A Banner Date In The History Of The Barn Door Fallacy: The Day The Concorde Died

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The Barn Door Fallacy is one of the most striking example of persistent human and bureaucratic incompetence, as well as one of the most destructive.

It is just as illogical as the old saw it is named after, yet the reflex reaction to almost every accident, tragedy or chaotic event is to immediately adopt extreme measures that are deemed necessary to prevent what has already happened. This occurs despite the fact that most such events were in situations already operating with known risks and virtual certainty that the disaster that eventually prompts the Barn Door response would occur. Nevertheless, taking reasonable measures to prevent the catastrophe is somehow never recognized until after the bodies stack up, and then being reasonable  is no longer an option.

Examples of this phenomenon, a triumph of incompetence, emotion and fear of responsibility over responsibility and reason, abound: the aftermath to 9/11,  the over-reaction to the Oklahoma City bombing; the end of airship travel after the spectacular explosion of the Hindenburg, the death of nuclear power in the wake of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.  The pandemic will undoubtedly lead to some manifestation of the Barn Door Fallacy. It even infects sports: all it took was a televised career-threatening injury to a franchise star catcher to make Major League Baseball drastically alter the rule regarding collisions at home  plate, and a freak accident breaking the leg of a player in a take-out slide at second base during post-season play-offs to prompt MLB to ban a routine aspect of the game—and an exciting one— practiced and accepted for over a hundred years.

The crash of an Air France Concorde jet on takeoff in Paris on July 25, 2000, however, is as perfect example of a Barn Door Fallacy trigger as anyone could imagine. . The Concorde was the world’s fastest commercial jet and had enjoyed an exemplary safety record, with no crashes in the plane’s 31-year history. Obviously any time a plane is taking off, landing or flying, a crash is a possibility.  When the Concorde crashed, however, the reaction was as if there was some fatal and inexcusable flaw in the plane. The flaw was that it was an airplane, and was really really fast.

Air France Flight 4590 left DeGaulle Airport for New York carrying nine crew members and 96 German tourists who were planning to take a cruise to Ecuador. Immediately after takeoff,  the plane plunged to the ground in a  fireball.  All 105 people on the plane were killed immediately, which, again, was completely predictable at the speeds the plane reached. The Concorde was able to cross the Atlantic Ocean in less than three-and-a-half hours using speeds of 1,350 miles per hour,  more than twice the speed of sound.

After the crash, the Concorde fleet was grounded during an investigation. The results showed that the disaster was not due to Concorde’s engine construction or speed. In fact, it wasn’t the aircraft’s fault at all, nor was there pilot error.

The plane that took off on the same runway just before Flight 4590 had lost a piece of metal while taxiing . The Concorde jet ran over the debris as it took off, shredding a tire  and tossing bits of metal and rubber into one of the engines and fuel tanks. That, in turn, caused a fire, and disabled the aircraft.

In short, the crash was caused by pure luck, the bad kind.

After more than a year, the Concorde jets went back into service, but there were some minor problems, and the public, unnerved by media hype and footage of the crash (as with the Hindenburg) was dubious about the plane’s safety. Both Air France and British Airways decided to end Concorde service permanently in October 2003, firmly locking the barn door.

 

13 thoughts on “A Banner Date In The History Of The Barn Door Fallacy: The Day The Concorde Died

  1. No doubt the crash had an impact on passenger counts, but there were other factors, too. A lot of airlines that were originally interested backed out. 9/11 decreased air travel significantly. Airbus, the company that bought out Aerospatiale (which built Concorde) announced in 2003 that it would no longer make parts. Control systems were essentially obsolete, and the comparatively small size of the passenger space rendered more modern seating impossible. The plane was also expensive to fly, burning a LOT of fuel and requiring a three-person cockpit crew; its per-seat mile costs were at least 50% more than subsonic aircraft.

    Bottom line is that economics likely played a bigger role in the retirement of Concorde than the crash.

    • Yet there was no hint that the flights were going to be cancelled prior to then crash. It was an elite clientele; presumably willing to pay more, within limits. Which is more likely by a “but for” analysis? Would the financial issues have killed the Concorde without the crash? Or would the crash have killed the plane without the financial issues?

      • Ultimately, I believe the economics would have killed the plane without the crash. The crash almost certainly accelerated its demise. But when you’re dealing with a PNA situation (parts no longer available), you CAN keep something going longer – you’re just going to pay out the wazoo for custom fabrication. That works if you’re the US government and you want to keep (50-year-old!) B-52s flying for another twenty years, but if you’re in it for the money, not so much.

        Fewer than 15 Concordes were ever built, and that doesn’t do much for you when you’re trying to maintain a parts inventory. By contrast, more than 10,500 Boeing 737s have been DELIVERED (yes, the plane has undergone numerous re-designs since its first incarnation, but look at the volume difference). Obviously, it didn’t help that many nations banned the aircraft for overland passage due to concerns about sonic booms. And it was limited to transatlantic flights; it simply didn’t have the range to go transpacific.

        The stresses placed on the Concorde’s airframe were also massive, due to supersonic flight (one of the issues design engineers had to account for was the fact that even at high altitude the skin of the plane developed so much heat that in flight the plane was nearly a foot longer than it was sitting on the ground). That just adds maintenance complexity.

        I’ve read that there are currently several serious attempts at reviving supersonic passenger transportation. These attempts will of course be able to take advantage of more efficient engines, aerodynamic designs that pretty much eliminate sonic boom, and improved materials. But the Concorde, while an impressive technological achievement for its time, was already nearing the end of its run by the time of the crash.

        • Planes that are 30 years old, even with parts available, are nearing the end of the useful lives, and the cost of replacing the fleet would be staggering. Grounding aging planes is really the opposite of the barndoor fallacy, as it is entirely predictable that they will experience increased mechanical problems, potentially leading to certain death should failure occur a supersonic speeds.

  2. I’d say the crash was caused by negligence rather than bad luck (excerpts from the wiki article):

    After reaching takeoff speed, the tyre of the number 2 wheel was cut by a metal strip (a wear strip) lying on the runway, which had fallen from the thrust reverser cowl door of the number 3 engine of a Continental Airlines DC-10 that had taken off from the same runway five minutes previously.[3]:102[34] This wear strip had been replaced at Tel Aviv, Israel, during a C check on 11 June 2000, and then again at Houston, Texas, on 9 July 2000. The strip installed in Houston had been neither manufactured nor installed in accordance with the procedures as defined by the manufacturer.

    Air France had discovered that its maintenance staff had not replaced or renewed a spacer in one of the four tyres in the rear left landing gear (it was found in a workshop after the crash). This skewed the alignment of the landing gear because a strut was able to wobble in any direction with 3° of movement. The problem was exacerbated on the left gear’s three remaining tyres by the uneven fuel load. Drag marks left on the runway by the left rear landing wheels show the Concorde was veering to the left as it accelerated towards takeoff.

    Due to the veer, the Concorde travelled further down the runway than normal because it was failing to gain sufficient takeoff speed. It was after it had passed its usual takeoff point on the runway that it struck the metal strip from the DC-10.

    • Also, I believe most airports have a truck or car drive down runways to look for dangerous objects between takeoffs. I’m not sure what the frequency is, however. Can’t be between every flight. Maybe some airline people in the commentariat know.

      • An airport will inspect the runway on a schedule and with a prompting event. I’ve never seen inspections between takeoffs and landings without an event. Events that would require inspections are failed lighting, wildlife strikes, wildlife on the runway, excessive snow, hail or rain, or a pilot observed something on the runway, or had a mechanical failure of some sort on the runway. That list is not all inclusive.

    • Sounds like bad luck to me. The exact conditions necessary to cause a minor problem to become fatal happened to occur together. I’d assume that any machinery of sufficient complexity has such flaws or experiences such lapses. Add the Space Shuttle to the BDF list.

      • Every air disaster results from a compounding and piling up of screw-ups. I’d say it was bad luck for the passengers and crews but negligence is the underlying cause. Installing a non-FAA certified part on a commercial jumbo jet. Without following the instructions and doing it properly. And no supervisor caught either mistake and certified the job and allowed the plane to return to service. That’s bad. I’d say criminal.

  3. Just a note: the Soviet version of a supersonic plane, the TU-144, crashed spectacularly at the Paris Air Show in 1973. The whole supersonic transport idea was hamstrung by that memory, so though it was years later the 2005 crash seemed to be just the other shoe finally dropping.

    • I can’t believe the Concorde survived the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo. Wasn’t it a consistent loss leader for British Airways and Air France? I doubt it ever turned a profit, and was limited to flying at Mach II only when over an available ocean. Definitely a Popular Mechanics/Walt Disney/Jetsons kind of idea. Just not very well thought out. But engineers did crazy things in the ’60s, and it was a spectacularly cool looking airplane.

  4. Often times disasters are a drip, drip, drip of tiny failures that come together. If one little thing alters the course, the disaster never happens. Had that metal strip come to rest one foot to the left of where it did, the Concorde might still be flying today. Had the Concorde traveled slightly off-center down the runway, things might have been different. Instead, the tiny failures are compounded by circumstances and timing to become the Concorde taking off with a trail of fire.

    But Jack’s point is a good one. The risks were there regardless of outcome. Flying is always a risk when gravity is your opponent. In fact, it’s the biggest reason I don’t like flying. It’s a high-speed metal tube that flies at high altitude and it’s filled with flammable fuel.

    Baseball players stand in a batter’s box while guys throw baseballs in their direction at nearly 100mph. Ask Dickie Thon about those risks…I’ll never forget that. They slide into bases, risking broken ankles and broken hands. Football is filled with peril. Hockey…downhill skiing…racing…the list goes on. Heck, I drive ten miles on the highway to work each morning and last Monday, came upon a four-car accident. Three of them were torn up badly. Even driving to work…

    We can do everything possible to mitigate risk – eliminate this, outlaw that, restrict the other thing – but I still have to make that daily ten-mile drive to the office…

  5. I’ve commented before and made it to a COTD talking about how so much of the public doesn’t manage rare risk well.

    I remember the first reporting about the accident talked about how safe the Concod was. Making that statement demonstrates that anyone making it fails to grasp the concept of a statistically significant sample.

    With 30 aircraft, it never could be discussed in a statistically significant manner. Compared to the 737, with 10,000 produced, it went from an excellent record to one of the worst aircraft ever. At the same point in time, the 737 fleet took 2 hours to have the same number of takeoffs as the Concord over its lifetime. To get the same airframe loss rate would mean 12 crashes a day.

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