LONDON, Jan. 5 -- The grounded supersonic jetliner Concorde, erstwhile pride of Air France and British Airways, escaped disaster at least 57 times before the fatal crash near Paris last July that killed 109 passengers and crew and four people on the ground, new revelations released Friday said.
The revelations, contained in findings by investigators of the accident, seem to have dashed hopes of an early return of the two airlines' distinct flagship to service, industry sources said.
Only a few weeks ago, British Airways announced it intended to fly the Concorde again, although no such plans were announced by Air France, which promptly grounded its fleet when one of its planes crashed soon after take-off from Charles de Gaulle airport.
An investigation after the crash found that the jetliner caught fire and crashed after its fuel tank was ruptured when a tire burst on a metal piece left on the runway.
The French investigators said that it was not the first time a Concorde fuel tank ruptured because of a bursting tire. They added that fuel tanks had been damaged by tire blowouts on six separate occasions and there had been 57 cases of tires bursting on the runway since the plane went into service in 1976.
The tire bursts were held responsible for shooting debris into the fuel tanks, causing a dangerous chain of events that finally proved fatal last year.
The sudden fire that engulfed the Concorde soon after take-off was captured by an amateur photographer and the image of the sleek airliner wreathed in flames has become emblematic of the troubles faced by the two airlines over their Concorde fleets.
The French investigation bureau, in its latest report on the tragedy, said virtually all six incidents before the tragedy were identical though none led to the leaking fuel catching fire. Of the 57 tire-bursts, 30 hit the Air France fleet and 27 occurred on British Airways Concordes. In 12 instances, wings or tanks suffered structural damage but not serious enough to threaten the aircraft in flight.
All Concordes from the two airlines' fleets have been grounded while experts decide on modifications to make the aircraft airworthy again.
Last month, British Airways said it plans to resume Concorde flights in March. BA and Air France, the only two operators of the Concorde, withdrew their fleets from service after the air crash, which followed aviation inspectors' reports that some of the 30-year-old planes had developed hairline cracks and had shown other signs of metal fatigue. Investigators said those problems were not related to the crash.
BA has been working on a life extension program to give an extra 15 years to the 25-year-old aircraft. It said experts believe that if the supersonic service was not restored by summer 2001, economic pressures might force the plane permanently out of service.
The supersonic jet can carry 100 passengers and fly at 1,336 miles an hour and at an altitude of 55,000 feet. It has set several world records, including fastest crossing of the Atlantic from New York to London in two hours 54 minutes and 45 seconds.