A Paris-bound Air France Concorde carrying 81 passengers and a crew of nine made an emergency landing at Dulles International Airport yesterday 20 minutes after two tires burst on take-off, causing debris to rupture a fuel tank.
Despite the blowouts, which also put a two-square-foot hole in the wing and disabled the left side breaking system, Air France Capt. Jean Doublaits safely landed the sleek supersonic plane.
None of the passengers or crew were injured, and all left the plane via a mobile lounge.
"The pilot did one heck of a job," said Dulles Airport operations officer Patrick T. Chitwood, who watched the landing from the field. Chitwood said the mishap appeared to be the worst involving a Concorde at Dulles Airport.
Chitwood gave this account of the accident, which occured at 3:35 p.m.:
"As the plane took off, the two left rear main tires blew out. There was no rubber left. Part of the metal rims blew up. That took a two-foot square hole out of the wing, punctured a fuel tank and ruptured some hydraulic lines. We don't know how many.
"The concorde lost the brakes on its left main gear, and fuel was leaking from seven holes in the fuel tank, ranging in size from a quarter- to three-quarters of an inch.
"After passing over the control tower to confirm damage, the pilot decided to return to Dulles. We were going to bring him down on runway 1230 which is 10,000 feet long, but the pilot said, 'I want all the room I can get.' So we sent him to runway 19 right, which is 11,500 feet long.
"He canted the plane to the right so that the four undamaged wheels under the right wing touched the ground first. Then the plane eased to good wheels on the left, and they held. He only had about 1,500 feet of runway left (when the aircraft stopped)."
With at least part of his braking system knocked out, Chitwood said, Doublaits, 55, apparently relied on reverse engine thrust to bring the plane to a halt. During the 20 minutes it was in the air it lost about 40 of the 94 tons of fuel it had at take-off.
A member of the flight crew said last night that he understood ground crews and mechanics were being flown here from Paris. He said he believed preliminary repairs would be made here but did not know how long they would take.
One of the passengers, Thomas A. Westrick Jr., a Washington businessman who had previously flown on Concordes, described the take-off:
"I knew something was wrong just by the sound. There was a bumping noise, and the plane was rattling and shaking like it was a car going over a speed bump 50 miles an hour.
"The plane leveled off. We weren't getting up. I was concerned. The crew came out with a standard announcement that didn't make any sense. Then there was another announcement that there was a 'problem,' and that maybe we would go to JFK Airport."
Chitwood said Doublaits' first considered taking his plane to John F. Kennedy Airport in New York, but when the extent of the damage became apparent, he decided to bring it back to Dulles.
Both the take-off and landing runways were closed after the blowouts and emergency landing, but the first runway was reopened within a couple of hours. The second runway where the plane landed remained closed late last night. Authorities said they were still trying to move the plane.
The blowout scattered debris over one of the runways and more debris was scattered on the second runway after the landing. The eight pieces of fire equipment that rushed to the scene laid down a blanket of foam on the fuel that was leaking onto the runway.
Chitwood said that if Doublaits' careful touch-down had not succeeded, the left wing of the Concorde, supported by only two wheels, could have hit the concrete runway, possibly causing the fuel in the already ruptured tank to explode.
The Concorde has four wheels in each of the two landings gear under the wings. Two smaller wheels are located under the nose. It was the two rear wheels on the left side that blew out. All that was left after the landing were the hubs. The rims had been sheared off.
According to field personnel, one of the left front wheels that survived the blowout was damaged, and it was quickly replaced as the crippled plane rested on the runway.
The flight originated in Mexico City, where it was delayed two hours because of problems in a hydraulic line. That problem apparently was not related to the accident at Dulles, Chitwood said. Fifteen passengers got on at Mexico City and another 66 boarded the plane at Dulles. The delayed flight was scheduled to arrive at DeGaulle Airport outside of Paris at about 1 a.m., Paris time.
Doublaits, the pilot, said last night he was not scared and described the difficult landing as nothing out of the ordinary.
"Well, we just burst two tires, that's all," he said matter of factly while checking into Washington's Gramercy Hotel for the night.
Doublaits confirmed Chitwood's account of how he accomplished the landing and brought the plane to a halt.
Many of the passengers had high praise for the Air France crew and Doublaits. "I would be happy to get back in the plane and fly to Paris right now," said Tom Hood of Phoenix.
Another witness to the emergency was Tom Cherno of Potomac, who was piloting a single-engine plane in the area at the time.
"I looked up and saw this plane," Cherno said. "We were so close I could 'Air France' on the side. All this grayish liquid was pouring out the back. It was pretty scary."
Cherno, who monitored radio communications between the Concorde and Dulles controllers, said the plane was asked to maintain its altitude of 2,500 feet and he heard the Air France pilot report a hole in the left wing, gear damage and tire damage.
"They also said something like 'no brakes,'" Cherno said. "When the pilot landed safely, the control tower congratulated him. They said, 'A job well done."
"Those guys are as cool as cucumbers."
Air France spokesman Jim Collins said the accident apparently was unprecedented for a Concorde. Air France owns four of the supersonic jets and has flown them between Washington and Paris since May 1976.
Chitwood said no other Dulles flights were delayed or otherwise disrupted by the incident. Planes scheduled to use the runway on which the Concorde landed were diverted to the other two main runways.
Officials at Dulles said they received a half-dozen complaints about noise from the low-flying Concorde. "It was terribly noisy," said one official. Most of the calls came from residents of Prince William County, south of the airport. CAPTION: Picture, Two tires are replaced on an Air France Concorde. When the plane took off at Dulles the tires blew, rupturing a fuel tank. A safe emergency landing was made. By Lucian Perkins - The Washington Post