LONDON — The Concorde took a big step closer to resuming service Tuesday after British Airways completed its first supersonic test flight of the aircraft since last year’s Air France crash near Paris grounded the fleet.
A Concorde, with modifications made since the crash, flew a loop over the North Atlantic that duplicated operating conditions of the jet’s London-New York route, reaching a top speed of 1,350 mph – around twice the speed of sound – and climbing to 60,000 feet.
“After many hours of work by our engineering team, it’s good to have the aircraft flying again,” BA chief executive Rod Eddington said after the plane landed safely at a Royal Air Force base in Oxfordshire, England.
“This is an important day for everyone at British Airways and we look forward to carrying customers again soon.”
The British carrier says it hopes to fly its Concordes commercially again by late summer.
The supersonic fleets of British Airways and Air France were grounded after an Air France Concorde crashed outside Paris on July 25, killing 113 people.
Spewing flames and smoke, the plane smashed into a hotel near the town of Gonesse just minutes after takeoff from Charles de Gaulle airport. All 100 passengers, mostly German tourists, were killed along with nine crew members and four people on the ground.
Authorities believe a stray metal strip on the runway ripped one of the jet’s tires, and rubber debris smashed into the fuel tanks, causing a leak and fire that brought the plane down.
British Airways has since strengthened the wiring in the undercarriages of its seven Concordes, lined the fuel tanks with Kevlar and made other changes meant to prevent fuel leaks. The French tire maker, Michelin, has also developed a new extra-resistant tire to prevent punctures.
A four-man crew checked the runway for any debris before Tuesday’s test flight.
With chief Concorde pilot Capt. Mike Bannister at the controls, the three hour, 20 minute flight took the plane out over the Atlantic after it left from London’s Heathrow airport at 2:18 p.m. It turned around southwest of Iceland and then headed back to Britain.
Members of the public gathered at the rain-lashed airfield at Oxfordshire to welcome the supersonic plane.
“It was absolutely fantastic. The aircraft performed brilliantly and it was a tribute to all who have worked on it at British Airways,” Bannister said as he climbed down the plane’s steps into driving rain.
“We are trying to look forward and take Concorde back where she belongs — at 60,000 feet up,” he said, adding that BA would stage another test flight as modification work continues.
Air France, which operates five of the planes, said on Monday that it is too early to predict when its commercial service might resume, but it has suggested it hopes to fly again by autumn.