Pilot Error Blamed for Flight 587 Crash

 
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By LESLIE MILLER, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON - The co-pilot of American Airlines Flight 587 caused the November 2001 crash that claimed the lives of 265 people, the staff of the nation's airline safety agency reported Tuesday.

 

Investigator Robert Benzon of the National Transportation Safety Board staff said the copilot's response to turbulence, just seconds after the Airbus A300-600 plane took off from New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, was "unnecessary and aggressive."

Benzon also said that investigators found that American Airlines improperly trained its pilots to use the aircraft's rudder while recovering from upsets and said the problem could have been exacerbated by the airline's simulator training.

Benzon also said that the rudder control system on the aircraft is sensitive at higher air speeds, which is potentially hazardous.

The safety board itself was expected to rule later Tuesday on the staff's findings.

On Nov. 12, 2001, First Officer Sten Molin, the co-pilot, moved the plane's rudder back and forth after takeoff, trying to control the climbing aircraft, not realizing he was sealing the grim fate of those on board.

Molin was at the controls when the plane hit turbulence almost immediately after taking off for the Dominican Republic.

"Hang onto it, hang onto it," Capt. Edward States implored. "Let's go for power, please," Molin said.

A second later came a loud bang, which investigators believe was the tail breaking off. Then came the roar of air rushing against the aircraft and alarms sounding in the cockpit.

"What the hell are we into (inaudible)?" Molin said. "We're stuck in it." States' last recorded words came five seconds later: "Get out of it! Get out of it!"

Both Airbus Industrie, which manufactured the jetliner, and American Airlines, which trained Molin, agree that if he had taken his foot off the rudder pedal, the tail wouldn't have broken off, the plane wouldn't have plunged into a New York City neighborhood. It was the second deadliest plane crash on U.S. soil.

But Molin didn't know he was putting more pressure on the tail than it could bear. Why he didn't and who's to blame for that is the subject of a bitter fight between Airbus and American.

According to investigators, Molin tried to steady the aircraft using pedals that control the rudder, a large flap on a plane's tail. When his initial movement failed, Molin tried again and again. His actions placed enormous stress on the tail.

American, the only U.S. airline to use that type of Airbus plane for passenger service, claims Airbus didn't alert it to the danger of sharp rudder movements until after the crash. The airline also contends the Airbus A300-600 has uniquely sensitive flight controls that can cause more severe rudder movements than the pilot intends.

"Airbus had the ability to truly red-flag the issue," American spokesman Bruce Hicks said.

Airbus says it told American a number of times and in a number of ways that the airline was improperly training pilots about how to use the rudder.

An Airbus spokesman declined to comment on the investigation before the hearing. However, the company has provided the NTSB  with a number of documents to support its claim.

For example, a letter dated Aug. 20, 1997, warned American chief pilot Cecil Ewing that rudders should not be moved abruptly to right a jetliner or when a plane is flown at a sharp angle. The letter was signed by representatives from The Boeing Co., the Federal Aviation Administration  and Airbus.

Airbus contends that even people within American Airlines were concerned about how the airline was training its pilots. A letter to Airbus dated May 22, 1997, from American technical pilot David Tribout expressed concern about the airline's then-new training course on advanced maneuvers.

"I am very concerned that one aspect of the course is inaccurate and potentially hazardous," Tribout wrote. His concern: Pilots were being taught that the rudder should be used to control a plane's rolling motion. Hicks countered that Airbus didn't share important safety information about the rudder after a problem with American Flight 903 in May 1997. During that incident, pilots used the rudder to steady an Airbus A300-600 plane on approach to West Palm Beach airport. The plane nearly crashed and one person was seriously injured.

Afterward, Airbus told the NTSB that it included a warning that abrupt rudder movement in some circumstances "can lead to rapid loss of controlled flight," and, in others, could break off the tail.

Hicks said Airbus' comments didn't specifically say the rudder movements on Flight 903 had exposed the tail to so much pressure that it could have been ripped off.

Immediately after the Flight 903 incident, an inspection found no damage to the tail. But five years later, the plane was inspected more closely because of concerns aroused by the crash of Flight 587. Cracks were found and the tail was replaced.

John David, a spokesman for American Airlines' pilots union, said pilots had always thought that they could use rudders to the full extent without hurting the airplane. He also believes Airbus didn't properly communicate what it knew.

American now gives its pilots specialized training on the rudder control system based on information learned during the investigation.

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Pilot, Rudder May Share Blame for Airbus Crash

By Sara Kehaulani Goo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 26, 2004; Page A02

Link to 345kb Word Document on previous A300 rudder events

An American Airlines pilot is likely to be blamed by government investigators for causing the crash of Flight 587, which plunged into a Queens neighborhood on Nov. 12, 2001, killing all on board and five people on the ground, according to sources familiar with the probe, but aircraft design is also likely to be cited as a contributing factor.

The National Transportation Safety Board will today hear the findings of its staff investigators and may vote as early as today on a final determination of the probable cause of the accident. It is also expected to discuss whether there was adequate communication about safety issues related to the aircraft. The crash attracted global attention because it occurred two months after terrorists attacked New York and the Pentagon.

The Airbus A300-600, heading for the Dominican Republic, crashed shortly after takeoff,
killing 260 aboard and five people on the ground in Queens.

The Airbus A300-600, heading for the Dominican Republic, encountered wake turbulence moments after takeoff from John F. Kennedy International Airport and crashed seconds later into the Rockaway Beach neighborhood of Queens, killing 260 aboard and five people on the ground. Investigators determined that the tail fell off the plane shortly before it went down.

American has waged an aggressive campaign in recent weeks to convince the NTSB board, its staff and the agency's investigative staff that the plane's manufacturer hid damning evidence of previous incidents involving the rudder of the same aircraft model. American's last-minute lobbying has succeeded in raising fresh doubts among some board members about whether American, Airbus SAS and the board communicated effectively about safe operation of the A300-600's rudder, according to sources familiar with the investigation who spoke on condition of anonymity because the findings were not official yet.

These sources believe the NTSB staff will still point to the pilot of Flight 587 and his back-and-forth pressure on the rudder foot pedals as the reason the tail came off and the plane crashed. The sources also said the sensitivity of the aircraft's rudder pedals is also likely to be cited as a contributing factor in the crash.

The board's decision could be used in lawsuits filed by relatives of those who died in the crash. American said 70 percent of the suits have been settled.

"It's easy to focus on what started the sequence of events" that led to the crash of Flight 587, said American spokesman Bruce Hicks. "But it ignores the root cause, which is system safety. . . . Airbus never told safety investigators about previous incidents."

As part of its evidence, American pointed to internal Airbus memos written after a nonfatal accident involving another American plane, also an Airbus A300-600. The memos from June 1997 show urgent concern among Airbus managers that the aircraft's rudder had sustained high loads, or stresses, after American Airlines Flight 903 to Miami stalled during a flight and the pilot used the rudder to try to recover. Internally, Airbus recommended that the plane be inspected "as soon as possible," but American claims that it was never informed of the memos until after Flight 587 crashed.

Airbus denied that it had been less than forthcoming about problems with its rudder. The European manufacturer provided several documents to American, including one signed four years before the crash by Airbus and rival manufacturers Boeing Co., McDonnell Douglas and the Federal Aviation Administration that jointly raised concerns about the way American trained pilots to use the rudder. The document indicated American taught its pilots to be aggressive in their use of the rudder, which could result in a "rapid loss of controlled flight."

The letter, dated Aug. 20, 1997, said, "The excessive emphasis on the superior effectiveness of the rudder for roll control . . . is a concern."

Airbus said its letter clearly warns American to correct its training, which the carrier said it did in updated training videos distributed to pilots. "I would agree that our communication to American and others, had it been taken to heart, might have indeed avoided this accident," said Clay McConnell, an Airbus spokesman. "I see no evidence that American pilots were untrained from their dangerous behavior."

Airbus said that the pilot's aggressive back-and-forth use of the rudder right after Flight 587 encountered wake turbulence led the tail of the aircraft to come off.

During the crash investigation, the NTSB issued a recommendation for Airbus to fix another component of its rudder on the A300-600 fleet, raising concerns among pilots about rudder performance.

The crash, pilots say, raised alarms because it involved a basic aircraft part that pilots do not use very much. The rudder, the flap on the vertical tail, moves right and left to help pilots land in a crosswind. It is also used to maneuver the airplane on the ground while taxiing.

"I don't think most pilots knew as much about rudder movement and the effects on the airplane even at low speeds," said Terry McVenes, executive air safety vice chairman at the Air Line Pilots Association, which represents pilots at several major carriers but not those at American.

American said it has seen a new opportunity to convince the board of its view because four of the five NTSB members have joined since the crash.

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