Tall Tails

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August 6, 2002
 
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The tail of American Airlines Flight 587 is seen lifted out of the waters off the shore of Rockaway, NY. (ABCNEWS.com)
Airbus' Fatal Flaws?
Vanity Fair Raises Questions After Fatal 2001 Crash

By Bob Jamieson
ABCNEWS.com

Aug. 5 — The Nov. 12 crash of American Airlines Flight 587 was the world's worst single-plane crash in a decade. The government has pointed to pilot error as one possible cause, but a new report in Vanity Fair magazine says the Airbus A300-600's composites, the material that makes up the tail, could have been the culprit.

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Why Some Wineries Choose Screw Caps American Flight 587, bound for the Dominican Republic, fell out of the clear blue sky on that November morning shortly after takeoff from JFK International Airport in New York City killing all 260 people on board as well as five more people on the ground. Speculation on what caused the crash has centered on two factors: that the Airbus hit turbulence created by a jumbo jet which took off moments before and then, the experienced pilots overreacted causing the Airbus' tail to snap off.
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"That [original] idea [based on early safety board sources' evaluations] … that the pilot then wildly overreacted without anything else going wrong, made crazy movements on their rudder and therefore imposed such stresses on the tail that it fell off and the plane crashed, just doesn't hold water," said David Rose, the author of the Vanity Fair article.

One problem Rose points to is the A300-600's electronic control system. There have been 21 incidents in which the rudder appears to have moved without commands from the pilot. And other A300-600 pilots say it is wrong to blame the cockpit crew that day.

"We are always taught to try and put the airplane back in coordinated flight," said Todd Wissing, an A300-600 first officer. "That is, simply to put it back to a normal situation rather than slamming it side to side."

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Problems with Inspection Practices

Wissing and seven other American pilots wrote a letter to the Federal Aviation Administration, raising concerns about the control system. They listed another problem with the Airbus: the tail assembly itself.

Pilots have called for a change in the way it is inspected. The tail is made of composite material — hundreds of layers of carbon fiber — and a visual inspection is required only once every five years. But, as some experts argue, this isn't enough.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor James Williams believes the inspection policy is inadequate because little is known about deterioration of composites over time or from turbulence.

"This is a lamentably naive policy," Williams told ABCNEWS. "It is analogous to assessing whether a woman has breast cancer by simply looking at her family portrait."

Because the composite lugs that hold together the tail to the fuselage are hidden from view, Williams says the visual inspections are not enough, even though some argue that deconstructing the plane for inspection could be more destructive. He says the designers of passenger jets should make it easier for any vital parts made up of composites to be inspected safely with ultrasound.

 

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Airbus officials disputed any problem with the inspection policy or the composite lugs. "We have demonstrated by empirical fact that during the life of this part, damage which cannot be seen through visual inspection will not grow and will not affect the integrity of the structure," said Clay McConnell, Airbus vice president of communications.

McConnell said the National Transportation Safety Board and the FAA were continuing their accident investigation but have not called for any design changes. "The NTSB has said that if they had any reason to recommend changes to A300 operations or inspection procedures, they would make those recommendations immediately. No recommendation on any changes along those lines have been made," McConnell said.

American is the only domestic airline flying the A300. Along with the FAA, it says the planes are safe and has no plans to ground them.  

 


ABCNEWS' Judy Isikow produced the story for World News Tonight.

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