2002-08-10 / Columnists

From the Editor’s Desk

By Howard Schwach

By Howard Schwach

It is amazing what a good reporter can find out given a few months of time, an unlimited budget and no other stories to cover. Sometimes, those of us on the regular news beat, with several stories dangling at the same time and a paper to get out each week, look at those writers with envy.

This is one of those times. David Rose has written a piece on the crash of flight 587 for the current issue of Vanity Fair magazine and he has ranged far and wide, turning up lots of information that I have never heard before. Rose makes a compelling argument that flaws in the electronic control system and in the composite material that makes up the tail of the Airbus Industries A330-600 may have "created a high tech time bomb."

The A300-600 that crashed into Rockaway was Serial Number 053, according to Rose. That plane had a long history of problems. Rose writes, "Number 053 was to be the first of American Air Line’s 35 A-300-600’s to enter service. In fact, it was the seventh. The reason for the delay was a manufacturing error discovered before the plane was delivered. In one of the lugs, a layer of composite had been allowed to kink, instead of lying flat against the layers on the other side. In effect, here was a serious delamination before the first flight. To fix the problem, Airbus attached an extra slab of composite, riveted to the original lug. It may not be a coincidence that this is one of the places where Flight 587’s tail ripped from the fuselage."

After the crash, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said that it found serious delamination on the tail, but that it could not determine whether that had caused the crash or had happened as a result of the crash.

Professor James Williams teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. Rose says that he is one of the leading experts on aviation materials.

Williams told Rose, "depending on how it’s done, riveting a patch to a weakened section, as Airbus did with Plane 053, will result in a part with anywhere from 20 to 90 percent of its original design strength."

Williams also told Rose that, like steel, composite materials such as those used on the Airbus tail may suffer fatigue, that they tend to have a fixed life span that may be altered by a "humongous bump."

According to Rose, Plane 053, the A300 that eventually became Flight 587, had such a "bump."

"In 1994, it ran into some nasty clear-air turbulence on a flight from Miami to San Juan," Rose writes in his Vanity Fair article. "Captain Dan Carey was asked to ferry it back. ‘The hand-baggage bins had come away from the ceiling. Someone had been in the center toilet when they hit turbulence. There, the whole ceiling had gone – the passenger’s head had simply smashed through it. I’d never seen a plane in such a state before. It was a wreck.’ He flew the plane back at 8,000 feet, 24,000 feet below normal cruising altitude, following a course from island to island, with the landing gear down. The forces that produced this devastation – and injured 47 people aboard – must have been immense. In accordance with Airbus policy, no one ever did more than ‘visually inspect’ the tail."

At the end of March, a number of A300-600 pilots submitted a 73-page letter to both the NTSB and the FAA detailing problems with the aircraft and urging that it be grounded until an investigation could be completed. Both agencies responded, "to date, no information has come to my attention that would warrant grounding the A300-600 fleet."

Rose documents several incidents in which A300-600’s went through unexplained rudder movements." He believes that a computerized system that assists in controlling the aircraft may be responsible for the rudder movements found on flight 587’s data recorder rather than First Officer Sten Molin, who was flying the plane.

Many local residents who saw the plane in the air say that they saw fire, smoke and pieces falling from the plane prior to the crash.

The NTSB has largely ignored those eyewitnesses. The agency even snubbed the meeting hosted by The Wave for those eyewitnesses to tell their stories.

An ex-NTSB official told Rose, however, that, while crash investigators need to be cautious with eyewitness testimony, "automatic rejection of eyewitness accounts is unwise. If 40 people are saying roughly the same thing, you can’t conclude that they have no validity." Vic Trombettas, who writes a semi-regular column for The Wave on Flight 587 and has his own website at www.usread.com, is credited in the article with keeping the issue alive, and with collecting witness statements, thinks that the NTSB is covering up something – be it an electrical failure or terrorism.

If those who saw fire and smoke coming from the plane and who saw the plane disassembling in the air are right, as many locals believe, then the question becomes, were those events a primary or secondary cause of the crash? The NTSB won’t answer that question because it has categorically denied that there was any fire or smoke prior to the crash.

The mystery goes on. The article that Rose wrote for Vanity Fair answers lots of questions and raises others. It is a piece well worth reading for anybody who is still interested in the crash of flight 587 – and that includes most of Rockaway.

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