2002-10-26 / Columnists

From the Editor’s Desk

By Howard Schwach

By Howard Schwach

Many federal and state agencies, as well as some large corporations, have "favorites" among the journalistic community – reporters who they can go to with "leaks," certain in the knowledge that those reporters will not only use the material in their publications, but will never say anything bad about the agency in return for this leaked inside information.

I am assuming that Matthew Wald, the reporter who wrote that scandalous piece for the New York Times is one of those journalists. I have heard that the "leaks" that he used to intimate that First Officer Sten Molin was responsible for the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 came from a private press conference that was held by American Airlines a few days prior to the article, but it could just have easily come from either the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the agency who is investigating the crash or Airbus Industries (the company that build the A300-600) who released the information to a friendly journalist.

John Hotard, a spokesperson for American Airlines in Fort Worth, Texas, told The Wave that the airline had held a "press briefing for reporters who regularly cover the aviation beat in Washington," prior to the article appearing in the Times. "We wanted to go over with them what we saw as the issues involved with the upcoming hearings."

Hotard said that a couple of the airline’s pilots went over "technical and certification issues with the reporters."

I have to believe that they also leaked the information about the pilot who provided the NTSB with negative information about Sten Molin.

Those of you who read the front page story in last week’s Wave will know that the Wald piece in the Times reported that the NTSB had information from a pilot that the first officer had flown with six years prior to the crash that Molin "had a history of overreacting to wake turbulence," and that an unnamed investigator had found information that Molin was "awfully aggressive" and "abrupt" when using control surfaces.

I was surprised that the New York Times would allow a reporter to use unattributed sources to defame a dead man, but that is just what it did in this case.

Not surprisingly, Stan Molin, Sten’s father and the man who taught him to fly, thinks that this was a "hatchet job," pure and simple.

"The Times report was really unbalanced," Molin told The Wave earlier this week. "It was a tabloidesque story that took a small factor and blew it up to immense proportions."

"The story made it sound as if he had a history of things like that. If he had a history, then somebody, some other Captain, would have seen it and would have taken him off the job," the elder Molin said. "It was a hatchet job. I would expect somebody like Airbus to do something like that. I would expect it less from the NTSB, but I don’t think it was either of them who leaked the story."

Molin says that he has a suspicion as to whom leaked the story, but he refused to speculate.

"This has caused me real pain," he said. "I have friends and relatives calling from all over the country, asking about what’s going on."

"I have become very guarded about this," Molin concluded. "I am particularly incensed that this was reported so unfairly."

In my mind, there are three players in this investigation dance – the NTSB, Airbus and American Airlines.

The NTSB role in this seems more in protecting the airline industry than in finding the truth about the crash. Anybody who sent a witness statement to the NTSB will tell you that the agency made it hard to present evidence and then ignored the evidence that was given.

Airbus built the A300 using what is considered the latest in aircraft-construction technology – laminates. It has staked its reputation on the material. If the NTSB finds that the laminates in the tail of flight 587 failed, it would probably mean the end of the company.

American Airlines flies the plane on its most profitable routes – to Central and South America. If its Airbus fleet is grounded, then it goes out of business.

I am not even mentioning the possibility that a shoebomber or other terrorist act was involved in the crash, because then all of American aviation might well be out of business.

All three – NTSB, Airbus and AA – have a vested interest in finding that this one pilot ripped apart this one plane and that it was a error that will not be repeated.

That is what this leak was all about. Blame it on pilot error and we can all go home safe and sound.

After the article appeared, American Airlines issued a statement of its own.

"The Boeing 727 Captain mentioned in the NY Times story told American Airlines of his flying experience with the Flight 587 copilot. American then reported his statement to the NTSB."

I’ll bet they did.

First Officer Todd Wissing flies for American Airlines. Wissing came to the witness meeting hosted by The Wave for those who saw the plane in flight prior to the crash. He is a member of the Allied Pilots Association, the union that represents AA pilots.

"It is very disappointing to note that the NTSB has not condemned the leak by investigators which could even had emanated from their organization," Wissing told The Wave. "Both flight engineers who flew the 727 flight in 1997 with Molin and the pilot who gave the statement have testified that they both emphatically refute the captain’s testimony about an incident involving abrupt or aggressive movements. Additionally, literally dozens of pilots, including senior captains who flew with First Officer Molin on as many as 90 flights each on the A300 over the last five years have testified that he was characteristically smooth on the controls and an outstanding pilot."

Wissing says that there was a similar case in which Boeing and rudder part manufacturer Parker Hannifin attempted to blame the crash of Flight 427 near Pittsburgh on "wake turbulence, pilot overreaction on the rudder and loss of control." In June, a judge ruled that both Boeing and the rudder maker were negligent and that the pilot had no liability in the crash.

"Given the track record of the parties involved in accidents seeking to avoid liability by blaming faultless pilots or improvable phenomena, such as wake turbulence, it is clear that this type of effort is being conducted by the anonymous sources referenced in Wald’s story," Wissing concluded.

The NTSB will hold a hearing in Washington, D.C. beginning on October 29. It will hear testimony from experts, but it will not issue a statement of cause for a few months. It will not hear testimony from any of the "unreliable" or "subjective" eyewitnesses from Rockaway. Their testimony has already be rejected out of hand because the "twisted metal" reportedly shows no signs of explosion or fire prior to the crash.

It seems clear, the NTSB’s statements notwithstanding, that the agency had already decided that pilot error brought down flight 587 on the streets of Belle Harbor. It is unfortunate that the vilification of a young man pursuing his life’s dream has to proceed in order to save the economic life of one corporation or another. That, however, is often life its-own-self.

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