Flight 587 Update: Shame, Shame
By Victor Trombettas
Shame ... on whatever "investigators" leaked the five-year-old story of Sten Molin. Shame ... on the New York Times for printing something not "fit to print", and for not asking the appropriate follow up questions, and for helping to defame, post mortem, a highly respected, much loved young man.
The New York Times reported on October 16 that Sten Molin, the First Officer and Pilot of Flight 587, had a "history of overreacting to wake turbulence" when he used to fly the Boeing 727 series back in 1997. There's a spin on words if I've ever seen one ... "a history". "A history" implies "an established record or pattern of behavior". The New York Times reader, having received an incomplete and inaccurate picture of Sten Molin's "history" in the cockpit, would assume that the case had been made that Sten Molin's 10 year history with American Airlines was more than half full of "abrupt" reactions to wake turbulence.
Let's assume for a moment that this new information is true. That in more than 50% of his encounters with wake turbulence, Sten was "awfully aggressive". I have a simple question. After all these years of "abrupt", and "awfully aggressive" rudder use, why hadn't this pilot ever broken any other plane prior to N14053 (the Airbus A300 that was Flight 587)?? Why did this plane break? If this unsubstantiated and isolated rumor is true ... what this tells me as a passenger ... is that a Boeing 727 won't break at the hands of an "abrupt" Pilot. As a passenger I want to ride in such a plane!
Let's continue to assume that Sten Molin had a "history" of "awfully aggressive" reactions. Then why is there not a single previously documented American Airlines report identifying this abrupt behavior? If Mr. Molin was indeed so abrupt would not one American Airlines Captain write him up? A Check Airman? A simulator trainer? Even a flight attendant who had been thrown around in the back of the plane? Any injured passengers? Todd Wissing, an Airbus Pilot who knew Sten Molin says, "no such reports were filed."
Maybe this leaked information was far from the truth of Mr. Molin's "history". According to the pilots union, Allied Pilots Association (APA), the investigators had at their disposal, reports from American Airlines Captains covering at least 70 flights with Mr. Molin who had "nothing but praise for his piloting abilities." Some Captains have said that when they knew they were going to fly with Sten Molin, they knew they were "going to have a good day."
The Captain who came forward and provided the NTSB with this "new information" that the Times published, was refuted by two flight engineers who flew on those same flights with that Captain and Sten Molin. The engineers, who were interviewed by the NTSB, did not remember Sten being "abrupt" the way the Captain described.
How did Mr. Molin treat the Airbus A300 simulator, which he, like all other pilots, was required to periodically ride in for recurrent training and checking? Like most pilots ... "he never put his feet up on the (rudder) pedals" ... an inside source revealed.
At best, this "new information" about Sten Molin's cockpit behavior is a disputed, five year old complaint from one Captain, that stands alone against the overwhelming mountain of praise from other Captains that Sten Molin was an excellent pilot and very professional. Mr. Molin's "history" was not as the New York Times reported.
But let's move beyond this point of Mr. Molin's history, to the question of ... is this five year old, disputed information really relevant? How could it be useful to the investigators? Is it because they are not sure that Sten moved the rudder, or if those rudder movements were uncommanded? Or is it because they saw no need for Sten to use the rudder? If they are not sure that Sten moved the rudder ... then the Airbus A300's terrible history of uncommanded rudder movements, which can be described as "abrupt" and "awfully agressive", should be explored. If the investigators have already concluded that Sten did move the rudder, then the only reason why the leak could be relevant to the investigators would be if they did not understand why he moved the rudder.
Let's assume that there is sound, scientific data to conclude that Sten moved the rudder .... the question that arises then is ... "why did Sten pump the rudder side to side five times?" There's no evidence in the timeline or the flight recorders that hints as to why, is there? Sure there is ... and it's amazing how this information has never been leaked or discussed. And the data does not clearly point to wake turbulence.
We know there were five rudder movements, the fifth, which was followed immediately by "unreliable" rudder data in the Flight Data Recorder (FDR), indicating the demise of the rudder. What attitude changes did the alleged wake turbulence create on 587? Amazing how this information hasn't been leaked either. What is interesting, is that the rudder started moving after Sten called for max power. Calling for max power is highly unusual. It is a recovery procedure; an emergency procedure. The NTSB's George Black Jr. called it so back in November. The fact the equally unusual rudder movements begin a split second later indicate that max power and the rudder movements might have been part of a coordinated recovery attempt by Sten Molin.
But let's stop right here and ask this question. Pretend you are Captain States, sitting next to Sten Molin. Sten Molin discusses with you the possibility of going to max power. If the plane is not in some sort of serious distress or upset that would require max power, wouldn't you say, "excuse me kid ... but why do we need to go to max power? Just calm your little hyper self down"? Sten asked for max power and we have no indications that Captain States rebuked him for his abrupt request for this escape maneuver. Captain States, for all we know, assisted Sten in moving the throttle to max power. I don't want to know what Sten did in the cockpit five years ago! I want to know why he went to max power and the Captain didn't counter him!
Has the NTSB asked American Airlines Captains if Sten also had a "history" of throttling up to max power unnecessarily? This is an important question. If Sten called for max power and the NTSB doesn't know why he did, then they should also be looking for this in his background .. uncalled-for throttle-ups to max power. If, on the other hand, the NTSB knows why he called for max power ... that the plane was indeed in some form of distress or upset ... then wouldn't that explain why he also used the rudder??
So, we have this call for max power at 84 seconds after liftoff. A split second later ... the rudder movements begin. The 2nd alleged wake encounter doesn't seem to hit until after the rudder movements begin; after the first of five rudder movements is complete. This of course raises the question "if we don't have a wake encounter yet, why would the Pilot move the rudder?"
What is Captain States reaction to Sten's manipulation of the rudder pedals and the resulting oscillations, which will doom the plane? States didn't chide him for the max power call and we have no indication that he chided him for the rudder movements either.
The five rudder movements took at least 6.2 seconds to perform. At any time during those 6.2 seconds the Captain could have put an end to the oscillations induced by the abrupt First Officer either by yelling at him or putting his feet on the rudder pedals himself and countering the movements. He never countered his First Officer. Is it possible this experienced and highly respected Captain sensed the same danger his First Officer did and understood why he was calling for max power and using the rudder? Or is it that the Captain also overreacted? Will this be the next great leak from the investigation ... that the Captain's background is also being investigated? ... looking for times when Captain States winked when his First Officers performed abrupt maneuvers? The evidence indicates the Captain also sensed that something was amiss before the rudder movements, before the 2nd lateral movement (alleged wake).
According to the NTSB, at 86 seconds after liftoff, the crew declared loss of control; only 2 seconds after Sten's call for max power. In other words ... the tail was still attached (the rudder data is still readable until 90.5 seconds after liftoff) ... yet the crew had lost control. What was happening to flight 587 that the "crew" (indicating both men) declared loss of control ... before the loss of the tail? Sten had only completed a maximum of two of the five rudder movements? Anyone care to leak the answer to that question?
Sten Molin had flown on Airbus A300's for at least 3 years. The New York Times article suggested, "Some experts think the pilot may have pushed the rudder all the way in one direction, realized that he had gone too far, pushed all the way back in the other, and then repeated the process in an oscillation that destroyed the plane in flight". This implies that Sten would have been surprised at the performance of an Airbus A300's rudder system at 255 knots. How could he be surprised? Hadn't he ever used the rudder before in an A300 in 3 years?? How could someone who allegedly had a history of aggressive rudder manipulation not use the rudder for 3 years or not be aware of how it would function?? You can't accuse someone of having a history of overusing a tool and then speculate he didn't know how that tool would perform.
The evidence, as we have it today (including eyewitnesses which the NTSB has given zero attention to), indicates that 587 was indeed out of control before the tail broke free just as the Cockpit Voice Recorder indicates.
The NTSB has focused on the final eight seconds before the FDR died. We no longer hear about the 20 seconds before the 8 second period. Assuming the NTSB and the other parties to the investigation are willing to break out of their myopia and consider that the lateral movements and airframe rattles might have been caused by something other than wake turbulence, then they may forever ignore the clues those 20 seconds offer. Those twenty seconds contained the first lateral movement, airframe rattles, a quizzical "wake turbulence" comment by the Captain, the call for the escape maneuver, more rattles, a call for max power ... all this ... before the 2nd alleged wake and the start of the rudder movements. And certainly before the tail broke free.