‘What The Hell Are We Into?’
By Howard Schwach
The Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) that was recovered from the remains of American Airlines Flight 587 after it crashed into the streets of Belle Harbor on November 12 of last year provides some insight into both the reason for the crash and the pilot’s frantic fight to keep the Airbus A300-600 in the air.
At 0915:44, there was a squeak and a rattle heard in the cockpit.
"A little wake turbulance, huh," Pilot Ed States asked First Officer Sten Molin, who was flying the plane.
At 0915:51 there was a loud thump heard in the cockpit, followed a tenth of a second later by two louder thumps.
"Max power," Molin said, in what is described as a "strained voice."
"You all right," States asked.
"Yeah, I’m fine," Molin responded.
"Hang onto it. Hang onto it," the pilot urged.
A loud snap was heard in the cockpit..
At 0915:57, Molin was heard to say, "Let’s go for power, please."
Molin’s request was followed quickly by a loud thump and a bang. Somebody grunted loudly. Many in the aircraft community believe that the sound heard in the cockpit was the tail separating from the aircraft
"Holy Shit," Molin said.
There was the sound of chimes, probably a stall warning, in the cockpit. There was a loud roaring sound that increased, then decreased and ended.
At 0916:07, Molin spoke his last words.
"What the hell are we into? We’re stuck in it."
States replied, "Get out of it, get out of it."
At 0916:14, the A300 crashed into Belle Harbor and the CVR tape ended. (For the complete transcript of the CVR from the plane’s rollout to the crash, see page 36).
The CVR transcripts were released at the first day of National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) hearings into the reasons for the deadly crash, which killed 260 people on board and five Rockaway residents on the ground.
While the transcript of the tape was released, the actual tape is protected by federal law and will probably never be played publicly.
Although published reports based on reports of "unnamed investigators" intimated that First Officer Sten Molin used the rudder inappropriately and that he "flew the tail off the plane," there is nothing in the transcript to indicate that the charge is factual.
In fact, the transcripts show that neither States nor Molin knew that the tail had come off the aircraft and that both fought the plane right up to the time it corkscrewed into Beach 131 Street and Newport Avenue.
Although investigators for the NTSB will not announce a cause for the crash after this hearing, and perhaps not for another year, it is clear from the hearings that investigators believe that the crash was caused by wake turbulence from a Japan Airlines jet that took off just before the Airbus. That wake turbulence caused the plane’s rudders to move back and forth in a force that was more than the tail was designed to handle, according to the NTSB.
Whether those rudder movements were caused by the pilot, by a bad computer program or by forces acting on the aircraft is still an open question.
"Investigators are continuing to evaluate whether the pilots caused the rudder to move or determine if a rudder system anomaly could have contributed to the movement," said Robert Benzon, the NTSB investigator in charge, said in his opening statement.
William Sherriff, a retired American Airlines Captain who works as a flight safety consultant, told The Wave that he believes that the wake turbulence hit the vertical stabilizer and the rudder broadside, moving the rudder. The rudder was then hit from the other side, moving it all the way back the other way, exceeding the design specifications for the plane.
"All the rudder movements were the result of wind shear forces striking it broadside," Sherriff said. "The rudder movements are the record of the multidirectional wind shear forces acting on the aircraft."
Investigators say, however, that Molin may have moved the rudders in response to the wake turbulence the plane was hitting.
"The rudder’s movements were so large and rapid that it looked as if he were trying to avoid a mid-air collision," one investigator said.
"Regardless, staff believes that the rudder movement resulted in most, if not all, of the loads imposed on the vertical stabilizer," Benzon said.
The hearings also included the videotape made from the Marine Parkway Bridge. For many months, those debating the NTSB’s credibility said that the agency was covering up the tape because it showed the plane exploding in midair.
In fact, the hard-to-see tape was inconclusive, but showed no in-air explosion or fire.
Ted Lopatkiewicz, a spokesman for the NTSB said that a final report detailing the official cause of the crash will not be available until sometime late next year.