2002-11-09 / Columnists

From the Editor’s Desk

By Howard Schwach

By Howard Schwach

I have not seen such finger-pointing since I left the classroom last year.

American Airlines pointed the finger at Airbus Industries, the company that built the A300-600 that crashed into Belle Harbor last November 12. Experts from the airlines said that Airbus never told them that it was possible to over-control the rudder and that it was dangerous to use the rudder in wake turbulence situations.

Airbus Industries pointed their finger at American Airlines. Experts from Airbus said that it was the American Airlines training program that led First Officer Sten Molin to over-control the rudder, forcing it to fall off the plane.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) pointed the finger at Molin, intimating (its final report will not be out until sometime next spring) that Molin had panicked when the plane hit the wake turbulence from a Japan Airlines flight right in front of him and that he overcontrolled the rudder, thereby "flying the tail off the plane."

I have a question for the NTSB investigators.

If you were driving in a car as the passenger and the driver began erratic movements, speeding up and slowing down, swerving all over the road, wouldn’t you have said something like "What are you doing" to the driver?

Of course you would.

As part of the hearing that was completed last week, the NTSB released a transcript of what was said in the cockpit. Not once did the pilot ask Molin what he was doing in the kind of voice that would have made it clear that the younger pilot was doing something wrong.

In fact, the transcript of the Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR), which we published in last week’s Wave, points to the opposite.

At 1913:31 on that fateful morning, the plane got permission from the tower to take off.

Molin, the first officer, who was flying the plane while Captain Ed States handled the radios, asks States, "you happy with that distance," meaning the distance between American 587 Heavy and the JAL heavy taking off in front of them.

""We’ll be all right once we get rolling," States replies. "He’s supposed to be five miles by the time we get airborne. That’s the idea."

Molin was concerned with the separation between the two heavy airliners. States was not.

At 0915:44, just two minutes later, the plane is airborne and heading for WAVEY, a waypoint southeast of Rockaway. The sound of a "brief squeak and a rattle" is heard in the cockpit.

"A little wake turbulence, huh," States asks.

Molin does not respond.

At 0915:51 there is a loud thump heard on the cockpit, followed quickly by another loud thump.

Molin calls for "max power" in what the transcript says is a "strained voice."

"You all right," States asks.

"Yeah, I’m fine," Molin answers.

"Hang onto it, hang onto it," States urges.

There is the sound of a loud snap heard in the cockpit.

"Let’s go for power, please," Molin says.

There is a series of loud noises in the cockpit – a loud thump, a loud bang, a grunt. There is a roaring sound that increases in volume, then decreases, then stops althogther.

"Holy Shit," Molin is heard to say.

There is the sound of chimes, believed to be the stall warning.

"What the hell are we into," Molin’s last words sound. "We’re stuck in it."

"Get out of it, get out of it," States urges, just before the plane corkscrews into Rockaway and the CVR recording ends.

It is a chilling tape, but in my mind, a telling one.

The thumps are presumed by the NTSB to be the wake turbulence hitting the plane.

If that is so, at 0915:55, after three such hits, why does States simply ask Molin if he is OK? If Molin was over-controlling the tail, why didn’t the experienced captain take control from the first officer? Why didn’t he say something like "take it easy on the rudder?"

Molin responds by saying that he is fine. That does not sound like a man who has panicked and is hitting the rudder pedals so hard that they are swinging back and forth in a manner that will tear them from the fuselage.

Many experts believe that the tail came off the aircraft, dooming it to crash, at that point. It is clear that neither Molin nor States knew that the tail had come off.

Molin feels the wake turbulence and recognizes it. He asks for max power, the first thing that a pilot does when he is in "escape" mode in an attempt to exit the wake turbulence. Right after the power came on, the tail obviously came off.

Molin again asks for power and then struggles to keep the plane in the air (the "grunt" heard on the tapes).

The plane begins to dive and Molin reacts just the way that every other person who faces certain death reacts. He says "Holy Shit!"

The stall warning goes off and the engines probably detach from the plane at this point.

"What the hell are we into," he asks.

States has no answer.

He urges Molin to recover control, not knowing that the tail is gone and there is no possibility of regaining control.

I have read and reread the transcript. There is no evidence to support the NTSB’s coming contention that Molin over-controlled the rudders and caused the plane to crash.

If his use of controls had been inappropriate, States would have told him so. If they had been so inappropriate to rip the tail from the plane, States would have taken back the controls as soon as it happened.

When I was in the Navy, I served as a court reporter on an aircraft carrier, the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt (CVA-42). In that capacity, I was the reporter for several dozen aircraft investigations. We lost 13 planes and 21 aircrew on a peacetime Mediterranean cruise. I learned a lot about planes and more about people from those investigations.

I watched the four days of hearings and listened to the experts point fingers at each other.

I am convinced that the tail moved due to external forces, that the laminate material making up the connection between the tail and the fuselage was flawed from the beginning and that it was further degraded in several incidents during its flying life.

I am convinced that the A300-600 is fatally flawed and that more will crash because more tails will come off.

That is not what the NTSB believes, however. The NTSB will find that this one dead pilot flew the tail off this one plane and that there is nothing to worry about. It is easy to blame the first officer. The dead cannot rebut the charges. The transcript, I believe, speaks for him and it speaks volumes.

If you have read the transcript and still believe that Molin flew the tail off the plane by overusing the rudder, I have a bridge with a beacon you might like to buy. It’s the same bridge that Tony Weiner says the planes departing 31 Left will fly beginning in December. Weiner says that the FAA has "substantially kept its promises to Rockaway," and that "there have been far fewer planes flying over Rockaway during the evening hours." He also says that "The NTSB always gets its man."

In this case, that man is Sten Molin and he is not the man they should be looking for.

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