USA Today: ‘Airbus Knew Tail Fin Could Snap Off’
The newspaper "USA Today," after an exhaustive investigation into the causes of the Crash of American Airlines Flight 587, an Airbus A300-600 in November of 2001, has concluded in a copyright story on May 27 by Alan Levin that Airbus knew long before the crash that the 27-foot high tail on one of its planes had almost snapped off in flight. That event occurred in June of 1997, a full five years before the tail snapped off flight 587, causing it to spiral into Belle Harbor.
The Wave has excerpted a portion of the USA Today storyto give our readers the essence of what USA Today believes happened that day. It should be understood by our readers that The Wave takes no credit for the interviews or the information found in this story.
The USA Today story says, "For almost five years, one of the world’s largest jetmakers knew that the 27-foot-tall tail fin on one of its jets had almost snapped off in flight. Officials with manufacturer Airbus understood that losing a tail fin would prove catastrophic. Even so, they kept their concerns to themselves until after a tail fin did break off one of its jets, causing the second-worst aviation disaster in U.S. history.
"Not until after American Airlines Flight 587 crashed in 2001 — a catastrophe investigators say was caused when the tail fin broke off the A300 jet — did Airbus disclose its findings from an incident in 1997 to government safety officials, a USA TODAY investigation has found."
The paper argues, that had federal regulators known earlier how easily tail fins could break in flight, the crash of Flight 587 — and the deaths of 265 people — might have been prevented, according to some accident investigators and aviation safety experts.
According to the USA Today story, Airbus officials say they did nothing wrong. They say that the crash of Flight 587 was due to mistakes by the pilots and that there is nothing they could have done to prevent it.
USA Today writers say that they reviewed hundreds of pages of NTSB documents and interviewed more than a dozen government officials and knowledgeable sources. The review found that, "on May 12, 1997, American Airlines pilots on Flight 903 from Boston to Miami lost control of the jet. In response, they made a series of radical maneuvers that placed extreme stress on the tail fin, nearly snapping it off. Eventually, they landed safely."
The paper says that flight 903 from Boston had been routine, if a little bumpy. The pilots, waiting for storms over Miami to clear, reminded passengers to buckle their seatbelts. Controllers ordered them to hold at 16,000 feet near West Palm Beach.
At 3:29:14 p.m. May 12, 1997, as the jet began a turn, it suddenly banked hard to the right, back to the left, then to the right again.
One of the passengers on flight 903 was interviewed by Levin for the story.
"It was horrifying," Michelle Singh, 36, who was seated in row 16, recalled in an interview. "There were no words to explain. People crying. People hurt. People scared. I was ready to die."
Passengers clung to each other as the gyrations tossed them from side to side. Anything not strapped down — shoes, briefcases and passengers themselves — flew about the cabin, according to NTSB records. After 12 seconds, the jet began to plunge. It fell 3,000 feet in 18 seconds. Melanie Joison’s baby flew out of her arms. Joison unbuckled her belt to grab her baby and crashed face-first into the ceiling. The blow knocked her unconscious and broke four of her ribs. Other passengers safely caught the baby.
"The terror and the screams were more than I have ever experienced," Scott Stow, an American pilot sitting in the passenger section, told investigators then.
Capt. Mark Eberle and co-pilot Donald Rescigno told investigators it seemed that a mysterious force — perhaps a powerful downdraft — had blown the jet out of control.
Initially, the jet banked 56 degrees to the right — twice as steep as a passenger jet ever gets in a normal flight. The co-pilot tried to level the jet with the control wheel, which activates panels on the wings. It had no effect.
Eventually, the pilots increased the speed of the jet enough to regain control. Thirty minutes later, the jet landed in Miami, the cabin a mess of upended food carts, luggage and trembling passengers.
According to the USA Today story, the pilots’ rudder movements were nearly identical to those on Flight 587. The co-pilot on the later flight whipped the jet’s rudder left or right five times.
The USA Today report goes on to say that, in an internal memo on June 12, 1997, an unidentified Airbus official wrote that his department "urgently" recommended additional inspections of the jet because the forces on it had apparently exceeded the "design limit." That meant that the wind and jostling on the tail fin had exceeded the greatest forces it had been expected to experience in its lifetime.
In June 1997, Airbus requested that American Airlines perform another inspection of the jet to ensure it was not damaged. American inspectors, following Airbus’ instructions, examined the tail fin. But they did not use methods that would have allowed them to see inside the tail fin. They saw no damage from their visual inspection, and the jet continued to fly for nearly five years.
Only last March, as part of the Flight 587 investigation, did Airbus conduct an ultrasound inspection of the tail fin on the jet involved in the 1997 incident. The inspection found two crescent- shaped cracks at one of the points where the tail fin attaches to the fuselage. The fin was replaced. Airbus says the tail fin was still strong enough to meet regulatory requirements.
The paper says that Airbus engineers weren’t the only ones who expressed worries about the incident.
"A high-ranking American Airlines pilot wrote a memo to a senior official in May 1997 warning that the pilots’ use of rudder had nearly caused major structural damage to the jet. Paul Railsback, flight operations managing director, urged immediate changes in American’s pilot training," says the memo obtained by USA TODAY.
Airbus officials deny withholding data or hindering the probe of Flight 903. "I am convinced that my company made a good faith effort to raise these concerns," says McConnell, Airbus’ spokesman.
The paper further says that officials also say they did not realize that the tail fin on the jet had nearly broken loose. In part, that’s because Airbus built the tail fin 25% stronger than regulations required. By insisting on an additional inspection of the tail, Airbus felt confident that it had not been damaged, McConnell says.
At the NTSB hearing in October on Flight 587, an American Airlines official was permitted to put questions to Airbus officials. With the two firms feuding over who is at fault in the 2001 crash, the questioning quickly grew tense. Airbus’ Michel Curbillon said the company had shared its concerns about Flight 903 with federal investigators and others. "This has been known within the company and was also informed to everybody," Curbillon said.
His questioner, American’s Tim Ahern, who had worked on the Flight 903 investigation, disputed him. "Frankly, as a party to that event, sir, this information was just (released) this year," Ahern said.
Curbillon pointed to a report submitted to the NTSB in August 1998, on the Flight 903 investigation. Airbus’ flight safety director, Yves Benoist, wrote that pilots needed to be trained better on how to use the rudder. "Using too much rudder in a recovery attempt can lead to structural loads that exceed the design strength of the fin," the report said.
Airbus officials say they underscored their concerns in 1997 by raising repeatedly the broader issue of pilot training on rudder use. For example, an August 1997 letter sent to American and written by Airbus, Boeing and the FAA warned that pilots could damage a jet with too much rudder.
But the NTSB has no record that Airbus disclosed what it had learned about the stress put on Flight 903’s tail fin. The submission to the NTSB contained only a general warning about rudder use. The letter to American did not mention Flight 903 and was not sent to the NTSB until last year.
According to Levin, officials who were part of the probe in 1997 say if they had known of Airbus’ findings and the damage to the fin, it would have changed the focus of the investigation. Rather than focusing on the pilots’ actions, the NTSB would have looked more closely at the rudder itself, they say. "I think the answer is most assuredly we would have done something more on 903 if we had known this, if we had heard this from Airbus," the NTSB’s Carmody says.
What about safety board?