2003-11-07 / Columnists

From the

By Howard Schwach
From the Editor’s Desk By Howard Schwach

Next week will mark the second anniversary of the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 into the streets of Belle Harbor.

Even though two years have passed, there are many questions that have not been answered, questions about the crash itself.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), despite detailed hearings a year ago, has yet to issue its final report on the crash.

A spokesperson for the agency told me a while back that the report would probably be issued before the end of the year, but that is looking less likely with each passing week.

The NTSB, however, made up its mind long ago that the cause of the crash was pilot error.

The day of the crash, Marion Blakely, then the chairperson for the NTSB, announced to the media, "All indications are that this is an accident."

Despite all the eyewitness testimony from Rockaway residents that there was fire and smoke on the body of the plane prior to the crash, and despite the fact that the tail and both engines exited the plane prior to the crash, the NTSB says that the "twisted metal" shows no fire, no explosions, no trauma except for the tail falling into the bay, prior to the crash at the corner of Beach 131 Street and Newport Avenue.

The NTSB intimates (and its report will surely show) that the first officer, Sten Molin, who was flying the plane that day, "tore off the tail" of the Airbus A-300-600 by overstressing the rudder in response to a wake turbulence event.

While nobody at The Wave is an aeronautical engineer, good sense and a reading of all of the documents dictates that could not be true.

Victor Trombettas, who maintains a website called "usread.com," is far more knowledgeable about this than I am. He has written a update for this week’s paper. It details some technical aspects that I am not sure I understand.

I did spend nearly three years on an aircraft carrier, doing line of duty investigations about downed pilots. I can read a transcript and I do know how people respond under pressure.

Just read the transcript from the flight, however, and you will see what I am talking about from a non-technical viewpoint. It can be found elsewhere in this paper.

At 9:14:51 on November 12, 2001, American Flight 587 was gear up from JFK’s Runway 31L. Everything was normal.

At 9:15:36, air traffic control told the Airbus A-300 to turn left and proceed direct to WAVEY, a waypoint 35 miles southeast of the Rockaway peninsula. That would take the plane directly over Broad Channel.

Follow the transcript for the next minute:

9:15:44: The sound of a brief squeak and a rattle are heard in the cabin.

"A little wake turbulence," the pilot, Captain Edward States, asks Molin.

9:15:51: The sound of a thump is heard in the cockpit. Then, a tenth of a second later, two more thumps.

9:15:54: Molin calls for "full power" in a strained voice.

9:15:55: States asks Molin, "Are you okay?" Molin responds, "Yeah, I’m fine."

0915:56: States says, "Hang onto it, hang onto it." There is a loud snap heard in the cockpit and States says, "Let’s go for power, please."

That is followed by the sounds of a loud thump and then a loud bang. Experts believe that the bang was the tail leaving the aircraft.

9:16:00: There is a roaring sound in the cockpit and a grunt from the first officer. The roaring sound increases. Molin says, "Holy S–––."

9:16:04 (18 seconds after States asks Molin if he is okay): There is the sound of warning chimes in the cockpit. Experts say that it is the stall warning.

9:16:06: The roaring sound increases and then ends. Molin says, "What the hell are we into? We’re stuck in it."

9:16:12: States urges, "Get out of it, get out of it."

At 9:16:14, the aircraft crashes into the streets of Belle Harbor, killing 280 in the plane and five on the ground – the second worst aircraft disaster in American history.

Think about the conversation.

Put it in perspective. You’re teaching your child to drive. You are going down the road at 40 miles per hour, and all of a sudden, your son or daughter begins to swerve the car violently from side to side.

What do you do? Do you ask, "Are you alright?"

Or, do you say very loudly, "What the hell are you doing? Stop that!"

I would have said the latter, and I think that you would agree.

Ed States, an experienced pilot with hundreds of hours in the A-300, did not say a word to his first officer, who was flying the plane.

He did not say "Stop that!"

He did not ask, "What the hell are you doing?"

All he asked was "You all right?"

Why didn’t he loudly proclaim that Molin was doing something wrong, something dangerous?

It is my belief that States did not say anything to Molin because the younger pilot was doing nothing wrong but trying to recover the plane from some catastrophic event that the A-300 suffered – something like losing its tail or losing its two engines.

By the time Molin said, "What the hell are we into? We’re stuck in it," his tail was gone and his fate was sealed.

From everything I have read and studied about the crash and about the A-300-600, much of it from pilots who fly the Airbus, I believe that the tail was flawed from the first, that it fell off, taking control surfaces and wiring with it, causing the small fires and explosions seen by the myriad eyewitnesses.

Why, then, does the NTSB keep arguing that the plane is sound, that the young first officer overcontrolled the rudder, causing it to fall off?

The two parties involved, American Airlines and Airbus Industries, are in a battle over what happened.

American Airlines says that the tail was flawed and that the aircraft maker failed to provide information to its pilots about the problem in controlling the rudder.

Airbus Industries says that the tail fell off because the pilot did not know that the rudder could not be overcontrolled. The company puts the blame on the airlines for not properly training its pilots.

Both, however, recently decided to put their differences aside and pay the families of the victims before they went into court and opened fact-finding on exactly what did happen. That is the last thing they want.

The NTSB has gone along with the show. To blame the aircraft model would have meant taking all A-300-600’s off the line, a move that would have destroyed American Airlines.

It also would have tainted Airbus, putting them out of business and forcing them to pay millions of dollars in damages.

It is easier to blame the pilot and the first officer. They are dead and dead men tell no tales.

Nothing wrong with the airlines. Nothing wrong with Airbus. We can all go on happily, flying the A-300’s and making a profit.

Until the next one drops on some unsuspecting community such as Rockaway.

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