2004-08-06 / Community

Experts Question NTSB’s AA 587 Investigation

Brett Hoffstadt is an aviation safety expert who has been working with USRead editor Vic Trombettas to find the truth about the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 into Belle Harbor on November 12, 2001 Hoffstadt began working in the aerospace industry14 years ago. He has two degrees in aerospace engineering and specializes in aerodynamics and aircraft performance. He is currently employed by aninternational engineering analysis company and previously worked at Boeing as a Technical Specialist in Aerodynamics. Hoffstadt also has professional experience in structural design, composite materials, propulsion, flight simulation, and flight testing. They have issued their own preliminary report on the disaster, awaiting the final report from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which is now scheduled for sometime after Labor Day.

The Space Shuttle Columbia disaster occurred on February 1st, 2003. Immediately, NASA organized hundreds of people to scour thousands of miles in search of every piece of debris. The primary goal was to find all the pieces and thereby trace the source and root cause of the catastrophic disintegration.

Over the next 3 months, 82,500 individual pieces of debris were found and cataloged.  The search area was 2.3 million acres of land and water . Water searches alone found 3,100 targets.

The Columbia accident and subsequent investigation is directly comparable to American Airlines Flight 587 (FL587). The speeds, altitudes, and forces acting on the vehicles were different, but both were a catastrophic breakup in flight –– and the investigative approach ought to be the same.

In contrast to NASA’s Shuttle investigation, how did the NTSB search for and identify debris from FL587?

The debris field from FL587 covered, at most, a few square miles on land and in Jamaica Bay. Did the NTSB conduct a thorough search for the debris comparable to the effort in the Shuttle Columbia investigation? Did they generate a list of every piece of debris found away from the crash site?  Did they photograph this debris? The answer to all these questions is “no”.

Air crash investigators and aviation experts who contribute to U.S.Read are dumbfounded by the absence of a professional debris search and proper accounting, and believe that this glaring investigative failure has jeopardized the credibility of the NTSB’s conclusions on FL587. 

One retired NTSB Senior Air Safety Investigator (ASI) told U.S.Read: “In the case of AA 587, the NTSB did not even lay out a wreckage trail diagram.  This is a basic procedure that is performed when any aircraft is shedding parts, like AA 587 was doing”.

Within weeks of the Shuttle Columbia accident, NASA had published detailed maps and a listing of debris found by volunteers and searchers. In contrast, almost three years after FL587 crashed, the NTSB has not published this data. 

What follows is a partial list of the items that local residents and eyewitnesses told U.S.Read were found away from the main FL587 crash site:

Terry Auclare and Kenny Brown were fishing in a boat in the Bay as Flight 587 passed by them. Terry described dozens of square or rectangular dark pieces falling from the aircraft and sinking to the Bay floor. He could not identify these items. 

The NTSB has not identified any items as being retrieved from the Bay floor.

A Belle Harbor resident, Marina, and her friend Deb, recovered a charred seatbelt approximately 1,500 feet east/ northeast of the main crash site, near where the left wingtip was found. The seatbelt left a soot-like residue on their hands. 

The NTSB has no record of this debris recovered at this location.

According to the NTSB’s findings thus far, there would be no reason for interior debris, like a seatbelt, to depart the aircraft in-flight. If any interior debris did indeed separate in-flight, or if the fuselage was breaking up in flight, this changes the nature of the crash –– and the NTSB would have to answer the question, “why was the fuselage breached?”

Marina was shown pictures of passenger and crew seatbelts from an American Airlines Airbus A300. Her best recollection was that the seatbelt was more grey colored than blue, indicating this could have been a seatbelt belonging to a crewmember/flight attendant. She identified the seatbelt in this picture below as matching what she and Deb picked up:

Two pieces of the aircraft, each about two feet by five feet, landed on the roof of the Rockaway Sunset Diner, almost 3/4 mile east-northeast of the crash site. This is just across the street from the location where rudder debris was recovered on land . The two NYC Police Officers who collected the items from the Diner told the owners these pieces were “from the fuselage”.  Steve Good, one of the owners, stated that one side of this debris had a formica-like feel and appearance, with a pattern on it. It reminded him of the interior wall of an airplane. Police officers and civilians are not qualified to identify broken pieces from an aircraft; but this episode highlights the lapses on the part of the NTSB –– they should have identified and mapped these items. Unfortunately, the NTSB has no record of any debris recovered from the Diner.

Possible interior debris was identified by flight attendants who live in the Rockaways, several blocks east/ northeast from the crash site. One of the flight attendants, Ty, said this in a National Public Radio interview: “...it looked to me like an interior piece and something that we look at every day on the flight.”

This piece came from a larger piece.  Jamie, another flight attendant who saw the larger piece fall, said:

“It was about the size of someone’s front door –– fell out of the sky and a car was driving down the street, and it basically hit it in the windshield and smashed apart.”

The NTSB has not identified this debris.

Witness # 292 (in the NTSB witness database) stated, in a letter to the NTSB, that he saw a piece of the plane measuring about four feet by four feet fall near 117th street and Rockaway Beach Boulevard, about 14 blocks east of the crash site. 

The NTSB has not identified this debris.

NTSB Reply: The NTSB’s Public Affairs Office has stated to U.S.Read, on more than one occasion, that they have no record of any of this debris away from the crash site. But they added that if this was aircraft debris then it could have been “blown back” from the main crash site by the force of the impact explosion. They refused to accept the possibility it could have departed in-flight, especially when it came to talk of possible interior debris.   All they will acknowledge as separating in-flight is the tail and engines. 

Of course, the real problem we are faced with is: the NTSB has no record of any of this debris . How can they comment on how debris got somewhere if they can’t acknowledge the existence of this debris?

All of U.S.Read’s experts felt that the debris we highlighted above departed the aircraft in flight because: the explosion that followed the crash impact was a typical low velocity fuel explosion, without the type of energy needed to expel debris 3/4 mile away from the crash site.

The prevailing winds would have blown debris southeast from the crash site –– not northeast where much of this debris was found.

U.S.Read did encounter specific accounts of interior debris, e.g. an overhead luggage bin, recovered one block from the crash site. Given its proximity to the crash site, this could have been deposited there post-impact.

More Debris Reports: Many witnesses also provided reports of interior debris spewing out of the aircraft when it was over the Bay, including New York City Deputy Fire Chief, Peter Hayden. In an interview with U.S.Read, and in his interview with investigators, Chief Hayden said there was an event in the rear of the fuselage, behind the wings, and debris blew out of the left side of the fuselage.

Some of the recreational boaters in Jamaica Bay, and residents who live by the Jamaica Bay seawall, told the NTSB and U.S.Read of items they saw descend from the aircraft while it was still flying, including luggage. 

Two examples: Witness # 140 was fishing in Jamaica Bay, west of the flight path of FL587, not far from Floyd Bennet Field. He saw FL587 explode and flames come from the fuselage near the wings. This was followed by smoke, and what he thought was luggage falling out of the belly of the plane into the Bay. He saw the tail came off after these events. After the crash, he also saw papers and documents floating in the water.

The NTSB has no record of this debris recovered in the water.

Terry Auclare and Kenny Brown, who were east of the aircraft, also saw debris come off the aircraft before the tail. Some debris flew back past the tail and it looked like some of this debris may have impacted the tail. These two witnesses were by no means the only individuals to describe debris flying past the tail. 

More Reasons to Doubt: As further evidence of the NTSB’s questionable debris collection, the NTSB’s Structures Report (issued in October 2002) listed the left wing tip as being found on 116th Street, 15 blocks east of the crash site. After U.S.Read informed the NTSB of a wing tip found at 125th street –– and provided the NTSB with a photograph –– the NTSB corrected their Structures Report and relocated the left wing tip to Beach 125 Street, a nine-block distance. 

The NTSB also learned from U.S. Read that the left engine fire bottle was found in Jamaica Bay.

These NTSB lapses undermine confidence in the critical accident investigation element of establishing a map tracing the aircraft’s disintegration. 

A high-level Coast Guard source wishing to remain anonymous (who now works for the Transportation Security Administration) coordinated the Jamaica Bay recovery effort and informed U.S.Read that the Coast Guard submitted to the NTSB what looked like an airplane seat cushion that had been retrieved in Jamaica Bay. They also gave the NTSB a written report that listed this debris. 

The NTSB has no record of this debris, or of the report.

We find this account interesting for a number of reasons: Terry Auclare and Kenny Brown, who were in the boat closest to FL587 when it passed over the Bay, told us they saw something descend from the aircraft into the Bay that looked like an airplane seat (we never told Auclare and Brown about the seat cushion report).

If this were in fact a seat cushion the Coast Guard recovered, it would raise serious questions as to the nature of the breakup of FL587. Why would a seat cushion be found in Jamaica Bay?  Why was the fuselage breached? If it was a seat cushion, what happened to the passenger who may have been in the seat?

Since the aircraft’s breakup began over Jamaica Bay, doesn’t that suggest that debris other than the tail and rudder may have fallen into the Bay?  Wouldn’t the highest priority be to find the earliest pieces of debris, meaning, those that first departed the stricken aircraft? Wouldn’t we therefore expect a thorough sonar scan to be done of the Bay?

We learned directly from the NYPD Harbor Unit Chief and our Coast Guard source, that the only sonar scans performed were done by the NYPD Harbor Unit, and that those scans were confined to small area of the final flight path. 

The NTSB has never released any information about whether sonar scan activity even took place, much less if anything was found. 

U.S.Read learned from its Coast Guard source that the NYPD Harbor Unit Chief submitted a report of their search activities and findings to the NTSB, specifically naming the NTSB’s Structures Group Chairman as being present at that information exchange.  This included a map or sketch showing where the NYPD had received some sonar “hits” indicating possible debris on the Bay floor. Our Coast Guard source does not know what those items were if they were retrieved. He does feel confident the Harbor Unit would have retrieved those items because they were under or near the final flight path. We have not been able to confirm if those 26 items were indeed retrieved and if so, what they were. 

The NTSB says they never received a report, sketch, or map from the Harbor Unit.

According to the NYPD Harbor Unit Chief, also interviewed by U.S.Read, the Harbor Unit used side-scan sonar to search a small section (1,000 yards north of the seawall) of the Bay for human bodies . Their focus was finding possible victims of the crash in the Bay, not stopping to explore every piece of debris detected.

If the Harbor Unit Chief’s recollection about the area they scanned is accurate, it would mean the sonar search may not have even covered the area where the NTSB says the tail came off (3,300 feet north of the seawall).  It certainly would not have covered the area where the Pilot was calling for max power –– where witnesses saw the aircraft trailing smoke and fire –– and where some debris may have fallen off the aircraft.

In early 2002, the NYPD Harbor Unit Chief told U.S.Read that he was willing to return to the Bay, with his sonar scan team, to conduct a more thorough search of the Bay floor, this time with an eye towards retrieving possible aircraft debris. He only needed federal authorization to do it. 

The U.S.Read Editor asked the Chief if he would mind if U.S.Read placed some calls to the NTSB, FAA, and FBI to see if someone on the federal level would authorize the Harbor Unit to go back to the Bay. He welcomed our effort. Our phone conversation was cordial. 

U.S.Read contacted the NTSB, FAA, and FBI in an effort to inform them of what the Harbor Chief had told us –– that the sonar scans that were done in the Bay were very limited in terms of area covered and more importantly, they were not looking for aircraft debris but for bodies of victims.

A few days later, we called the NYPD Harbor Unit to determine if a new scan of the Bay had been authorized.  What we found instead was a Unit Chief who was very upset he had spoken with us and accused us of misrepresenting ourselves as federal agents, which we most certainly did not do.  He refused to speak further with us.

Who’s In Charge Here?

We have no indications the NTSB ever requested a sonar scan of the Bay, specifically focused on locating and retrieving aircraft debris. Isn’t it likely that this lack of effort left some undiscovered debris in the Bay? Given what we’ve heard from witnesses, there is great cause for concern.

But, the most important question is –– given that the aircraft began its in-flight breakup over the Bay, why was a thorough salvage effort of the Bay not ordered in November 2001?

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