2004-09-10 / Front Page

Report: Airbus ‘Manipulated’ Rudder Numbers

By Howard Schwach

  • A highly-respected German news magazine reported this week that evidence exists that may prove that Airbus Industries, which is headquartered in Hamburg, “manipulated” the engineering test numbers relating to the rudders of its A300-600 aircraft, the same type of jet airliner that flew as American Airlines Flight 587, which crashed into Belle Harbor on November 12, 2001.
  • Der Spiegel, in a published article, said that lawyers for the families of the victims who died in the crash will confront Airbus in Federal District Court on September 15 with a reputed internal company memo that shows that engineers at Airbus manipulated tests of its rudder, tests that were designed to see whether the rudder could handle high loads.

    “The lawyers have evidence that calculations for the ill-fated machine’s discontinued vertical fin were apparently falsified during the manufacture of the A300-600 line,” the article said. “The lawyers for the victim’s families plan to confront Airbus with serious accusations when the damage suit on behalf of the victims of Flight 587 is reinstituted on September 15.”

    According to the magazine, which is often likened to “Time” magazine in the United States, the “Numbers for the potential for immense levels of impact were supposedly manipulated and reduced – probably, according to a report by the lawyers, in order to prevent the tail fin from having to be strengthened.”

    The rudder on American Airlines Flight 587 fell off into Jamaica Bay shortly after takeoff from Runway 31 Left, causing a crash that killed 260 people on the plane and five on the ground.

    The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has said that the plane experienced wake turbulence from a Japan Airlines 757 shortly after takeoff, placing high loads on the rudder.

    While the NTSB has yet to issue its final report on the crash nearly three years after the event, all of its interim reports point to the belief that the wake turbulence event caused Sten Molin, the First Officer who was flying the plane, to overstress the rudder.

    Airbus has blamed the first officer’s actions on a faulty training program designed by American Airlines, while American has focused on the design of the aircraft, its use of composite materials in the tail and its rudder control system.

    The Der Speigel article, written by Ulrich Jaegar, a reporter who has covered aviation issues for 23 years, says that engineers at the Airbus testing center “cooked” the numbers to insure that the plane would meet aviation standards.

    Jaegar told The Wave in an exclusive interview that “If this happened, it was not done by minor people, but by certified and highly-trained people in the engineering department.”

    “They knew what they were doing,” Jaegar said.

    He said that the American law firm, Kreindler and Kreindler, the company that leads the committee of lawyers representing the families of the victims, has the document and plans to use it to confront the company when the case resumes in the Manhattan Federal Courtroom of Judge Robert Sweet on September 15.

    The hundreds of pending cases generated by the crash, handled by more than 100 lawyers, have been consolidated under Judge Sweet in the Southern District for New York court.

    The lawyers have formed an executive committee for the plaintiffs, a committee chaired by Kreindler and Kreindler.

    Sweet had ended the discovery process in the case late last year when both American Airlines and Airbus Industries entered into a “funding agreement” that called for each of the companies to share in the payouts to those who were impacted by the crash.

    The Wave has learned that while more than 70 percent of the families have accepted the payouts by the Airbus and American Airlines, there are a number who are holding out because they believe that they only way they will find the cause of the crash is by allowing the discovery process to be reinstated by Sweet.

    Jaegar, however, says that the counsel plans to ask the judge to reopen the disclosure process in light of the Airbus memo.

    “That would force Airbus to deliver to the court every paper that it has relating to the calculations on the tail stress,” Jaegar says. “That would be a high-risk procedure for them, but they would have to do it.”

    Jaegar would only say that he got the memo from a “highly trustworthy person” in Europe who was an acquaintance of his from other airline stories.

    Clay McConnell, the company’s Vice President of Corporate Communication, told The Wave that he did “not want to dignify the report with a comment.”

    He did say, however, “There probably has never been a component on a plane in the history of aviation that was tested more often than the tail of American Airlines Flight 587.”

    “If the NTSB had any reason, after three years, for believing that something had to be done to the tails of Airbus A300-600 aircraft, it would have done so by now.”

    He added, “the tail on the accident aircraft broke exactly where our testing showed that it would have broken under the stress that it faced.”

    The Der Speigel article, however, says, “According to Airbus, the accusations are merely the result of a rumor spread by an employee. The fin was inspected in detail, and ‘no problems were detected.’”

    According to aviation experts, should the charges against Airbus be true, the corporation is threatened not only with sanctions, but also with a criminal suit.

    The Der Speigel story says that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has the information and is pursing an investigation of its own, although The Wave could not corroborate that at press time.

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