2004-10-15 / Front Page

Speculation Grows That Memo Could Have Prevented AA 587 Crash

By Howard Schwach


An Internal memo written in 1997 by an employee of Airbus Industries warned of the dangers of the maneuver that may have caused the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 into Belle Harbor in November of 2001.

The existence of the Airbus memo, which was first reported on the front page of The Wave in its September 10 issue, has been a closely-held secret by the airliner manufacturer until recently.

Neither American Airlines nor the first officer who was flying the departure of the Airbus A 300-600 that day ever saw the memo, according to a spokesperson for the Allied Pilot’s Association, the union that represents the airline’s pilots.

“Rudder movement from left limit to right limit will produce loads above ultimate design loads,” the memo, written by Airbus engineer Thomas Thurnagel in Germany, said.

According to industry sources, the memo was written on June 16, 1997, when American Airlines Flight 903 an Airbus A300-600, experienced problems while landing in Miami, Florida. The plane experienced a stall and the pilot attempted to get out of the stall by using the rudder. The plane reportedly fishtailed so badly that a stewardess in the rear of the plane suffered a broken back from being thrown into a bulkhead.

The rudder of the A300 from flight 903 was visually inspected after the Miami incident and found to be in good condition.

After the flight 587 accident, however, the tail of flight 903 was inspected by an ultrasound machine and the plane was removed from service by American Airlines.

The Thurnagel memo followed the 1997 inspection process, according to an aviation safety expert.

That expert says that the Thurnagel memo should have been shared with federal aviation authorities and with American Airlines, the only national airline flying the A300 on passenger routes.

“The failure to do so precludes any possibility of the NTSB preventing flight 587,” safety expert Bernard Loeb, who had been an NTSB official, told Newsday’s Sylvia Adcock. “If we had been notified at the time of [flight] 903, no doubt we would have pushed beyond that, asked questions and probably would have done a great deal of work. It is possible we would have learned something that would have precluded the 587 accident.”

The existence of the Thurnagel memo was discussed in a Der Spiegel article in early September.

After discussion with the author of that article and with Airbus, The Wave ran the front-page article. An official of the Allied Pilot’s Association then contacted The Wave for information and followed up with contact with the author of the Der Spiegel article, Ulrich Jaegar.

At that time, Clay McConnell, an Airbus Vice President, told The Wave, “There probably has never been a component on a plane in the history of aviation that was tested more than the tail of flight 587. If the NTSB had any reason, after three years, that something had to be done to the tail of the A300-600 aircraft, it would have done so by now.”

Now, however, McConnell told reporters, “We were very aggressive about telling American [Airlines] that we were concerned about the use of the rudder. Many, many people tried to warn airlines and pilots around the world about the use of the rudder and if that had been taken to heart, it is entirely possible that this accident would not have happened.”

In August of 1997, the Federal Aviation Administration reportedly sent a memo to American Airline’s chief pilot expressing concern about how the airline trained its pilots to use the A300 rudder.

Officials at American Airlines, however told reporters that the memo was not explicit enough to spur action on its part.

Lauren Paduzzi, a spokesperson for the NTSB told The Wave on Wednesday, “We have a copy of the memo as well as information on flight 903 and that information will be discussed in the meeting to be held on October 26.”

American Airlines declined to comment on the memo to The Wave because it is part of the lawsuit now before Judge Robert Sweet in federal court.

More than 70 percent of the families of the victims of flight 587 have reportedly settled with Airbus Industries and American Airlines.

The remaining 30 percent are back in court and the discovery process has reportedly been reinstituted.

How the Airbus memo will affect those cases is unclear. Blanca Rodriquez, the attorney liaison with the 587 families told The Wave that the memo is “nothing new.”

“Lots of things are being leaked to the press right now because of last minute finger pointing.” She says that the lawyers are working on a “failure to warn” theory and that the failure of Airbus to give full disclosure is a “contributing factor” in the “pilot error” that caused the crash. “Our argument will be that the warnings by Airbus were not explicit,” she said.

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