NTSB: Airbus A300 Had ‘Upset’ Problems Since 1991
by Howard Schwach
This is the first of a series of articles to be written by The Wave staff as well as aviation experts analyzing the National Transportation Safety Board’s final report on the crash of American Airlines Flight 587. The report, entitled, “In Flight Separation of Vertical Stabilizer American Airlines Flight 587 Airbus Industrie A300-605R, N14053 Belle Harbor, New York November 12, 2001,” runs 200 pages.
The rollout this week of Airbus Industrie’s newest plane, the A380, which holds 555 passengers, drew awe in many places for its massive size and passenger-carrying ability. In Rockaway, however, the news of an Airbus that has a 262-foot wingspan and carries more than 500 passengers (and can be configured to hold more than 800) drew not awe, but fear in some parts of the community where residents unfortunately have personal knowledge of what an Airbus aircraft can do to a community when it gets into what pilots and the NTSB call an “upset.”
In December, three years after the disastrous crash of the A300 that killed all 260 aboard the plane and five locals on the ground, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issued a final report that blamed the crash on the young First Officer, Sten Molin, who was flying the departure from JFK Airport that day. The report said that Molin’s “unnecessary and excessive rudder inputs” caused the crash and that contributing factors were the sensitive rudder system in the A300 and the pilot training provided to Molin by American Airlines.
Buried in that report, however, was information on a number of earlier “upsets” suffered by the A300 and A310 aircraft (virtually the same plane with a different configuration) beginning in 1991 and continuing after the crash of AA587.
In fact, the report says that there have been nine “vertical stabilizer high loading events” in the entire history of the Airbus series. Four of them were with A300 series aircraft, three with the A310 and two with the newer A340 series. Seven of the nine upsets where the vertical stabilizer was involved took place with the basic series that crashed in Rockaway.
There have been a number of serious events, although the AA 587 crash was far and away the worst (it was the second most deadly aircraft accident in American history), but people were injured in the others as well.
On February 11, 1991, an Airbus A310 operated by the German airline Interflug, experienced an in-flight loss of control during a missed approach to Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow. The European version of the NTSB said that the upset was caused by pilot error when the pilot touched the control stick and the rudder while going around for another landing attempt.
On May 12, 1997, American Airlines Flight 903, an Airbus A300-600 (the same model that crashed in Belle Harbor) experienced an in-flight loss of control near West Palm Beach, Florida. One passenger sustained serious injury and one flight attendant injured her back. The airplane, according to the report, “sustained minor damage.”
The NTSB blamed the crash on the aircrew’s failure to maintain proper speed and to properly control the autothrottle.
After that accident, Airbus engineers, in an internal memo, determined that the Airbus in the upset had exceeded design load limits on its rudder and asked for an examination of the plane’s composite tail. According to the NTSB report, a copy of the alert was emailed to American Airlines. The airline, in its testimony to the agency during earlier hearings into the crash, said that it was not adequately warned.
After the crash of AA 587, however, the tail section of AA903 was taken apart and it was found that the composite material was delaminating. The plane was removed from service and repaired.
On November 12, 2001 there was the AA587 crash in Belle Harbor, killing 265 people.
On October 28, 2002, American Airlines Flight 934, an A300 in route from Guayaquil, Ecuador to Miami, the first officer, reaching for a switch, inadvertently disconnected the automatic pilot and the plane began to fishtail. The plane then began to roll before the pilots could regain control.
Not in the report was another upset involving an A300. In early November of last year, an Airbus A300 inbound to JFK airport, about 50 miles southwest of Rockaway, hit wake turbulence at 21,000 feet. The plane fishtailed, injuring six people who were taken to area hospitals after the plane landed safely.
There are many in the aviation industry and in Rockaway who believe that the A300-600 series is seriously flawed and that the plane, which is flown on passenger routes only by American Airlines (FedEx and UPS use it on cargo routes) in the United Sates, may have more problems in the future. With the coming of the 550-passenger A380, that fear is taken up a notch.
Next: Eyewitness to the crash.