2006-05-12 / Columnists

From the Editor's Desk

By Howard Schwach


Has the composite tail on Airbus A300 aircraft claimed another 113 victims to add to the 265 who died when American Airlines Flight 587 crashed into Belle Harbor on November 12, 2001?

Some experts, including at least two who flew the A300 aircraft for American Airlines, think it might well be so.

On May 3, an Airbus A320 flying for an Armenian airline, a plane with the same basic tail structure as the A300, crashed into the Black Sea as it approached the airport in Adler, in Russia. According to published reports, the plane "just dropped off the radar screen," while making its final approach. Although the weather was reportedly bad at the airport at the time, the pilots gave no indication that the plane was in trouble.

When divers went into the murky waters of the Black Sea, they found that the plane had broken into many parts on impact.

One photograph from the Associated Press, however, stood out in my mind.

It was a picture of a barge raising the tail structure of the plane, which was no longer attached to the fuselage.

The caption for the photograph said that the tail had snapped off the plane when it hit the water, but it looked so much like the picture of a barge lifting the tail section that had once been attached to American Airlines Flight 587 from Jamaica Bay that it brought me an eerie response and a shiver.

We know that the tail was ripped from the fuselage of AA 587, causing the horrific crash into the streets of Belle Harbor. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), after a long and expensive investigation, said that Sten Molin, the plane's first officer who was flying the departure from JFK that day overused the rudder and ripped the tail from the plane.

I have never believed that, and neither do many of the pilots who flew the plane for American Airlines.

It raises a question. Did the tail of the Armenian plane break off as a result of the impact with the water or did it fall off in flight, causing the plane to crash into the water? That certainly should be a question for the investigators working on the plane crash.

Those investigators should look not only at last week's crash. They should look at all of the problems faced by the Airbus A300 series aircraft in the past ten years. Prior to the Belle Harbor crash there were a number of what the NTSB calls "upsets" with Airbus A300 aircraft. They blew off all those problems by saying that they had no relation to the crash of AA 587.

They were wrong. Either the NTSB is stupid or it is covering up a very serious problem with Airbus aircraft to save the manufacturer and airlines like American Airlines millions of dollars.

In fact, experts tell me that American Airlines would go bankrupt in a week if its A330 aircraft were grounded for even a relatively short period of time.

On March 6, 2005, an Airbus A310 operated by Air Transat, a Canadian airline, was flying from Cuba to Canada. Right after takeoff, the pilot heard a loud noise and then felt a shudder.

He turned the plane around and landed back in Cuba. To his amazement, the tail remained on the plane, but the rudder was gone.

The rudder, which fell into the Straits of Florida, was never recovered and the accident is under investigation by the Canadian Safety Board.

On November 27, 2005, a maintenance mechanic was doing some work on the tail structure of a FedEx A300-600, the same model that flew four years earlier as AA 587.

He found that the lower part of the tail, where it joins with the fuselage, was delaminating, that the plastic layers that make up the honeycomb of layers was coming apart. The NTSB determined that the delamination (or disbonding as some call it) was caused by the infiltration of hydraulic fluid into the layers. Tests of the rudder in a depressurization chamber showed that the delamination was accelerated by the pressure and there was a significant growth in the process.

In a recent order, the Canadian Safety Board ordered all of its airlines that fly the A300 aircraft to visually inspect all of the tail structures of those aircraft more carefully.

I know that I printed this quote in my column last week, before I knew of the recent crash, but it bear repeating. In fact, I believe that it is critical in understanding why Flight 587 crashed and why the Airbus A300 series aircraft are dangerous and should be grounded until a fix is made.

"The recent discovery that disbands could grow undetected and the increasing age of the composite rudders suggest that increased attention is warranted to mitigate the risk of addition rudder structural failures. The consequences of a rudder separation include reduced directional control and a possible separation of the vertical tail plane," the report said.

Could it be that the rudder broke from AA 587's vertical tail plane, causing the plane to crash? When the tail was found in Jamaica Bay it was in at least a dozen pieces. The assumption that was made at the time was that it broke up when it hit the water.

Sounds like the recent crash, doesn't it?

On 'April 16 of this year, Captain Robert Tamburini, Captain Paul Csibrik, Captain Glenn Schafer, First Officer Todd Wissing and First Officer Jason Goldberg, all experienced A300 officers, wrote a letter to the NTSB and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) calling for a reopening of the investigation into the AA 587 crash in light of the more recent upsets.

Remember, this was a little more than two weeks before the Armenian crash. Perhaps they were prescient.

In the preface to their long letter, the five airline personnel wrote, "Beginning in Spring, 2002, as pilots assigned to fly the A-300-600 for American Airlines, we became concerned about issues raised in the crash of AA 587 into Belle Harbor, NY on November 12, 2001. As the investigation went on, in order to address these concerns, several of us formed an ad hoc group to gather information and opinion from a variety of experts on aircraft rudder design, aircraft systems, aviation safety carbon composite engineering, composite inspection methods and other topical areas of accident investigation. The letter goes on to state what their investigation revealed and what they believe caused the AA 587 crash.

It discusses the NTSB report in light of the Air Transat upset, saying, "When the rudder separation began, the rudder started to flutter, or swing back and forth violently. This, in turn, led to the vertical stabilizer moving left and right and the stress on the lugs increasing to the point where the lugs became delaminated."

They cite the March 24 incident to show that the upset sheds new light on what might have happened to AA 587.

"The new information must be fully considered with a fresh look at the other factors identified in the AA 587 investigation."

Those pilots, joined by others and many other local politicians including Congressman Anthony Weiner, are calling for the NTSB to reopen the AA 587 investigation.1

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