2006-09-15 / Community

'Seconds From Disaster' Follows NTSB Line On AA 587 Crash

National Geographic Uses Footage, Interviews, Actors To Address Belle Harbor Tragedy
A Wave Review By Howard Schwach

A Wave Review
By Howard Schwach

Newport Avenue and Beach 131 Street, the scene of the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 on November 12, 2001.Newport Avenue and Beach 131 Street, the scene of the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 on November 12, 2001. When the National Geographic Television Channel called The Wave for information about the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 in Belle Harbor on November 12, 2001, we asked the producer for the focus of the show.

The producer told us that the show would tell the "real story of why the aircraft crashed, killing all 260 people on the plane as well as five Rockaway residents on the ground. We were asked for permission to use some of the headlines from The Wave around that time and we also provided contact information for some of the locals who saw the plane in extremis in the air or who were impacted by the accident on the ground.

We discussed our theories with the producer and were flattered when asked to participate.

The show, part of the "Seconds From Disaster" series that highlights such accidents as well a natural disasters, made for gripping television.

There were recreated scenes of our friend Hector Algarroba saying goodbye to his mother, scenes of the doomed passengers on the aircraft as it took off from John F. Kennedy Airport that morning and there were recreated scenes showing Captain Ed States and First Office Sten Molin getting the plane ready for takeoff.

The crash scene was depicted both from a tape shot by an amateur photographer interspersed with actors portraying the events that happened both prior to and after the crash.

There were interviews with the Shurr's and the Morley's both of whom lost their homes in the crash. When the two couples were shown during the time of the crash, actors who looked amazingly like the real people were used. If you did not know better, you would think that the actors and the real locals were one and the same.

Some of the people who claimed to see the plane on fire in the air prior to the crash, like Tom Lynch, were interviewed as well, but those people were as ignored by the television show as they were by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in deciding what caused the crash.

There were some major goofs in the program.

For example, the now-famous bridge cameras that taped the smoking Airbus A300 aircraft in the air shortly after takeoff were on the Marine Parkway Bridge. The show said that they were on the Triboro Bridge.

The actors portraying Captain States and First Officer Molin were supposed to be mouthing the words that came from the official transcript provided by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).While I was watching the program, however,, some of their words didn't ring true so I pulled the transcript (I have one on my computer at home) and found several misquotes, at least one that is critical to telling the story.

For example, the show has States asking Molin (who was flying the departure), "little wake turbulence, huh?

In the show, Molin answers, "lots."

In reality, however, he said "yeah" rather nonchalantly.

That's a big difference, but the show was trying to show that the wake turbulence from a JAL heavy that took off just prior to the Airbus A300 created a small wake turbulence that Molin over-reacted to by alternately pushing the left and right rudders with enough force to rip the tail from the plane.

During our own investigation of the crash, the President of the Allied Pilots Association said, "building an aircraft where the tail falls off if you hit the rudder pedals too hard is like building a car where the tires fall off if you hit the brakes too hard. Why would you do that?"

He is right.

In another spot on the show, States asks, You all right?"

In reality, Molin ansered "Yeah, I'm fine."

In the show, however, the actor playing Molinm did not react at all and a close-up of the actor's face showed him to believe that he was in deep do do.

While experts checking the bridge tape said that they were unable to tell much from it and NTSB investigators all but discounted its value, the show made it an important element by saying that the tape proved that the smoke seen coming from the airplane started well after the problem started on the aircraft. Had the tape shown the smoke at the same time that the flight recorder showed the upset began, that would have been an indication that there was some sort of explosive device that caused the accident.

Then, it springs what it terms "a startling fact that proves that the accident was caused by the first officer."

That "fact" is that another pilot who flew with Molin years ago said that he used the rudders overagressively. Here is was, the proof the show needed to really tell what happened.

That is all in the NTSB docket, however and there is no surprise. Three others who were on that flight, including a pilot who was deadheading to another state said that Molin did nothing wrong on that flight.

In addition, National Geographic never questioned anybody from Airbus to ask them why their A300 series aircraft keep having upsets, with rudders falling off in the air and tails delaminating.

The only official that the show interviewed was the NTSB's chief investigator, now retired. Was he going to refute the "facts" found in his own investigation? Probably not.

The show, however flawed, is riveting. Watch for it on the National Geographic Channel. It's well worth your watching.

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In the last two minutes of the show, National Geographic summed up the analysis of the investigation of the AA 587 disaster. Molin was trained by AA in training films and their flight simulator to use the rudder aggressively in getting out of unusual situations especially wake turbulence. Airbus wrote to AA of their concerns in teaching to use the rudder so aggressively. There was a gap between what Airbus knew about the rudder and what AA was teaching their pilots on using the rudder aggressively to recover from unusual situations. Airbus had informed AA that the rudder was very sensitive and that the pilots may not be aware of how much rudder they were really applying.
The program ends with the following note. Important lessons have been learned from the tragedy. Airbus has issued a bulletin reminding pilots how to use the rudder and AA has modified its training program. Together with the NTSB, the aviation industry has moved to insure that such a terrible accident will never happen again.

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