2007-12-21 / Editorial/Opinion

From the Editor's Desk

Canadians Have The Guts To Call It As It Is
Commentary By Howard Schwach

On November 12, 2001, American Airlines Flight 587 departed runway 31L at John F. Kennedy, turned left over Rockaway and lost its tail. The tail fell into Jamaica Bay and the plane subsequently crashed shortly thereafter into the intersection of Beach 131 Street and Newport Avenue, killing all 260 on the plane and five locals on the ground.

While nobody lived to tell about the experience on board the doomed Airbus A300, the cockpit recorder showed signs of a loud bang and popping noises prior to the crash.

Witnesses on the ground reported seeing smoke and fire on the fuselage prior to the crash and that the plane was fishtailing rapidly.

On March 6, 2005, an Airbus A310- basically the same aircraft flown as American Airlines Flight 587, took off from Varadero, Cuba on a flight to Canada. Flying for Air Transat, a Canadian airline, the plane was 90 nautical miles from Miami when the flight crew and passengers heard a loud bang and the back of the plane began to fishtail. Members of the flight crew at the rear of the plane were thrown to the ground and several were slightly injured.

The plane entered what pilots call a "Dutch Roll," where the aircraft oscillates on two axes, both the yaw and roll axes (left and right, up and down).

The pilots managed to get control of the plane and returned to Cuba, where it was found that the rudder, but not the entire tail, fell off the plane somewhere over the ocean.

After the Air Transat upset, airlines were ordered to examine the tail sections of the A300 series aircraft very carefully, particularly to look for disbonding of the laminate that holds the tail together.

Federal Express, which uses the aircraft extensively for cargo flights (American Airlines is the only American carrier using the A300 series for passenger runs, and then, only on its Latin American routes), found a rudder that had disbonded due to a leak of hydraulic fluid into the tail. Experts say that the plane was dangerous to fly due to the disbonding.

The tail was fixed, and company officials said that they found only that one aircraft with the problem.

A spokesperson for the National Transportation Safety Board continues to say that there are vast differences between the AA 587 crash, the Air Transat upset and the FedEx report.

The NTSB ruled, two years after the AA 587 crash, that the rudder fluctuations in the plane and the loss of the tail section were due to the "unnecessary and overaggressive use of the rudder" by First Officer Sten Molin, who was flying the departure that day.

Even though the NTSB knew of previous problems with the Airbus A300 rudder system, it ruled that the crash of AA 587 was a combination of the first officer's actions, the American Airline training program and the design of the Airbus rudder system.

There were many who believed at the time that the NTSB ruling was a cover-up to protect an aviation industry that was already heavily impacted by 9/11, only two months previously.

The Allied Airline Pilots Association and several pilots told us at the time that the NTSB's decision was disingenuous at best, that designing a plane where the tail falls off when the rudder is overused is like building an automobile that loses its tires each time the brakes are hit too hard.

They did not believe that the rudders were overused by the first officer. Rather, they believed that the fault rested with Airbus and its faulty design of the rudder system.

The NTSB continues today to say that the rudder movements were made by the first officer, who overreacted to a wake turbulence upset caused by a Japan Airlines 747 that took off right before the Airbus aircraft.

In this most recent incident with an Airbus 300 series aircraft, however, the Canadian Transportation Safety Board, looking at evidence of rudder movement much like that on AA 587, ruled that it was not the pilot's fault, but the fault of the rudder system that became aerodynamically unfit when the rudder began to disbond and then departed the airplane.

Scott Jordan, an aviation expert from San Jose, California, is one of those who believes that the CTSB ruling may well be a vindication for Molin and the others in the AA 587 flight crew.

"The bang, followed by the escalating yawing and rolling, reads like a twin of the AA 587 event. In this case, I found no comment regarding the pilot's footwork on the rudder pedals. Instead, the report says that the results also suggest that the rudder deflections recorded [on the Air Transat flight] were made by a part of the rudder that was not aerodynamically effective. I wonder if a similar scenario might exonerate the pilots of AA 587."

The Canadian report says, "The aircraft took off with a pre-existing disbond or an in-plane core fracture damage to the rudder… The damage deteriorated in flight, ultimately resulting in the loss of the rudder.

"The manufacturer's recommended inspection program for the aircraft was not adequate to detect all of the rudder defects; the damage may have been present for many flights before the occurrence flight."

What's the bottom line?

There is proof that the laminate material that holds the tail together, used for the first time in history on the Airbus A-300 series aircraft, disbonds when impregnated with hydraulic fluid, a common element in most aircraft tails.

We saw that on the FedEx plane. We saw that on the Air Transat plane. In the FedEx case, the problem was detected early. In the Air Transat case, it could easily have been another tragedy.

It was a tragedy, the second worst aircraft accident in American history, when AA 587 crashed into Belle Harbor.

The NTSB says that the tail fell off that plane not because of a disbonding problem, but because the first officer over-flew the rudder.

Tests on the Air Transat plane show that the rudder deflections were similar to those on AA 587.

The NTSB laid the blame on the first officer for using the rudder pedals too aggressively. The CTSB, however, looking at the same evidence, blamed the deflections on the loss of aerodynamic control.

Who is right?

I have believed from the first that the A300 series planes are flawed. The CTSB told it like it is. Perhaps it's time to reopen the AA 587 investigation in light of the CTSB findings.

This time, the NTSB should do the right thing and exonerate the first officer. That won't happen, however, because both that agency and the FAA are too busy keeping the airline industry fat and happy.

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