2009-06-19 / Top Stories

Pro Pilot Likens Recent Crash To AA 587

By Howard Schwach

The rudder from Air France Flight 447 being pulled from the Atlantic Ocean recently. The rudder from Air France Flight 447 being pulled from the Atlantic Ocean recently. A professional airline pilot who also writes for Flying magazine has likened the recent crash of Air France Flight 447 to the 2001 crash of American Airlines Flight 587 in Belle Harbor.

Peter Garrison says that he saw a striking similarity between the photographs of French sailors pulling the tail of the Air France plane from the Atlantic and the photos of NYPD launches pulling the tail of AA 587 out of Jamaica Bay.

"To pilots, [the recent photo] brought a chilling sense of déjà vu. In November of 2001, a similarly shaped and colored object floated in Jamaica Bay, just off Long Island in New York. It was the vertical stabilizer - the tail fin - of an American Airlines Airbus, Flight 587, that had broken up shortly after taking off from John F. Kennedy Airport," he wrote. "The fin was practically undamaged; it had parted at the root, each of the massive fittings that attach it to the fuselage torn neatly in half. Here was another such fin; seemingly intact, snapped cleanly from the vanished Air France Flight 447."

The rudder from American Airlines Flight 587 being pulled from Jamaica Bay by the NYPD and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on November 12, 2001. The rudder from American Airlines Flight 587 being pulled from Jamaica Bay by the NYPD and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on November 12, 2001. Garrison argues that the NTSB's finding that the first officer of Flight 587 used the rudder aggressively and unnecessarily in a response to a wake turbulence event brings up a question of how the Airbus airliners are designed and built.

"The New York crash uncovered a gaping misunderstanding among pilots, manufacturers and the FAA," he wrote. "The vertical fin did not have to be strong enough to allow the rudder to be deflected fully when the airplane was in the yawed position - that is, when the back end of the plane had swung to one side, most likely because of a gust of wind."

The common sense response to that fact, he says, is, why don't they just make the rudder stronger?

His own answer: They don't want to, because building the tails out of laminate material and bonding it to the fuselage with a kind of super-strong epoxy makes it much lighter than if a metal such as aluminum had been used, which translates to lighter planes that use less fuel and can carry more passengers.

He likens the development of airplanes to the new automobiles.

"We willingly sacrifice greater safety to get less expensive, more fuel-efficient vehicles," he says.

The picture painted by the fin floating almost undamaged in the Atlantic, broken off in one piece, he says, suggests that it was the first piece of the aircraft to depart the fuselage, very much like AA 587.

Garrison calls on the FAA to amend aircraft certification requirements so that the rudders will no longer fall off when the control surface is overused.

"The rules that govern the structural integrity of airliners should not include an asterisk," he concludes.

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