2010-08-13 / Top Stories

Airbus Design Linked To AA 587 Crash

Nine Years After Tragedy, NTSB Says Rudder At Fault
By Howard Schwach

The NTSB has issued a new warning regarding the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 in Belle Harbor in November of 2001, stating that the rudder system of the Airbus aircraft was partially to blame. The NTSB has issued a new warning regarding the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 in Belle Harbor in November of 2001, stating that the rudder system of the Airbus aircraft was partially to blame. Nearly nine years after American Airlines Flight 587 crashed into the intersection of Beach 130 Street and Newport Avenue in Belle Harbor, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said this week that the crash that killed 265 people was caused in part by a rudder system design which still exists in many Airbus aircraft.

The Airbus A-300-600 augured into Belle Harbor at about 9:16 a.m. on November 12, 2001, killing all 260 aboard the aircraft and five Rockaway residents on the ground, making it the second worst aircraft accident in American history.

According to an NTSB recommendation issued last week, the plane’s vertical stabilizer likely separated and fell into Jamaica Bay because of “the first officer’s unnecessary and excessive rudder pedal inputs,” as well as the “characteristics of the Airbus rudder system design.”

Previously, the blame had fallen completely on First Officer Sten Molin, who was flying the departure from John F. Kennedy Airport on the morning of the fatal crash.

The NTSB said that the new finding comes in the wake of another “upset” involving an Air Canada Airbus aircraft.

That aircraft, an Airbus A319, which has similar controls to the A300, experienced an in-flight upset after encountering wake turbulence from a 747 while climbing in early January of 2008.

Flight 587 was climbing from JFK when it encountered wake turbulence from a Japan Airlines 747 just prior to its crash in Rockaway.

The NTSB says that the pilot of the Air Canada flight tried to use the rudder pedals to get out of the wake turbulence, just as the first officer of Flight 587 attempted to do.

Even though the significant rudder movements stressed the tail structure of the Air Canada flight, the crew managed to get the plane back on the ground.

In the Flight 587 accident, the overstressed tail ripped from the aircraft shortly before the engines popped off and it crashed.

“Because of the severity of the upset, following the emergency landing the airplane was grounded pending an investigation by Airbus engineers,” the finding adds. “The vertical stabilizer was removed from the airplane and scanned to inspect for damage to the stabilizer’s composite components. No damage was found.”

After the AA 587 crash, there was lots of conjecture that the bonding material holding the tail to the aircraft had disbanded, allowing the stabilizer to fall from the plane.

The NTSB added, “the similarities between the Air Canada Flight 190 and American Airlines Flight 587 crewmember’s response to wake encounters indicate that the Airbus 320 family is also susceptible to potentially hazardous rudder pedal inputs at higher airspeeds. In both events, the vertical stabilizer load limits were exceeded by a large margin as a result of alternating rudder inputs.

In the American Airlines accident, the pilot applied four full alternating rudder inputs; after the fourth input, the loads in the stabilizer exceeded design load and it separated from the aircraft. In the Air Canada accident, the pilot applied three alternating rudder inputs and exceeded the limit load by 29 percent.”

Shortly after the American Airlines Flight 587 crash, a spokesperson for the Airline Pilots Association told The Wave that designing an aircraft so that the tail would fall off if the pilot used too much rudder is like designing an automobile so that the tires would fall off if somebody hit the brake too many times.

The NTSB, however, calls for airline officials to institute a training program that would teach pilots of the Airbus aircraft in question to get out of a wake turbulence situation without overflying the rudder. That warning has gone out to both the Federal Aviation Administration in the United States and to European agencies.

The latest warning does not, however, satisfy Stan Molin, the first officer’s father, a former pilot for Eastern Airlines and an instructor-pilot himself.

“It’s been perfectly clear that the NTSB gave way to Airbus pressure eight years ago, and it is still doing that today,” Molin told The Wave on Monday.

“In 2002, some NTSB and FAA officials went to the Airbus factory in France and programmed an Airbus 300 to believe it was in the air. No matter how they programmed the plane, a series of three experienced pilots could not make the rudder do what the NTSB said that it had done on AA 587.”

“It’s about time, however, that the NTSB has made clear what it should have made clear eight years ago – that the aircraft’s rudder system was at fault, and said that the rudder was the primary cause of the accident, and not the way my son flew the aircraft.”

Molin says that tests subsequent to the NTSB’s finding seven years ago show that his son followed procedures for flying the aircraft out of a wake turbulence situation.

“The right wing was dropping and he used full aileron to bring the wing up. When it didn’t happen, he instinctively pushed the rudder pedal.

The plane began to yaw violently and he pushed the rudder in the other direction to stop the yaw. Then, the plane began to yaw in the other direction,” Molin said. The fifth time he hit the rudder pedal, the tail came off. It was the system’s fault.”

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