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AirDisaster.Com News
Discuss this story in our forums! Posted: 26 October 2004, 12:17am ET (0417 GMT)

NTSB set to rule on American Flight 587 crash cause.
The vertical stabilizer from American Airlines flight 587 is hoisted from Jamaica Bay, New York in this 2001 photo. (File Photo)
WASHINGTON (AP) -- If the pilot flying American Airlines Flight 587 had taken his foot off the rudder pedal, the jetliner's tail wouldn't have broken off, the plane wouldn't have plunged into a New York City neighborhood and 265 people wouldn't have died on Nov. 12, 2001.

On those details, the investigators agree.

But the pilot didn't know he was putting more pressure on the tail than it could bear. Why he didn't -- and who's to blame for that -- is the subject of a bitter fight between Airbus Industrie, which made the plane, and American Airlines, which trained the pilot.

That dispute is expected to play out in public Tuesday when the National Transportation Safety Board meets to discuss its findings.

Flight 587 had just taken off from New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport for the Dominican Republic when it encountered heavy turbulence caused by a large plane that took off before it.

Sten Molin, the co-pilot who was flying the Airbus A300-600 tried to steady the aircraft using pedals that control the rudder, a large flap on a plane's tail. When his initial movement failed, Molin tried again and again. His actions placed enormous stress on the tail and it broke off.

The plane crashed into a Queens neighborhood, killing all 260 aboard and five people on the ground. It was the second-deadliest plane crash on U.S. soil.

AMR Corp.'s American, the only U.S. airline to use that type of Airbus plane for passenger service, claims the manufacturer didn't alert it to the danger of sharp rudder movements until after the crash. The airline also contends the Airbus A300-600 has uniquely sensitive flight controls that can cause more severe rudder movements than the pilot intends.

"Airbus had the ability to truly red-flag the issue," American spokesman Bruce Hicks said.

Airbus says it told American a number of times and in a number of ways that the airline was improperly training pilots about how to use the rudder.

An Airbus spokesman declined to comment on the investigation before the hearing. However, the company has provided the NTSB with a number of documents to support its claim.

For example, a letter dated Aug. 20, 1997, warned American chief pilot Cecil Ewing that rudders should not be moved abruptly to right a jetliner or when a plane is flown at a sharp angle. The letter was signed by representatives from The Boeing Co., the Federal Aviation Administration and Airbus.

Airbus contends that even people within American Airlines were concerned about how the airline was training its pilots. A letter to Airbus dated May 22, 1997, from American technical pilot David Tribout expressed concern about the airline's then-new training course on advanced maneuvers.

"I am very concerned that one aspect of the course is inaccurate and potentially hazardous," Tribout wrote. His concern: Pilots were being taught that the rudder should be used to control a plane's rolling motion.

Paul Railsback, American's managing director of flight operations, testified in an April 8, 2003, deposition that he warned airline executives that someone would be killed some day as a result of the training.

Hicks countered that Airbus didn't share important safety information about the rudder after a problem with American Flight 903 in May 1997. During that incident, pilots used the rudder to steady an Airbus A300-600 plane on approach to West Palm Beach airport. The plane nearly crashed and one person was seriously injured.

Afterward, Airbus told the NTSB that it included a warning that abrupt rudder movement in some circumstances "can lead to rapid loss of controlled flight," and, in others, could break off the tail.

Hicks said Airbus' comments didn't specifically say that the rudder movements on Flight 903 had exposed the tail to so much pressure that it could have been ripped off.

Immediately after the Flight 903 incident, an inspection found no damage to the tail. But five years later, the plane was inspected more closely because of concerns aroused by the crash of Flight 587. Cracks were found and it was replaced.

John David, a spokesman for American Airlines' pilots union, said pilots had always thought that they could use rudders to the full extent without hurting the airplane. He also believes Airbus didn't properly communicate what it knew.

American now gives its pilots specialized training on the rudder control system based on information learned during the investigation.

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