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.
|The vertical stabilizer from American Airlines flight 587 is hoisted from Jamaica Bay, New York in this 2001 photo. (File Photo)
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.
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
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
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.