and Airline Dispute Cause of 2001 Crash
MATTHEW L. WALD
September 28, 2004
WASHINGTON, Sept. 27 - During the long investigation into the November
2001 crash of an American Airlines jetliner in Queens that killed 265
people, the airline and the plane's manufacturer have engaged in an
unusually public dispute about what happened. Now the National
Transportation Safety Board is poised to conclude that actions by a
pilot were the main cause.
That conclusion would at least partly vindicate the manufacturer,
Airbus, which has questioned the training the pilot received from
American Airlines. But in a last-ditch effort, American is campaigning
to add another cause: what it asserts was a failure by Airbus to be more
forthcoming about earlier problems with a tail control on that model of
The safety board announced on Monday that it would meet on Oct. 26 to
approve its final report on the crash of the plane, an Airbus A300,
which went down on Nov. 12, 2001, shortly after takeoff from Kennedy
International Airport on a flight to the Dominican Republic. All 260
people on board were killed, along with 5 people on the ground in Belle
Harbor, Queens, on the Rockaway Peninsula. At the time, New York was
still reeling from the 9/11 attacks two months earlier.
The investigation has taken unusually long, partly because investigators
first focused their attention on whether there was a flaw in the
composite material that made up the vertical fin at the back of the
plane, which was ripped off by the aircraft's strong side-to-side
Although the board does not fix blame, its findings can be
influential in court, and American and Airbus have a continuing legal
dispute about who will pay the damage claims stemming from the crash.
For now they are being divided 50-50, according to one lawyer in the
case, but that could change if one side persuades a judge that the other
was primarily at fault.
The board is juggling the relative importance of several factors.
The leading one, by all accounts, is that when the plane encountered the
wake of a Boeing 747 ahead of it, the co-pilot aggressively worked the
rudder pedals back and forth. That threw the plane into an oscillation,
with wider and wider swings left and right, until the pressure on the
fin exceeded the limit it was designed to handle, and it snapped.
American is arguing, with some support from an independent study
commissioned by the safety board, that the control system for the rudder
differs from the system used on most other planes, and makes the plane
more prone to such oscillations.
Another potential factor is that for a time, American's pilot
training emphasized use of the rudder in recovering from upsets.
American has been arguing to safety board members that an incident in
May 1997 involving another American Airlines A300, Flight 903, should
have offered clues that the plane was susceptible to oscillation. In
that case, pilots slowed the plane too much and it "stalled,"
meaning that the combination of angle and speed made the wings lose
lift. The oscillation occurred during a very rough recovery. But the
investigation focused on the stall.
Bruce Hicks, a spokesman for American, said: "Airbus alone had the
knowledge about the sensitivity of the system, and most importantly, the
grave risk of what happens if you reverse the rudder on this airplane,
and the propensity of this airplane for that to happen."
"Had they shared that knowledge with the N.T.S.B. and operators,
including American, Flight 587's accident would not have happened, and
265 people would not have died," he said.
But Clay McConnell, a spokesman for Airbus, said the manufacturer had
turned over all relevant data. "There were major concerns about
structural damage on any transport category airplane that was put
through those maneuvers," he said.
Mr. McConnell said the force needed on the pedal to move the rudder was
in harmony with the force needed to move every other flight control in
the cockpit. "There is nothing that is unique about the rudder
system," he said. "It really is a red herring. If the pilot
wasn't trained well enough to be familiar with the rudder control forces
on that airplane, someone should ask who did that training."
The airline's arguments do not appear to have changed the working
hypothesis at the board that the problem originated with the pilot.
"There are 20,000 pilots, and only one did this," said one
investigator, who asked not to be identified because the case is still
open. "There are 700 of these airplanes, and only one had this
problem," he said.
© 2001, 2002, 2003 & 2004
Robert E. Donaldson. All