The Washington Post
By Don Phillips and Michael Powell
Washington Post Staff Writers Thursday,November 15, 2001; Page A18
NEW YORK, Nov. 14 -- The vertical tail section of American Airlines Flight
587 cracked off when its modern reinforced plastic "composite" fittings
failed, investigators said today, and the National Transportation Safety
Board announced that American will inspect the tail section of all its
similar Airbus A300-600 widebody planes. The Federal Aviation Administration
said it was dispatching its chief scientist to examine the composite
materials as well.
The investigators' conclusion is significant because composites are used on
virtually all civilian and military aircraft introduced since the mid-1980s.
But it does not answer the vital question of why they failed in this
instance -- whether they were overwhelmed by some outside force beyond their
design limits or were somehow faulty or incorrectly attached.
Safety Board Chairman Marion Blakey said there was no evidence of physical
damage to the vertical tail fin, which was recovered from Jamaica Bay soon
after the Airbus crashed into a Queens neighborhood Monday.
But she presented radar data indicating that wake turbulence from a Japan
Airlines 747 that took off just before Flight 587 could have hit the
American widebody. The 747's path was to the west and about 800 feet higher
than the A300's, she said, with the wind blowing from the northwest at about
12 mph. Because the swirling winds that flow from an aircraft's wingtips
tend to move down slightly and drift with the wind, the aircrafts' paths
"would be consistent with a wake vortex encounter," Blakey said.
But board member George Black said he was unaware that any civilian aircraft
had ever lost a vertical tail fin to wake turbulence.
Investigators could not explain what outside force, combination of forces,
human error or aerodynamic forces could have produced enough force to rip
the vertical tail fin and rudder off the plane and rip both engines from the
The board last night released some preliminary data from the recovered
flight data recorder indicating that the vertical tail fin came off first.
Both engines continued to operate normally for a short period after the crew
said on the cockpit voice recorder that they had lost control. Further
information from the sophisticated recorder should provide a wealth of other
The pilots immediately lost control after the vertical fin came off, and the
plane spiraled and tumbled into a neighborhood of neatly kept houses in the
Rockaways section of Queens, destroying four houses and badly damaging three
Investigators at first believed the plane landed nose-down -- because of the
lack of wider destruction that would have resulted had it hit the ground at
a shallower angle. That did not explain, however, why they found so many
intact or nearly intact bodies so quickly.
Several sources now believe the explanation may be the speed of descent. The
plane, they believe, having lost its heavy engines and vertical tail, made a
relatively slow belly flop, nose tilted down and turning sideways. Its
engines were found about 800 feet away -- with the left and right engines
exactly opposite to where they would have been attached to the plane,
indicating the plane might have been upside down or flopping around.
The composite material used in the doomed aircraft was a carbon-fiber-
reinforced plastic -- which, like most composites, is much lighter and
stronger than a like amount of aluminum. The Airbus A300 pioneered the use
of composites in the early 1980s, and both Airbus and Boeing have used them
increasingly since then. The new Boeing 777, the most modern passenger
aircraft flying, is significantly made up of composites.
Blakey announced American's planned inspection of all 24 of the tail fins on
its Airbus A300-600 fleet. She also said the FAA was sending its chief
scientist to the Flight 587 scene to study the possible relevance of
composite materials. FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said that if the scientist
and other FAA officials find that more inspections or corrective actions are
needed in other parts of the aircraft industry, "the FAA will mandate that
Hans Weber, an airline engineering expert in San Diego, said most airliners
still have metal tails. He also said that although the composite tails on
Airbus planes are made with carbon fiber, the composition of that fiber has
been constantly evolving as the plane maker tries to keep costs down.
Composite tail structures are five times more expensive than aluminum -- $1,
500 a pound compared with $240 a pound.
Weber also noted that the composite tails can be repaired, but that in most
cases when damage involves a primary structure, they are not readily
repairable and are often discarded. The layering, bonding and curing of the
materials, he said, have to be just right -- and they have to be inspected
more often than aluminum tails.
Officials continued today to describe the crash as more likely an accident
than an act of terror. But Attorney General John D. Ashcroft said
investigators had ruled out nothing.
"We're actively investigating all possibilities, including terrorism,"
Although the NTSB is the lead investigating agency, the FBI is conducting
its own probe, with 130 agents assigned to it. An explosives residue team is
combing the wreckage for traces of explosives -- they have found nothing
suggestive, sources say.
If terror was the cause, sabotage appears more likely than a bomb, sources
said. FBI agents have interviewed more than 70 airline employees, including
mechanics who may have worked on the plane while it was parked at John F.
Kennedy International Airport overnight before taking off Monday morning.
But spokesmen for American Airlines and the Port Authority of New York and
New Jersey -- which manages JFK -- declined to say where at the airport the
plane was parked, or how many workers might have worked on or around it.
The Port Authority's management of the airport has attracted much criticism
over the years, and authority directors have periodically announced new
security plans. The Port Authority, airline companies, cargo companies,
private security firms and the FAA claim a security role at the airport.
The conclusion of the NTSB investigation hangs like a dagger over the
airline industry. If the federal government concludes that mechanical
failure caused the crash, analysts expect that American and the industry
Should sabotage or terror have played a role, however, the consequences
could be dire.
"For the most part, people are fairly forgiving. If management gets out
front, they are okay," said Darryl Jenkins of George Washington University's
Airline Institute. "But terrorism would about put us all under. It's much
worse than anything else."
Staff writers Cheryl W. Thompson and Frank Swoboda in Washington contributed
to this report.
© 2001 The Washington Post Company