The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recently issued a safety recommendation to the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) regarding the November 2001 crash of an American Airlines Airbus near JFK. The crash of Flight 587, which was flying to the Dominican Republic, took the lives of all 260 passengers and crew, as well as five people in Belle Harbor, a neighborhood in Queens. While all such airline crashes are tragic, this one was particularly devastating, coming just two months after the horror of 9/11 and just a few miles from Ground Zero.
Flight 587 encountered wake turbulence from a Boeing 747 shortly after takeoff, and the pilot’s steering response created a severe strain on the rudder mechanism. Sounds of likely mechanical failures could be heard in the recorded data recovered from the plane’s wreckage, as well as the pilots’ desperate attempts to right the aircraft. In other words, the structural failure of the vertical stabilizer was caused by an overreaction by the pilot to the presence of air turbulence caused by another aircraft. The aircraft may have corrected itself without any input from the pilot at all, like the January 10, 2008 Air Canada Airbus incident over Washington State, noted by the NTSB in its new recommendation.
Soon after its crash investigation commenced, the NTSB issued a safety recommendation for updates in the training of all pilots of transport-category airplanes.
The NTSB’s 2004 final report on the incident found the cause of the crash to be “the in-flight separation of the vertical stabilizer as a result of the loads beyond ultimate design that were created by the first officer’s unnecessary and excessive rudder pedal inputs.” The vertical stabilizer is the “fin” or “tail” of the aircraft, with the side-to-side moving rudder that controls aircraft nose direction.
The “loads” referenced by the NTSB are aerodynamic stresses caused by the rapid movement of the rudder in an attempt to combat the aircraft movement caused by the wake of the nearby Boeing 747. The report, however, also pointed to “characteristics of the Airbus A300-600 rudder system design and elements of the American Airlines Advanced Aircraft Maneuvering Program,” as a contributing factor in the crash.
The Airbus A-300 involved in the November 2001 crash was built in France, subject to European regulatory oversight. In its new recommendation, issued on August 4, 2010, the NTSB encourages modification of European certification standards to ensure safe handling qualities “in the yaw axis throughout the flight envelope,” as well as instituting limits for the sensitivity of rudder pedals. The yaw axis refers to the axis about which the aircraft's nose and tail move side-to-side. The flight envelope refers to the outer boundaries of flight for which the aircraft is designed.
The NTSB recommendation involves limiting the rudder movement so that the aerodynamic stresses or “loads” do not exceed the design maximums. The NTSB also suggests review and modification, if necessary, of all existing models of the Airbus A300-600 and A310 aircraft.
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The NTSB’s recommendations come too late for the families who lost loved ones on Flight 587. A positive response by the EASA to the NTSB’s recommendations, together with training air transport pilots in proper rudder handling, would be welcome steps toward future airline safety.