Crash Investigators Look at Causes

16 November 2001

Crash investigators are analyzing the makeup of the tail of American Airlines Flight 587 and the possibility that turbulence from another jet caused the airliner to break apart moments after takeoff, killing 265 people.

The use of composite materials in the Airbus A300's tail and wake turbulence from a Boeing 747 are considered to be principal factors in the crash, investigators said. All 260 people on board died Monday when Flight 587 crashed in a Queens neighborhood three minutes after takeoff from Kennedy International. Five people on the ground were killed. The plane's tail assembly sheared away and its twin engines fell off as the jet went down. The 27-foot tail assembly was pulled out of Jamaica Bay and taken to a nearby collection center for study. Without the tail, the jetliner would have suffered a loss of stability and turning control.

``This would be the most catastrophic in-flight disaster we've ever had. We've never had a modern civilian jetliner come apart in flight. It is so unbelievably catastrophic what happened,'' former Transportation Department inspector general Mary Schiavo said. American Airlines, in the wake of the tragedy, changed the flight number from 587 to 619. The flight from Kennedy to the Dominican Republic was so well known among Dominicans that it was referenced in a popular song, ``El Avion (The Plane).''

The airline is doing sample inspections of its remaining 34 Airbus A300s to ensure there are no problems with other tail assemblies, National Transportation Safety Board chairwoman Marion Blakey said. Composite materials started being used for major structural parts in commercial jetliners in the late 1970s and early '80s, the NTSB's George Black Jr. said. ``They've been out there for a while, and we haven't had any difficulties in this area, but then we also haven't lost any tails, not in this particular sort of event,'' Black said. An expert in composite materials from the Federal Aviation Administration was joining investigators to study the plane's tail assembly -- an analysis that could lead to corrective measures or inspections. Safety records show the same plane was severely shaken when it hit air turbulence at cruising altitude seven years ago in an episode that injured 47 people. Aviation consultant Jim McKenna said the plane could have been weakened by the earlier encounter.

Investigators were also considering whether a Japan Air Lines Boeing 747 contributed to the crash by creating wake turbulence, the swirl of air behind a plane that can endanger aircraft flying too close behind or below. The phenomenon has been blamed for at least one deadly crash in the past. Standard protocol says there should be at least two minutes between takeoffs. However, the NTSB's Blakey said it appeared there was just 1 minute and 45 seconds between Flight 587 and the jumbo jet that left ahead of it from the same runway. She said it appears air traffic controllers followed proper procedure, and that tower clearances for the two takeoffs came 2 minutes and 20 seconds apart. But investigators believe there was a delay from the time Japan Air Lines got clearance to the time it actually took off.

The cockpit voice recorder from Flight 587's final minutes revealed two rattling noises and indicated the pilots mentioned the wake of another plane before their aircraft went down. Walter Sheriff, a retired American Airlines captain who studies the phenomenon, said the wake turbulence from the four-engine 747 could have struck the Airbus with ``tornado-like lateral force.''

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