Flight 587 Probe Focuses on Tail

02 November 2002

The investigation into the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 in New York last year involves many complex technical questions. The National Transportation Safety Board's four-day public hearing on the accident began on Tuesday.

NTSB spokesman Ted Lopatkiewicz said the agency probably won't decide the probable cause of the crash until next year. It was the first crash of an Airbus aircraft in North America. Investigators have ruled out terrorism as a cause, as well as engine failure, fire and contact with birds. The plane crashed 103 seconds after taking off for the Dominican Republic from John F. Kennedy International Airport. The jet twice ran into the wake of a Boeing 747 five miles ahead of it, according to the NTSB.

The rudder began to swing back and forth violently. Seven seconds later, the tail fin, which was made of a nonmetallic composite, started to break off. The plane plunged into a residential neighborhood. It was the first time the NTSB was aware of the in-flight failure of an aircraft's major structural component made of composite materials. Investigators have learned since the accident that sharp rudder actions can put sufficient stress on the tail fin to cause it to snap off.

In addition, the NTSB found that very slight pressure on the rudder pedal can cause severe rudder movements when flying at high speeds, which pilots may not have been aware of. Rudders help to keep a plane on course during landing or taking off in crosswinds and in case of engine failure; they're rarely used at higher speeds in flight.

The safety board urged the Federal Aviation Administration in February to make sure pilots are trained that moving the rudder back and forth may be dangerous even at low speeds previously thought to have been safe. The FAA agreed to the recommendation. Carol Carmody, the safety board's acting chairwoman, said investigators are focusing on what caused the rudder's movements and why the tail sheared off.

The board will try to determine:

Should the aircraft's rudder be redesigned?
Were the rudder movements caused by overreaction from the pilot to the turbulence?
What are the psychological and physical effects of wake turbulence on pilots and on planes?
What role did the tail's nonmetallic composition play in the accident?

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