American Airlines Flight 587 lost its tail and plummeted into a New York neighborhood in November 2001, killing 265 people, because the co-pilot improperly used the rudder to try to steady the plane, federal safety investigators ruled Tuesday.
The National Transportation Safety Board, or NTSB, also said an overly sensitive rudder system on the Airbus A300-600 and inadequate pilot training by American were contributing factors.
NTSB Vice Chairman Mark Rosenker, who successfully urged the board to place the Airbus’s rudder design before American’s training as a probable cause, said the Airbus A300-600 was an “extremely safe” aircraft.
“I believe we can make some changes to this aircraft to make it even safer,” Rosenker said.
Board member Debbie Hersman said other American pilots had received the same training but did not make the same mistake the co-pilot on Flight 587 did.
The decision prompted angry reaction from Airbus Industrie, which manufactured the plane, and American, which trained the co-pilot. Each said the other was more to blame.
The safety board recommended that the Federal Aviation Administration set new standards to make sure pilots could safely handle planes when they veered to the side and to study whether the A300-600 could be redesigned to limit the danger of overusing the rudder. That recommendation also applied to the Airbus A310, which domestic passenger airlines do not use.
The NTSB also recommended that the FAA standardize and upgrade the way pilots are trained to recover from upsets. In July, it called on the FAA to require video cameras in cockpits so accident investigators would have better information on what causes plane crashes.
Repeated shifts of rudder
The crash occurred Nov. 12, 2001, shortly after the jet bound for the Dominican Republic took off from John F. Kennedy International Airport. The plane encountered turbulence caused by a Boeing 747 that took off just ahead of it.
According to investigators, co-pilot Sten Molin tried to steady the aircraft using pedals that control the rudder, a large flap on a plane’s tail. When his initial movement failed, Molin tried again and again. His actions placed enormous stress on the tail. Within seconds, the tail broke off and the plane crashed.
The NTSB staff concluded that his use of the rudder was “unnecessary and aggressive.”
NTSB investigator David Ivie said the only time pilots should use the rudder was when they were landing or taking off in a crosswind, which was not the case for Flight 587.
“The rest of the time, your feet should be on the floor,” he said.
Airline, Airbus dispute blame
The crash came just two months after the Sept. 11 attacks, and initial fears were that terrorists had struck again. But investigators quickly focused on the tail, prompting an intense behind-the-scenes fight between Airbus and American.
American is the only U.S. commercial passenger airline that uses the A300-600, with 34 in service. FedEx and UPS also use that model aircraft. Airbus claimed that the airline failed to properly train its pilots to fly the jet, while American accused Airbus of failing to disclose problems with the rudder system.
The NTSB was divided 3-2 on which factor was the larger contributing cause of the accident, with the majority citing the rudder system as being overly sensitive to pilot actions.
American issued an angry statement following the decision. It said Airbus failed to share information from previous incidents involving rudder systems on that model of plane.
“How is safety served, how is future aviation safety enhanced, by blaming the pilot who had no way of knowing the design sensitivities of that airplane because Airbus, who did know, never told safety investigators, never told operators and never told pilots?” the statement said.
“If Airbus had shared what it knew from three prior incidents and accidents, the 587 tragedy would have been prevented.”
Airbus, in a statement, said it was surprised by the safety board’s decision because the sensitivity of the rudder had nothing to do with the accident because the co-pilot had applied tremendous pressure to the rudder pedals.
Airbus spokesman Clay McConnell said American’s training system for pilots failed to account for information it provided about the rudder system.
“This was a pilot acting on training he received,” he said. “We made a good-faith effort to share what we knew, what was relevant about any previous incidents.”