|Accident Date||November 12, 2001|
|Summary||Vertical stabilizer failure due to pilot error as a result of unnecessary rudder inputs|
|Site||Belle Harbor, Queens, New York City, New York, United States|
|Aircraft type||Airbus A300B4-605R|
|Flight origin||John F. Kennedy International Airport, New York City, United States|
|Destination||Las Américas International Airport, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic|
|Fatalities||265 (260 onboard and 5 on the ground)|
|Injuries||1 (on the ground)|
Time is UTC
American Airlines Flight 587 was a regularly scheduled international passenger flight from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport to Las Américas International Airport in Santo Domingo, capital of the Dominican Republic. On November 12, 2001, the Airbus A300B4-605R flying the route crashed shortly after takeoff into the Belle Harbor neighborhood of Queens, a borough of New York City. All 260 people aboard the plane (251 passengers and nine crew members) were killed, along with five people on the ground. It was the second-deadliest aviation accident involving an Airbus A300 (after Iran Air Flight 655), and the second-deadliest aviation accident to occur on U.S. soil (after American Airlines Flight 191).
The location of the accident and the fact that it took place two months and one day after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in Manhattan initially spawned fears of another terrorist attack. Terrorism was officially ruled out as the cause by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which instead attributed the disaster to the first officer’s overuse of rudder controls in response to wake turbulence, or jet wash, from a Japan Airlines Boeing 747-400 that took off minutes before it. According to the NTSB, the aggressive use of the rudder controls by the co-pilot caused the vertical stabilizer to snap off the plane, along with the plane’s two engines separating from intense force before impact.
The accident aircraft, registration N14053,was an Airbus A300B4-605R delivered in 1988 with a seating configuration for 251 passengers and nine crew and powered by two General Electric CF6-80C2A5 engines. On-board were two flight crew members, Captain Ed States (42) and First Officer Sten Molin (34); seven cabin crew members; and 251 passengers. The aircraft taxied to Runway 31L behind a Japan Airlines Boeing 747-400 preparing for takeoff. As the JAL flight took off and began to climb, the tower controller cautioned the Flight 587 pilots about potential wake turbulence from the 747.
At 1413:28, the A300 was cleared for takeoff, leaving the runway at 1414:29, about 1 minute and 40 seconds after the JAL flight. From takeoff, the plane climbed to an altitude of 500 feet above mean sea level (msl) and then entered a climbing left turn to a heading of 220°. At 1415:00, the pilot made initial contact with the departure controller, informing him that the airplane was at 1,300 feet and climbing to 5,000 feet. The departure controller instructed the aircraft to climb to and maintain 13,000 feet. Data from the flight data recorder (FDR) showed that the events leading into the crash began at 1415:36, when the aircraft hit wake turbulence from the JAL flight just in front of it. In response to the turbulence, the first officer alternated between moving the rudder from the left to the right and back again in quick succession for at least 20 seconds, until 1415:56, when the stress caused the lugs that attached the vertical stabilizer and rudder to fail. The stabilizer separated from the aircraft and fell into Jamaica Bay, about one mile north of the main wreckage site. Eight seconds later, the stall warning sounded on the cockpit voice recorder.
At the moment the stabilizer separated from the aircraft, the plane pitched downwards, headed straight for Belle Harbor. As the pilots struggled to control the aircraft, it went into a flat spin. The resulting aerodynamic loads sheared both engines from the aircraft seconds before impact. The engines landed several blocks north and east of the main wreckage site. The loss of engines cut power to the FDR at 1416:00, while the CVR (cockpit voice recorder), utilizing a battery backup, cut off at 1416:15, moments before impact with the ground. The main impact location was the intersection of Newport Avenue and Beach 131st Street.
Initial terrorism concerns
Due to the crash occurring two months and one day after the September 11 attacks in New York, several major buildings including the Empire State Building and the United Nations Headquarters were evacuated. In the months after the crash, rumors circulated that the plane had been destroyed in a terrorist plot, with a shoe bomb similar to the one found on Richard Reid. In May 2002, a Kuwaiti national named Mohammed Jabarah agreed to cooperate with investigators as part of a plea bargain. Among the details Jabarah gave authorities was a claim made to Jabarah by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s lieutenant, who told Jabarah that Reid and Abderraouf Jdey had both been enlisted by the al-Qaeda chief to carry out identical shoe-bombing plots as part of a second wave of attacks against the United States. According to this lieutenant, Jdey’s bomb had successfully blown up Flight 587, while Reid’s attempt had been foiled.
In May 2002 a Canadian government memo was written which repeated the claims suggesting that Jdey had a role in the crash, while conceding that the reliability of the source of that information — Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s lieutenant — was unknown. According to information contained in the memo, Jdey — a naturalized Canadian citizen — was to use his own Canadian passport to board the flight. While American Airlines’ passenger manifest did indicate citizens boarding with passports from the United States, the Dominican Republic, Taiwan, France, Haiti and Israel, no passengers boarded using a Canadian passport. According to NTSB spokesman Ted Lopatkiewicz, the weight of the memo’s veracity begins to lessen with no evidence of a terrorist traveling on board being found, continues to lessen upon evidence that the aircraft was brought down after a piece of the empennage, the vertical fin, came off, and ultimately evaporates with the lack of indication of any kind of event in the cabin.
The A300-600 took off immediately after a Japan Airlines Boeing 747-400 on the same runway. It flew into the larger jet’s wake, an area of turbulent air. The first officer attempted to stabilize the aircraft with alternating aggressive rudder inputs. The force of the air flowing against the moving rudder stressed the aircraft’s vertical stabilizer, and eventually snapped it off entirely, causing the aircraft to lose control and crash. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) concluded that the enormous stress on the vertical stabilizer was due to the first officer’s unnecessary and excessive rudder inputs, and not the wake turbulence caused by the 747. The NTSB further stated “if the first officer had stopped making additional inputs, the aircraft would have stabilized”.Contributing to these rudder pedal inputs were characteristics of the Airbus A300-600 sensitive rudder system design and elements of the American Airlines Advanced Aircraft Maneuvering Training Program (AAMP).
The manner in which the vertical stabilizer separated concerned investigators. The vertical stabilizer is connected to the fuselage with six attaching points. Each point has two sets of attachment lugs, one made of composite material, another of aluminium, all connected by a titanium bolt; damage analysis showed that the bolts and aluminium lugs were intact, but not the composite lugs. This, coupled with two events earlier in the life of the aircraft, namely delamination in part of the vertical stabilizer prior to its delivery from Airbus’s Toulouse factory, and an encounter with heavy turbulence in 1994, caused investigators to examine the use of composites. The possibility that the composite materials might not be as strong as previously supposed was a cause of concern because they are used in other areas of the plane, including the engine mounting and the wings. Tests carried out on the vertical stabilizers from the accident aircraft, and from another similar aircraft, found that the strength of the composite material had not been compromised, and the NTSB concluded that the material had failed because it had been stressed beyond its design limit.
The crash was witnessed by hundreds of people, 349 of whom gave accounts of what they saw to the NTSB. About half (52%) reported a fire or explosion before the plane hit the ground. Others stated that they saw a wing detach from the aircraft, when in fact it was the vertical stabilizer. Some witnesses reported seeing one of the engines burst into flames and break off the plane, and others reported hearing a loud sound like a sonic boom. After the crash, Floyd Bennett Field’s empty hangars were used as a makeshift morgue for the identification of crash victims.
According to the official accident report, the first officer repeatedly moved the rudder from fully left to fully right. This led to increasing sideslip angles. The resulting hazardous sideslip angle led to extremely high aerodynamic loads that resulted in separation of the vertical stabilizer. If the first officer had stopped moving the rudder at any time before the vertical stabilizer failed, the airplane would have levelled out on its own, and the accident would have been avoided. The airplane performance study indicated that when the vertical stabilizer separation began, the aerodynamic loads were about two times the loads defined by the design envelope. It can be determined that the vertical stabilizer’s structural performance was consistent with design specifications and exceeded certification requirements.
Contributing factors include the following: first, the first officer’s predisposition to overreact to wake turbulence; second, the training provided by American Airlines that could have encouraged pilots to use the rudder this aggressively; third, the first officer likely not understanding an airplane’s response to full rudder at high airspeeds or the mechanism by which the rudder rolls a transport-category airplane; finally, light rudder pedal forces and small pedal displacement of the A300-600 rudder pedal system increased the airplane’s susceptibility to a rudder misuse.
Most aircraft require increased pressure on the rudder pedals to achieve the same amount of rudder control at a higher speed. The Airbus A300 and later Airbus A310 do not operate on a fly-by-wire flight control system, but instead use conventional mechanical flight controls. The NTSB asserted that the A300-600 rudder control system was vulnerable to unnecessarily excessive rudder inputs. The Allied Pilots Association, in its submission to the NTSB, argued that the unusual sensitivity of the rudder mechanism amounted to a design flaw which Airbus should have communicated to the airline. The main rationale for their position came from a 1997 report that referenced 10 incidents in which A300 tail fins had been stressed beyond their design limitation.
Airbus charged that the crash was mostly American Airlines’ fault arguing that the airline did not train its pilots properly about the characteristics of the rudder. Aircraft tail fins are designed to withstand full rudder deflection in one direction when below maneuvering speed, but this does not guarantee that they can withstand an abrupt shift in rudder from one direction to the other. The NTSB indicated that American Airlines’ Advanced Aircraft Maneuvering Program (AAMP) tended to exaggerate the effects of wake turbulence on large aircraft. Therefore, pilots were being trained to react more aggressively than was necessary. According to author Amy Fraher, this led to concerns of whether it was appropriate for the AAMP to be placing such importance on the role of flight simulators in teaching airplane upset recovery at all. Fraher states that the key to understanding the crash of Flight 587 ultimately lay in how the accident pilots [expectations about aircraft performance] were erroneously established through clumsy flight simulator training in American’s AAMP.
From the NTSB report of the accident:
The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of this accident was 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. Contributing to these rudder pedal inputs were characteristics of the Airbus A300-600 rudder system design and elements of the American Airlines Advanced Aircraft Maneuvering Program (AAMP).
Since the NTSB’s report, American Airlines has modified its pilot training program.
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All 260 people aboard the plane (251 passengers and the crew of nine) died, as well as one dog carried in the cargo hold. Five bystanders and one dog on the ground were also killed.
Relatives gathered at Las Américas International Airport. The airport created a private area for relatives wishing to receive news about Flight 587. Some relatives arrived at the airport to meet passengers, unaware that the flight had crashed. The authorities at John F. Kennedy International Airport used the JFK Ramada Plaza to house relatives and friends of the victims of the crash. Because of its role in housing friends and relatives of several plane crashes, the hotel became known as the Heartbreak Hotel. Due to the fact that many families were ethnic Dominicans, the hotel prepared Dominican cuisine for them.The family crisis center later moved to the Javits Center in Manhattan.
One of the passengers killed on the flight was Hilda Yolanda Mayol, a 26-year-old American woman on her way to vacation in her native Dominican Republic. Two months earlier, on 9/11, Mayol was working at a restaurant on the ground floor of the World Trade Center and escaped before the tower collapsed. Early on, some reports erroneously stated that Dominican native and then Yankees second baseman Alfonso Soriano had been aboard Flight 587. The flight was regularly used by Major League Baseball players and scouts heading to the Dominican Republic, but it turned out that Soriano was booked for a flight a few days later; a Dominican teammate of Soriano, utility infielder Enrique Wilson, was originally booked on the flight, but after the Yankees’ defeat in the World Series, he had decided to return home a few days earlier.
The crash did not affect bookings for the JFK-Santo Domingo route. Dominicans continued to book travel on the flights. American Airlines announced that it would end services between JFK and Santo Domingo on April 1, 2013.
Courtesy of Wikipedia.org