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Last Updated: Wednesday, 7 May, 2003, 16:03 GMT 17:03 UK
Flight 587: The lost tail

BBC Horizon's Natalie Burke reports on the investigation into the crash of Flight 587, which crashed into the neighbourhood of Queens just one minute and 45 seconds after taking off from New York's JFK airport.

All 260 passengers and crew on board the Airbus A300 and five residents on the ground were killed - in an accident that has revealed disturbing truths about the aircraft industry.

Tail, AP
The loads went beyond the design limits

To many still reeling from the World Trade Center attacks, the downing of American Airlines Flight 587 to the Dominican Republic seemed to be another terrorist atrocity.

Within hours of the crash, however, the National Transportation Safety Board, responsible for investigating all US air crashes, was able to release a statement confirming the crash was an accident.

As the investigators scoured the area for wreckage, they found - on its own and well away from the main crash site - the entire tail fin of the aircraft.

It was immediately apparent that before crashing the tail had ripped away cleanly from the fuselage.

And when the "black box" was recovered, there was an even bigger surprise.

The data revealed the plane had been flying normally until a sequence of violent movements, compressed into only seven seconds, culminated with the tail breaking off.

Wake turbulence

This astonished everyone, not least the pilots who flew this model of plane.

As Captain Delvin Young, American Airlines A300 training manager, said: "No pilot prior to this 587 accident thought that in seven seconds you could move the controls and tear the tail of an airplane apart."

Indeed an entire tail had not ripped off an aircraft in the 70-year history of commercial aviation.

You want to have the feeling that that you're comfortable with the aircraft that you're flying, and for some time I did not have that feeling
American Airlines Captain Robert Tamburini

What caused the tail to fail has been the focus of one of the most complex crash investigations.

A closer look at the data for Flight 587 revealed the plane had flown into the wake turbulence of the jet that had taken off immediately in front from the same runway.

Wake turbulence - powerful "tornadoes" of air generated from the wingtips of aircraft - is an everyday occurrence and often produces a rolling movement of the plane.

When this happens, pilots are trained as standard procedure to use the wing ailerons to stabilise the aircraft.

Pilot spotlight

But the pilot flying Flight 587 that day, First Officer Sten Molin, attempted to stabilise the plane using not only the wing ailerons but also the rudder, a powerful control designed to keep the plane on an even heading and only used by most pilots on take-off or landing.

In fact Molin moved the rudder from side to side five times in succession.

Memorial, BBC
The families are left with their memories

This rudder motion - known as a rudder reversal - imposed huge loads on the tail, and ultimately caused it to rip apart from the main body of the plane.

At first, a weakness in the construction of the tail was the main suspect as the cause of the crash. The tail was built from composite fibres, not the traditional aluminium, and it was feared that the bonding between the fibres had failed.

But exhaustive tests showed that in fact the tail had performed up to its design limits. The forces put on the tail as a result of the pilot's actions were just too great. And that put the investigation's spotlight on the pilot.

First Officer Molin's apparent reaction to the wake vortex has sparked a corporate wrangle between the aircraft manufacturer Airbus and the world's largest airline, American Airlines, with each trying to shift the blame and costs for the tragic loss of 265 lives.

Similar problem

Whilst Airbus claim that American Airlines have trained their pilots to react incorrectly to wake turbulence, American Airlines insist that Airbus have withheld vital information regarding the structural specifications and limitations of their planes - information that could possibly have prevented the crash of Flight 587.

The crash has raised huge concerns for the pilot community itself.

"You want to have the feeling that that you're comfortable with the aircraft that you're flying, and for some time I did not have that feeling," says senior American Airlines Captain Robert Tamburini, who has since transferred to fly Boeings.

More worrying for the pilots is information released during the investigation revealing that this is not the first time the wrong use of a rudder has put a plane in danger.

An earlier incident involving another Airbus A300 revealed that there had been a similar overuse of the rudder.

Potential danger

Although this plane did not crash, the flight data showed the loads on the tail had also gone well beyond its design limits.

The investigation into the crash of Flight 587 could take months yet to complete. But some implications of the disaster are already evident.

Fire, AP
The Rockaway area of Queens viewed shortly after the crash

Warnings issued as a result of the tragedy have been directed at the entire industry, not just at specific airlines or manufacturers.

It is possible that for years pilots have been unaware of the potential danger of certain aircraft manoeuvres, and have not been given adequate knowledge to fly planes safely.

But most disturbing of all is the fact that we know this only because 265 people died.

Horizon - The Crash Of Flight 587 is broadcast on BBC Two, Thursday, 8 May, 2003, at 2100 BST

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