- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 26, 2004


American Airlines Flight 587 lost its tail and plummeted into a New York City neighborhood in November 2001, killing 265 persons, because the co-pilot improperly used the rudder to try to steady the plane, federal safety investigators ruled yesterday.

The National Transportation Safety Board also said a poorly designed rudder system on the Airbus A300-600 and inadequate pilot training by American were contributing factors.

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 crash occurred 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, Mr. Molin tried again and again. His actions placed enormous stress on the tail.

Within seconds, the tail broke off and the plane crashed.

NTSB investigator Robert Benzon said Mr. Molin’s use of the rudder was “unnecessary and aggressive.” He said the only time pilots should use the rudder is when they are 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.

The crash came just two months after the September 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 airline that uses the A300-600. Airbus asserted 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 is 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 Airlines issued an angry statement after hearing the decision. It said Airbus failed to share information from previous incidents involving rudder systems on that model of plane.

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