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NTSB Briefing on Crash of American Airlines Flight 587

Aired February 8, 2002 - 11:16   ET


BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: Live to Washington, the NTSB briefing is now beginning. This relative to American Airlines flight 587. .


MARION BLAKEY, CHAIRWOMAN, NTSB: ... that can address any issues for future accidents.

Almost three months ago, 265 people lost their lives when American Airlines flight 587 crashed into the neighborhood of Bell Harbor, New York.

In the course of the investigation, we have looked at all the factors involved, because it was the second deadliest crash in U.S. history. Even if it were a small crash, of course, we would do the same. But in this case, we realize the devastation that this accident has caused.

As many of you know, the vertical stabilizer sheered off the airliner when the plane had reached altitude of approximately 240 -- 2,400 feet, and approximately traveling at 255 knots. There was also a wind speed of about 8 knots.

Let me briefly tell you where we are in the investigation, because we're in the middle of very disciplined, thorough and in a process that does take time. We are using facilities down at National's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia to look at the issue of the vertical stabilizer, the question of what the composite materials in that fin may pose to us in terms of clues on this accident. And I will return to that in a few minutes.

Our investigators have traveled to Germany, and to France to look at the manufacturing process, and to explore the questions how the aircraft was certified, and, in fact, what we can learn from the flight data -- both from the flight data recorder itself and from the characteristics that were known by the manufacturer of this aircraft in terms of its flight characteristics. We also sent investigators out to Oklahoma and to Arizona, this was with an eye to engines the and the auxiliary power unit. We did complete teardown, looked at the maintenance records while we were there, and at the flight records of the pilots. We are examining training practices. We are looking at questions of doing ground tests, so we can learn more about the handling characteristics of the Airbus flight controls, and we are analyzing data on an ongoing basis from the flight data and the cockpit voice recorder.

Many of you know, I think, that we also have the access now to a video that was recovered from security cameras. These were cameras that were placed on the Marine Parkway Bridge up there near queens, and unfortunately, so far, they are giving us only limits information, because the image is not a very good one. But we are going to continue to work with that also.

I think it's important for you and for the traveling public to note that the investigation is not just limited, also, to the accident aircraft itself. We're looking at questions of other incidents that may come up, other incidents where there is a question about the vertical stabilizer on A300 or 600s, or perhaps some related information.

For example, we have reports from pilots where they have experienced rudder oscillations on the A300/600, and we have, therefore, in several cases, removed yaw dampers to examine more closely as well as look at flight data recorders. In addition, last week, FedEx contacted us. There we had a case where we had a routine maintenance check going on, and they discovered that there was in fact some damage to the rudder itself. And we took it off the aircraft to look at it more carefully. We also looked at, again, the flight data recorder information to look at what the previous circumstances were of flight on that FedEx aircraft.

In that case, also, some of you may know that we were told at that point that there may have been a problem with the rudder actuator rod. We didn't find out there was damage there, so we have set that issue aside.

The key thing here is not to go through every single incident. It is really to make you all aware of the facts that we are getting information on a regular basis from the FAA, from the manufacturers, from the airliners, and we are looking at every one with an eye to what we may learn about this accident itself.

Now let's turn to the safety issue at hand, because that really is the reason we ask you to come today for this briefing. During the course of any investigation, the NTSB will issue interim safety recommendations wherever we find that there's something that needs immediate attention. If there's a safety issue that is occasioned by the work we're doing, whether or not it may relate at the end to the probable cause of the accident, whether, in fact, may turnout to be something that really does pertain in the end to the investigation, we still feel when we discover something that causes concern in terms of public safety, we immediately need to address the issue. And that's what we are doing today.

Today we are issuing two interim safety recommendations, where we have written to the Federal Aviation Administration, a letter to Jane Garvey, the administrator, urging her agency to take action. In this case, our letter described those findings in some details, and we will present you with a copy of that letter after the briefing is over, where you can look at technical specifics there. But we will also be making sure that all of those involved on this are well aware of the circumstances, and by that, I mean the manufacturers, the airlines themselves, because essentially, here's what we have found as a concern. It's a safety concern that has to do with rudder inputs. We have calculated that certain rudder inputs by pilots made during certain stages of a flight can cause catastrophic failure of an airline's vertical stabilizer. The concern is not limited to A300/600s. It's not even limited just to just Airbuses. In fact, the concern, what we will talk about here is something of a concern industrywide.

Based on interviews with the pilot community, what we've learned is that appears that many pilots have not been made aware that full rudder inputs, as I say, under certain conditions can jeopardy the integrity of the vertical fin, and that in some airliner models, rudder deflections can be achieved with relatively small pedal movements and comparatively light forces, and by this, what I mean is that in some aircraft, what you find is that pedal movements of inch and a half, no more, 30 pounds of pressure, which is really not much, can achieve very significant movement of the rudder, and therefore, really do cause concern.

We are asking the FAA, therefore, to require pilot training programs that describe the certification requirements of these aircraft, and explain the consequences of rudder use in circumstances that we identify. Especially identifying that light pedal forces can achieve maximum pedal deflections under certain conditions of high speed.

As you may know, throughout this investigation, we have had the full cooperation and investigative force of our French counterpart BEA. They have worked very closely with us, and not only does the BEA agree with the importance of the recommendations that we are issuing today. But they will mail our recommendations in the letter they issue to the equivalent of FAA in France, the DGAC.

It's important to note that we are in the early stages of this investigation. I can't say that enough. And, therefore, that we've not come to any conclusion about the cause of the crash of 587. We know that there was series of reversing rudder movements leading up to the failure of the plane's vertical stabilizer. That said, we do not know if those rudder movement where caused by the stabilizer's failure, or if the rudder movements were perhaps caused by a mechanical problem that was separate from that, or whether those movement caused by the pilot.

Let me stress here, because it is very important that we all clearly understand that this recommendation is about education and training; it is not about pilot error. Pilot education and training, I think we all understand at this point, are even more critical following the events of September 11th. Therefore, at this point, we are talking about issues of security here as well.

Before September 11th, pilots were required to essentially comply with terrorist demands. After September 11th, as you know, pilots now may need to resort to much more aggressive and extreme aircraft maneuvers to disable terrorist. Such evasive maneuvers can be created by a plane's rudder.

Today's recommendation are not intended to discourage pilots in any way from doing what's necessary. What we do want them to have awareness of is what rudder inputs can do and take that into account as they determine what they need to do in extreme circumstances.

To address any concern about -- from the flying public, let me also point this out: We are not aware of any prior incidents in which rudder inputs of the type I'm talking about resulted in the separation of a plane's tail assembly, hasn't happened to our knowledge.

However, we do know now that under a series of very specific circumstances, it can happen, and that's why with are addressing this today. Our purpose is not to create unnecessary concern. It's real concern is to alert the FAA, the manufacturers, the pilot community, the airlines, to the need to address this problem. And immediate awareness is one of the reasons why it's important that members of the news media also get this out.

In summary, in terms of the investigation itself, we are examining many issues, the adequacy of certification, the issue of structural requirement of the aircraft, the operational status of the rudder system at the time of the accident. The adequacy of pilot training, possible role of pilots. All those things are on the table. NTSB investigators, as I mentioned earlier, are looking at issue that I know real interest to many of you, and that's the issue of composite materials, and their use in more and more, their use in aircraft.

In fact, as I mentioned, we shipped the vertical stabilizer and the rudder down to Langley. NASA is working with us very closely, with a series of tests, where we have already begun taking samples from the tail, not at the point where the fracture occurred, but elsewhere, to look at both questions of fatigue, composition manufacture, and look at questions of testing, and what that can tell us for the long run in terms of adequate oversight and maintenance.

Linda Black, who was with me in the New York at the time of the crash and vice chairman Carmoney (ph) and I are going on Monday to hold discussion with our group at NASA about what we learning from the series of investigation, that analysis we've been doing down there. So as we say, we've been trying to get back with you when we have more information.

Now I've asked Tom Haueter to go over with you a few of the more technical aspects of this recommendation. I also will tell you that in addition to having the letter in the back of the room, we also have it available on our Web site, -- Tom.

TOM HAUTER, NTSB: Thank you.


As chairman Blakey just mentioned, we have learned that many pilot training programs do not inform pilots about the structural certification requirements for the rudder and vertical stabilizer in transport category aircraft. Therefore, most pilots are not aware of these requirements.

We are recommending to the FAA to require manufacturer and operators of transport category airplanes to establish intimate pilot training programs that explain the pilot structural certification requirements for the rudder and vertical stabilizer in transport category airplanes, explain that a full or nearly full rudder deflection in one direction...

HEMMER: All right, we are going to break away from this briefing here in Washington, pretty much have the news right now. Again, the NTSB right now still investigating flight 587, but in the near-term, they say, they are recommending the pilots across the country, a concern they say that is industrywide, that is too much rudder input, too much pressure on the rudder at certain times, may prove to be quite dangerous when flying.

They also insist, though, that, they do not know if this rudder was responsible for the American Airlines flight 587. Again, this is the plane that went down, bound for the Dominican Republic back on the 12th of November, when down in the queens section of New York City, the Rockaway section of the Queens. All passengers and crew onboard died in that. And certainly, there area lot of questions also about the rudder, and the tailfin and this stabilizer itself, and we will continue to track that from Washington.




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