What’s the story behind the second deadliest aviation accident in the U.S.? The crash that ended the lives of 265 people and 2 dogs. How did it happen? And could it have been prevented?
Shortly after the tragedy of 9/11 another one occurred, it was American Airlines Flight 587, the flight was scheduled to fly from John F. Kennedy International Airport to Las Americas International Airport in Santo Domingo. Unfortunately, the plane crashed as soon as it took off. There were fears that the cause was another terrorist attack because the crash happened only two months and one day after the September 11 catastrophe, but it was later discovered that it was just a human error.
Following Japan Airlines Boeing 747’s takeoff, Flight 587 was cleared for takeoff after receiving a warning from the tower about potential wake turbulence from a preceding B747. Listening back to the flight data recorder (FDR), investigators concluded that what led to the crash was exactly what the tower warned flight 587 about. The events leading to the incident started when the plane hit wake turbulence from the Japan Airlines flight in front of it, in retaliation to the turbulence, Molin, First Officer, quickly and aggressively alternated between moving the rudder from the right to the left.
The last recorded conversation between First officer Molin and Captain Edward showed the signs of panic that the crew was feeling seconds before the crash, helping investigators understand more of what had happened to cause this misfortune. The Flight Data Recorder captured a snap that the officials determined was the sound of the vertical stabilizer fin separating from the plane.
Six seconds later, First Officer yelled, “Holy s–t.”
And just four seconds later, a noise similar to a stall-warning chime sounded. “What the hell are we into?” Molin exclaimed. “We’re stuck in it.”
“Get out of it, get out of it!” the Captain shouted back.
Everything was clear after that. It was finally understood that Molin had used “unnecessary and aggressive” rudder controls as an attempt to stabilize the airplane from the turbulence. Yet, all it did was apply too much pressure causing the stabilizer to separate from the plane, the aircraft then pitched downwards after losing the stabilizer. Molin tried to control the A300 but wasn’t able to, it then went into a flat spin. The resulting aerodynamic loads led to the separation of both engines on the plane, the loss of the engines cut the power of the flight data recorder. The plane hit the ground at Newport Avenue and Beach 131st street resulting in the death of 251 passengers, 9 crew members, and one dog in the cargo hold, as well as 5 people and 1 dog on the ground.
Airbus ultimately blamed American Airlines, stating that it did not train its pilots correctly about the characteristics of the rudder. Aircraft tail fins are designed to withstand full rudder deflection in one direction when below maneuvering speed, but that doesn’t mean that they can stand sudden shifts in one direction to another, let alone multiple times at once. The NTSB informed that American Airline’s Advanced Aircraft Maneuvering Program (AAMP) would usually magnify the effects of wake turbulence on large aircraft, creating a simulation scenario whereby turbulence from a 747 creates a 90° roll to maximize the training challenge. Hence, pilots were being inadvertently trained to react more aggressively than was necessary, which is the exact scenario that played on Flight 587.
To think that this whole disaster could’ve been easily avoided if only the First Officer had stopped using the rudder before the vertical stabilizer detached, the plane would’ve simply leveled out, and this wouldn’t be the second deadliest disaster involving an Airbus A300. The only good thing that came out of this calamity was that American Airlines had made changes towards improving its pilot training program. Even though this won’t change history, it will at least prevent it from repeating itself.