The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has released information from the investigation into the circumstances of the second-worst airline disaster in U.S. history that sheds new light onto its causes. American Airlines Flight 587 crashed into a residential suburb of New York City shortly after takeoff from John F. Kennedy Intl. Airport on November 12, 2001. Flight 587 was operated on an Airbus A300-605R, a variant of the A300-600 series aircraft, the second most popular model of commercial aircraft behind Boeing’s 757. According to the NTSB, a design flaw in the rudder of Airbus A300-600 series aircraft makes the rudder pedals extremely sensitive at high speeds. Pilots who are unaware of this sensitivity and apply too much force can unintentionally cause the rudder panel on the jet’s tail to rock violently back and forth, which, according to the NTSB’s analysis, can create enough force to break a jet apart midair. A rudder is a movable panel on the fin that rises from the tail of a jet, and it is designed to keep a jet pointed straight in a cross wind or while flying on one engine.
The NTSB concluded that the first officer of Flight 587, in response to an encounter with wake turbulence, made abrupt movements of the rudder that caused it to detach from the tail of the jet while in flight. The plane crashed into a Bellvue, New York neighborhood, killing all 260 people aboard and 5 people on the ground.
This release of information, contained in an August 4, 2010 letter from the NTSB to the Executive Director of the European Aviation Safety Agency, also reveals that the rudder design flaw may exist on other Airbus models, including the Airbus 319. In 2008, Toronto-Bound Air Canada Flight 190, an Airbus 319, was diverted to Calgary and landed safely after experiencing a severe, mid-air upset that was thought at the time to be caused by heavy turbulence. A subsequent investigation of the flight data and an inspection of the tail’s vertical stabilizer by Canadian air safety officials revealed that the mid-flight disturbance was caused not by turbulence, but by the flight crew’s “series of alternating rudder pedal inputs” after flying into wake turbulence caused by a passing 747.
The NTSB letter urged that European regulators, who are ultimately responsible for certifying the safety of Airbus jets, consider requiring modifications to the A320 and any other Airbus aircraft that could have the same design flaw.