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Airbus A-300 Defects: FAA Delay in Ordering Inspection and American Airlines Flight 587 November 12, 2001

On October 29, 2001 the Federal Aviation Authority issued an airworthiness directive ["AD"] to owners and operators of Airbus A-300 aircraft to inspect the aircraft's rudder and tail components, which became effective Tuesday November 13, the day following the crash of American Airlines flight 587 in Rockway, New York.

The FAA's history of rule-making after the crash and failure to secure cockpits from terrorists is reported in a series of articles on this site: Protecting Government From Liability: The FAA's Approach to Flight Safety [Rulemaking After The Aircrash], Airline Responsibility for the World Trade Center Deaths and U.S. Plan for Compensation for World Trade Center Deaths: Unfair to Survivors and Surviving Families.

Flight 587 was enroute to the Dominican Republic from JFK, having departed minutes before the Airbus A-300 crashed. The crash was caused by the tail structure separating from the fuselage of the Airbus A-300. The tail was recovered from Jamaica Bay several miles from the New York City suburb crash site. The 13 year-old aircraft had began passenger service in 1988 and was subject to the prophetic AD.

The AD was prompted by French aviation authorities which had reported similar problems in two Airbus A-300s which had suffered tail corrosion that could result in failures. The FAA warned that "since an unsafe condition has been identified that is likely to exist or develop on other airplanes of the same type design . . . this AD is being issued to prevent failure of both spring boxes of the variable lever arm due to corrosion damage, which could result in jammed rudder pedals, loss of rudder control, and consequent reduced controllability of the airplane."

On November 15, 2001 the National Transportation Safety Board, in much stronger language, mandated the inspection of the rudder and rear stabilizer, also known as the empennage, on Airbus A-300s and warned of the "loss of the vertical stabilizer and/or rudder and consequent loss of control of the airplane" and requires a detailed inspection of the hinges, fittings, control arms, and actuators that comprise the rudder system.

It is believed that Flight 587 encountered wake turbulence from a 747 that exacerbated the Airbus A-300's latent tail assembly defect. Wake turbulence cannot cause, by itself, the failure of the empennage. The tail assembly historically has been the safest location in which to survive a crash and is designed to take extreme loads because the elevators [rear wing] control the pitch of an aircraft in take-off, landing and cruise modes.

The flight-data recorder on Flight 587 reports the aircraft began a series of repeated turns from right to left, which is consistent with a failure of the rudder, before total failure when the plane dropped its left wing, rolled and began a dive to the left, despite the attempts of the pilot to correct by executing a right turn and pulling up on the nose. Maintaining altitude is a function of airspeed and tail surface control. At this point the aircraft's rear wing elevators were no longer working and the plane was no longer flying, which is consistent with the tail assembly dropping into Jamaica Bay, miles from Rockway.

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