Term Paper: Accident Analysis AA Flt 587

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Accident Analysis American Airlines Flt 587, 12 Nov 2001

American airlines is one of the largest airlines in the world. On 12th Nov 2001, barely two months after the horrifying terror attacks on the twin towers, NY was scene of another sad event in aviation history. On that uneventful day, American Airlines Flt 587, which took off from the John F. Kennedy international airport in NY to Santo Domingo, Dominical republic, met with a fatal accident. The flight, which took off at 9:14 AM from JKF, slammed into the residential area of Rockaway, a suburb in Queens. All the 260 people aboard, including 251 passengers, Captain Ed States, first officer Sten Molin and seven flight attendants died. Five people on ground were also killed in the crash.[NGC] In the wake of the prevailing terror environment, there was widespread public panic that the crash was another terror attack against America. The initial NTSB investigation team was also open to the different possibilities of the crash and the probability of a terror attack was also pursued. Subsequently, based on lack of evidence, the role of terrorists was ruled out and the investigation focus shifted onto the technical aspects of the flight crash. It took the NTSB 3 long years to publish its final report on the disaster. A brief overview of the critical inflight events and the subsequent investigation would reveal some shocking discrepancies and glaring omissions that led to the fatal chain of events.

Chain of Events

American Airlines flight 587 took off from the John F. Kennedy international airport at 9:14 AM on the 21st November 2001. What is supposed to be a routine 3 and half hours flight unfortunately turned out to be a fatal catastrophe for all the people aboard the plane as it crashed barely two minutes post takeoff in the neighboring Queens suburb. The experienced captain Ed States, age 42, and first officer Sten Molin, age 34 with 10 years of experience began the pre-flight checks at 7 am. The Airbus A300/605R, built in Europe with a carrying capacity of 266 people, is one of the oldest models in the American airlines. This particular plane had already recorded over 37,000 hours of flying time and is regarded as one of the most reliable planes in the American airlines fleet. [NGC] The scheduled departure by 8.40 was delayed due to the increased security checks of passengers in the wake of the sep 11 attacks. At 9:11 AM, a Japanese airline 747 which was ahead of the American airlines 587 on the runway 37L was cleared for take off. The ground controller issued a warning to the Crew of 587 regarding potential wake turbulence they could face due to the Japanese airline that flew ahead of them. At 9.14 Sten Molin who was in charge of the first leg of the flight began the takeoff run. At 9:15 AM flight 587 attained an altitude of 1700 feet and the control room issued a navigation fix.

The very next moment flight 587 began to experience severe turbulence. This wake turbulence is due to the swirling vortex of air trailing the Japan airlines jumbo flight 747 ahead of them. First officer Sten Molin managed to fly through it by adopting the standard procedure of increasing the speed to achieve turbulent air penetration speed. Since the flight was flying lower than 10,000 feet, Sten Molin increased the speed to the permissible maximum speed of 250 knots. But the relief was short lived as the plane was again hit by another more severe turbulence. The plane started rolling and the first officer used his foot pedals to push the plane rudder first to the right and then to the left for roll control. The officer asked for more power and repeated the rudder control movements but he was not able to bring the plane back to control. Spinning violently out of control the plane crashed into the ground in Rockaway, a suburb in Queens at 9:16 AM. With no survivors, the flight 587 crash is recorded to date as the second most severe of all the air crashes in the U.S. [NGC]A long drawn investigation revealed several glaring facts and omissions that led to what is regarded as one of the worst air mishaps of the nation.

The Investigation

The NTSB immediately launched a GO team to the crash site to collect maximum evidence to analyze the cause of the crash. It took the NTSB roughly three years (1079 days) and 16 teams collaborated putting over 100,000 man-hours for the investigation. [Ellen Conners] The former chairman Marion Blakey also immediately rushed to the accident site in NY and supervised the investigation process. The airplane was totally destroyed by the impact forces. As usual, the investigators analyzed the pattern of scattered derby, as it would provide important clues to understanding the sequence and the nature of the accident. The investigators found out that both the engines of the plane had landed 245 meters ahead of the crash site. The tail portion of the plane was recovered 1.2 kilometers behind the crash site, from the waters of the Jamaican Bay. This detail is very significant for further investigation as it clearly suggested that the tail fin separated from the plane much before the crash and therefore may even be responsible for the crash. The FBI thoroughly checked the tail fin for traces of explosives to find out the possible role of terrorists. Soon the search team recovered the cockpit voice recorder and it was sent to the NTSB head office in Washington for thorough analysis. [NGC]

Possible Explosion?

The investigators analyzed the cockpit conversations from the recovered cockpit voice recorder. It revealed a loud bang 89 seconds into the flight after which the crew were heard struggling to control the plane.[NGC] This led the investigators to not totally exclude the possibility of an explosion as the trigger for the crash. However, the FBI team could not find any traces of explosive material from the tail fin or other wrecked components of the plane. Also no group claimed responsibility for the attack and airport camera recordings revealed no sign of suspicious activity. This prompted the FBI and the NTSB team to release a joint initial report that excluded the possibility of a terror attack. Further, important evidence emerged from the tape recordings of two cameras mounted on the Triborough Bridge. The first camera showed the flight 587 pass through normally. It disappeared behind buildings and reappeared on the second camera. However as it emerged in the second camera, the investigators noticed a white streak behind the plane indicating a possible explosion. To confirm this, the investigators assessed the exact time of the appearance of the white streak with that of the loud bang heard on the cockpit voice recorder. It was found that the streak occurred exactly 8 seconds after the bang suggesting that it could not have been the explosion of a bomb but rather it could have been the escape of the fuel from the plane after the plane broke up. The investigators concluded that the flash witnessed by many people from the ground was in fact the fire from the fuel escaping and not the fire on the plane. This shifted the focus entirely on the technical aspects of the crash. [NGC]

Composite Failure?

The investigation of the tail fin continued and the investigators found a peculiar pattern. In the A300-605R, the vertical tail is attached to the fuselage using six main attaching points made of reinforced carbon fiber composite. Known as one of the strongest materials, carbon composites are also lighter making them ideal choices for many airplane components. The shocking fact, however, was that all the six composite connection points in the tail region of the flight had broken. Given the enormous amount of forces necessary to break down the highly durable carbon composites, this was highly surprising for the investigators. Electron microscopic study of the composites and a detailed investigation of the tail and other components by airbus did not reveal anything faulty with the material or the assembling. The investigators were now faced with a new question. If nothing was wrong with the components of the tail fin or the assembling part of it, then what caused the breakup of the vertical stabilizer? [NGC]

FDR Analysis (The shocking truth)

The recovery of the flight data recorder offered new hope for investigators as they now had access to information pertaining to several vital parameters of the flight before the crash. In fact, analysis of the data from the FDR turned the investigation in an entirely new direction. In particular, the data showed that exactly 83 seconds after takeoff Sten Monin, the first officer, had pushed the rudder pedal five times causing violent side to side motions. This pattern of rudder use was considered very peculiar and uncommon. The FDR recordings clearly highlighted the two separate Wake turbulence episodes, the first one at 0915:36 followed by the second one at… [END OF PREVIEW]

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