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American Airlines Flight 587

From Academic Kids

American Airlines Flight 587 crashed into the Belle Harbor neighborhood of Queens, New York shortly after takeoff from John F. Kennedy International Airport on November 12, 2001.

The Airbus A300-600 jet, registered N14053, which left JFK bound for Santo Domingo's Las Americas International Airport, crashed at 9:17 A.M. local time. All 260 people on board were killed [2 flight crew members, 7 flight attendants, and 251 passengers (including 5 unticketed infants sitting on their parents' laps)], along with five people on the ground, making it the second deadliest crash on American soil (behind American Airlines Flight 191).

Because the crash occurred just two months after the September 11, 2001 attacks, many people initially believed it was caused by terrorism. These claims were supported by eyewitnesses who claimed to have seen the aircraft on fire shortly before the crash. The official NTSB report of October 26, 2004 stated the cause of the crash was the overuse of the rudder to counter wake turbulence, and that the fire was the result of fuel tank leakage as the engines tore free from their mountings.

The A300, which took off just minutes after a Boeing 747 on the same runway, flew into the larger jet's wake, an area of very turbulent air. The co-pilot, Sten Molin, attempted to keep the plane upright with the rudder, but pushed the rudder too far to one side and then overcorrected too far to the other. The strength of the air flowing against the moving rudder stressed the aircraft's tail fin and eventually snapped it off entirely, causing the aircraft to lose control and crash. According to the NTSB, the crash would not have occurred but for the co-pilot's use of the rudder.

Airbus and American are currently disputing the extent to which both parties are responsible for the disaster. American charges that the crash was mostly Airbus's fault, because the A300 was designed with unusually sensitive rudder controls. Most aircraft require increased pressure on the rudder pedals to achieve the same amount of rudder control at a higher speed. Airbus aircraft use a fly-by-wire system in which the rudder's movement relative to rudder pedal pressure is regulated by computer to stay constant at different airspeeds. Because there is a delay between moving the rudder and actually turning the aircraft, pilots can easily place more pressure on the rudder than what is actually needed to turn the plane.

Airbus charges that the crash was mostly American's fault, because the airline did not train its pilots properly about the characteristics of the rudder. Aircraft tail fins are designed to withstand full rudder in one direction at maneuvering speed. However, they are not usually designed to withstand an abrupt shift in rudder from one direction to the other. Most American pilots believed that the tail fin could withstand any rudder movement at maneuvering speed.

Flight 587 no longer exists. The flight route designation of flights between Kennedy Airport and Las Americas Airport now are under Flight 619, Flight 635, and Flight 789.

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