American Airlines Flight 587
N14053, the aircraft involved in the accident, in 1989
|Date||November 12, 2001|
|Site||Belle Harbor, Queens, New York City, New York, United States |
|Aircraft type||Airbus A300B4-605R|
|Flight origin||John F. Kennedy International Airport|
New York City, United States
|Destination||Las Américas International Airport|
Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
American Airlines Flight 587 was a regularly scheduled international passenger flight from New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport to Las Américas International Airport in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic. On November 12, 2001, the Airbus A300B4-605R flying the route crashed shortly after takeoff into the Belle Harbor neighborhood of Queens, a borough of New York City. All 260 people aboard the plane (251 passengers and 9 crew members) were killed, along with 5 people on the ground.
The location of the accident and the fact that it took place two months and one day after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in Manhattan initially spawned fears of another terrorist attack. Terrorism was officially ruled out as the cause by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which instead attributed the disaster to the first officer's overuse of rudder controls in response to wake turbulence, or jet wash, from a Japan Airlines (JAL) Boeing 747-400 that took off minutes before it. According to the NTSB, the aggressive use of the rudder controls by the co-pilot caused the vertical stabilizer to snap off the plane, along with the plane's two engines separating from intense forces before impact.
The accident aircraft, registration N14053, was an Airbus A300B4-605R delivered to American Airlines new in 1988. On the day of the accident the aircraft was in a two-class seating configuration with space for 251 passengers, with 16 business-class seats and 235 coach-class seats.:412,414 The aircraft was powered by two General Electric CF6-80C2A5 engines. On-board were two flight crew members, 42 year-old Captain Ed States (who had 8,050 flight hours, including 3,448 hours on the Airbus A300) and 34 year-old First Officer Sten Molin (who had 4,403 flight hours, including 1,835 hours on the Airbus A300);:9–12 seven cabin crew members; and 251 passengers. The aircraft taxied to Runway 31L behind a Japan Airlines Boeing 747-400 preparing for takeoff. The JAL flight was cleared for takeoff at 9:11:08. Around 9:11:36, the tower controller cautioned the Flight 587 pilots about potential wake turbulence from the 747 JAL flight.:2
At 9:13:28, the A300 was cleared for takeoff and left the runway at 9:14:29, about 1 minute and 40 seconds after the JAL flight. After takeoff, the plane climbed to an altitude of 500 feet (150 m) above mean sea level (MSL) and then entered a climbing left turn to a heading of 220°. At 9:15:00, the pilot made initial contact with the departure controller, informing him that the airplane was at 1,300 feet (400 m) and climbing to 5,000 feet (1,500 m). The departure controller instructed the aircraft to climb to and maintain 13,000 feet (4,000 m).:3 Data from the flight data recorder (FDR) showed that the events leading into the crash began at 9:15:36, when the aircraft hit wake turbulence from the JAL flight in front of it. In response to the turbulence, the first officer alternated between moving the rudder from the left to the right and back again in quick succession for at least 20 seconds, until 9:15:56, when the stress caused the lugs that attached the vertical stabilizer and rudder to fail.:4 The stabilizer separated from the aircraft and fell into Jamaica Bay, about one mile north of the main wreckage site. Eight seconds later, the stall warning sounded on the cockpit voice recorder.:195
The aircraft pitched downwards after the stabilizer separated from the aircraft. As the pilots struggled to control the aircraft, it went into a flat spin. The resulting aerodynamic loads sheared both engines from the aircraft seconds before impact. The engines landed several blocks north and east of the main wreckage site. The engines caused minor damage to a gas station and major damage to one home and a boat. The loss of engines cut power to the FDR at 9:16:00, while the CVR (cockpit voice recorder), using a battery backup, cut off at 9:16:15, moments before impact with the ground at 9:17 a.m. The last recorded words of the pilots were Molin saying, "What the hell are we into, we're stuck in it" with States replying, "Get out of it, get out of it." The aircraft crashed into the intersection of Newport Avenue and Beach 131st Street.:48–50
Initial terrorism concerns
Because the crash occurred just two months and one day after the September 11 attacks in New York, several major buildings including the Empire State Building and the United Nations Headquarters were evacuated. In the months after the crash, rumors circulated that the plane had been destroyed in a terrorist plot, with a shoe bomb similar to the one found on Richard Reid. In May 2002, a Kuwaiti national named Mohammed Jabarah agreed to cooperate with investigators as part of a plea bargain. Among the details Jabarah gave authorities was a claim made to Jabarah by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's lieutenant, who told Jabarah that Reid and Abderraouf Jdey had both been enlisted by the al-Qaeda chief to carry out identical shoe-bombing plots as part of a second wave of attacks against the United States. According to this lieutenant, Jdey's bomb had successfully blown up Flight 587, while Reid's attempt had been foiled.
In May 2002, a Canadian government memo was written that repeated the claims suggesting that Jdey had a role in the crash, while conceding that the reliability of the source of that information — Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's lieutenant — was unknown. According to information contained in the memo, Jdey — a naturalized Canadian citizen — was to use his own Canadian passport to board the flight. While American Airlines' passenger manifest did indicate citizens boarding with passports from the United States, the Dominican Republic, Taiwan, France,[a] Haiti, and Israel, no passengers boarded using a Canadian passport. According to NTSB spokesman Ted Lopatkiewicz, the weight of the memo's veracity was put into question, as no evidence of a terrorist traveling on board was found. The evidence suggested that the aircraft was brought down after a piece of the empennage, "the vertical fin, came off", while it did not indicate "any kind of event in the cabin."
On the afternoon of the crash, the NTSB launched an investigation into its causes. Over the next three months, they conducted 349 interviews, and collected and reconstructed pieces of the aircraft. The A300-600 took off immediately after a Japan Airlines Boeing 747-400 on the same runway.:47 It flew into the larger jet's wake, an area of turbulent air. The first officer attempted to stabilize the aircraft with alternating aggressive rudder inputs.:107 The force of the air flowing against the moving rudder stressed the aircraft's vertical stabilizer, and eventually snapped it off entirely, causing the aircraft to lose control and crash. The NTSB concluded that the enormous stress on the vertical stabilizer was due to the first officer's "unnecessary and excessive" rudder inputs, and not the wake turbulence caused by the 747. The NTSB further stated, "if the first officer had stopped making additional inputs, the aircraft would have stabilized". Contributing to these rudder pedal inputs were characteristics of the Airbus A300-600 sensitive rudder system design and elements of the American Airlines Advanced Aircraft Maneuvering Training Program.
The manner in which the vertical stabilizer separated concerned investigators. The vertical stabilizer is connected to the fuselage with six attaching points. Each point has two sets of attachment lugs, one made of composite material, another of aluminum, all connected by a titanium bolt; damage analysis showed that the bolts and aluminum lugs were intact, but not the composite lugs. This, coupled with two events earlier in the life of the aircraft, namely delamination in part of the vertical stabilizer prior to its delivery from Airbus's Toulouse factory, and an encounter with heavy turbulence in 1994, caused investigators to examine the use of composites. The possibility that the composite materials might not be as strong as previously supposed was a cause of concern as they are used in other areas of the plane, including the engine mounting and the wings. Tests carried out on the vertical stabilizers from the accident aircraft, and from another similar aircraft, found that the strength of the composite material had not been compromised, and the NTSB concluded that the material had failed because it had been stressed beyond its design limit.:69-70
The crash was witnessed by hundreds of people, 349 of whom gave accounts of what they saw to the NTSB. About half (52%) reported a fire or explosion before the plane hit the ground. Others stated that they saw a wing detach from the aircraft, when in fact it was the vertical stabilizer.
According to the official accident report, the first officer repeatedly moved the rudder from fully left to fully right. This caused increasing sideslip angles. The resulting hazardous sideslip angle led to extremely high aerodynamic loads that separated the vertical stabilizer. If the first officer had stopped moving the rudder at any time before the vertical stabilizer failed, the airplane would have leveled out on its own, and the accident would have been avoided. The airplane performance study indicated that when the vertical stabilizer was detached, the aerodynamic loads were about two times the loads defined by the design envelope. The vertical stabilizer's structural performance was determined to be consistent with design specifications and exceeded certification requirements.
There were contributing factors to the crash as well. The first officer's predisposition to overreact to wake turbulence caused panic. American Airlines incorrectly taught use of the rudder for wake turbulence recovery, resulting in the first officer's likely misunderstanding of the aircraft's response to full rudder at high airspeeds. Light rudder pedal forces and small pedal displacement of the A300-600 rudder pedal system increased the airplane's susceptibility to a rudder misuse.:151
Most aircraft require increased pressure on the rudder pedals to achieve the same amount of rudder control at a higher speed. The Airbus A300 and later Airbus A310 models do not operate on a fly-by-wire flight control system, but instead use conventional mechanical flight controls. The NTSB asserted that the A300-600 rudder control system was vulnerable to unnecessarily excessive rudder inputs. The Allied Pilots Association, in its submission to the NTSB, argued that the unusual sensitivity of the rudder mechanism amounted to a design flaw that Airbus should have communicated to the airline. The main rationale for their position came from a 1997 report that referenced 10 incidents in which A300 tail fins had been stressed beyond their design limitation.
Airbus charged that the crash was mostly American Airlines' fault, arguing that the airline did not train its pilots properly about the characteristics of the rudder. Aircraft tail fins are designed to withstand full rudder deflection in one direction when below maneuvering speed, but this does not guarantee that they can withstand an abrupt shift in rudder from one direction to the other. The NTSB indicated that American Airlines' Advanced Aircraft Maneuvering Program (AAMP) tended to exaggerate the effects of wake turbulence on large aircraft. Therefore, pilots were being trained to react more aggressively than was necessary. According to author Amy Fraher, this led to concerns of whether it was appropriate for the AAMP to be placing such importance on "the role of flight simulators in teaching airplane upset recovery at all." Fraher states that the key to understanding the crash of Flight 587 ultimately lay in "how the accident pilots' expectations about aircraft performance were erroneously established through 'clumsy' flight simulator training in American's AAMP."
Statement of probable cause
From the NTSB report of the accident:
The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of this accident was the in-flight separation of the vertical stabilizer as a result of the loads beyond ultimate design that were created by the first officer’s unnecessary and excessive rudder pedal inputs. Contributing to these rudder pedal inputs were characteristics of the Airbus A300-600 rudder system design and elements of the American Airlines Advanced Aircraft Maneuvering Program (AAMP).:160
Since the NTSB's report, American Airlines has modified its pilot training program.
All 260 people aboard the plane (251 passengers and 9 crew members), as well as one dog, carried in the cargo hold, died in the crash. Five bystanders and one dog on the ground were also killed.:412
Las Américas International Airport officials created a private area for those who had come to the airport to meet passengers, some of whom were unaware that the flight had crashed. The authorities at John F. Kennedy International Airport used the JFK Ramada Plaza to house relatives and friends of the victims of the crash. The family crisis center later moved to the Javits Center in Manhattan.
One of the passengers killed on the flight was Hilda Yolanda Mayol, a 26-year-old American woman on her way to vacation in her native Dominican Republic. Two months earlier, on 9/11, Mayol was working at a restaurant on the ground floor of the World Trade Center and escaped before the tower collapsed.
Early reports erroneously stated that Dominican native and then Yankees second baseman Alfonso Soriano had been aboard Flight 587. The flight was regularly used by Major League Baseball players and scouts heading to the Dominican Republic, but Soriano was booked for a later flight. A Dominican teammate of Soriano, utility infielder Enrique Wilson, was originally booked on the flight, but after the Yankees' defeat in the World Series, he had decided to return home a few days earlier.
In 2001, 51 weekly direct flights were made between JFK and the Dominican Republic, with additional flights offered in December. Most of the flights were offered by American Airlines,:1 and the airline was described as having a virtual monopoly on the route.:2 Around 90% of the passengers on the accident flight were of Dominican descent.
The Guardian described the flight as having "cult status" in Washington Heights, a Dominican area of Manhattan. Belkis Lora, a relative of a passenger on the crashed flight, said, "Every Dominican in New York has either taken that flight or knows someone who has. It gets you there early. At home, there are songs about it." Seth Kugel, writing for The New York Times, said, "For many Dominicans in New York, these journeys home are the defining metaphor of their complex push-pull relationship with their homeland; they embody, vividly and poignantly, the tug between their current lives and their former selves. That fact gave Monday's tragedy a particularly horrible resonance for New York's Dominicans.":1 He also said, "Even before Monday's crash, Dominicans had developed a complex love-hate relationship with American Airlines, complaining about high prices and baggage restrictions even while favoring the carrier over other airlines that used to travel the same route.":2 David Rivas, the owner of the New York City travel agency Rivas Travel, said, "For the Dominican to go to Santo Domingo during Christmas and summer is like the Muslims going to Mecca.":4 
The crash did not affect bookings for the JFK-Santo Domingo route. Dominicans continued to book travel on the flights.:4 American Airlines announced that it would end services between JFK and Santo Domingo on April 1, 2013.
A memorial was constructed in Rockaway Park, Belle Harbor's neighboring community, in memory of the 265 victims of the crash at the south end of Beach 116th Street, a major commercial street in the area. It was dedicated on November 12, 2006, the fifth anniversary of the accident, in a ceremony attended by then Mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg. A ceremony commemorating the disaster is held annually at the memorial every November 12th, featuring a reading of the names of those killed aboard the aircraft and on the ground, with a formal moment of silence observed at 9:16 a.m., the estimated time of the crash. The memorial wall, designed by Dominican artist Freddy Rodríguez and Situ Studio, has windows and a doorway looking toward the nearby Atlantic Ocean and angled toward the Dominican Republic. It is inscribed with the names of the victims. Atop the memorial is a quotation, in both Spanish and English, from Dominican poet Pedro Mir, reading "Después no quiero más que paz" (Translation: "Afterwards I want nothing more than peace.")
Several documentaries have been made concerning the accident. A 2006 episode of the National Geographic Channel program Seconds From Disaster examined the Flight 587 accident in detail. The episode was titled "Plane Crash in Queens" (also known as "New York Air Crash"). A 2006 episode of Modern Marvels on The History Channel aired an episode entitled "Engineering Disasters 20", which featured detailed information on Flight 587. The Discovery Channel Canada / National Geographic series Mayday (also called Air Crash Investigation or Air Emergency) dramatized the accident in a 2014 episode titled "Queens Catastrophe". The BBC program Horizon also created an episode about the crash. An episode of Aircrash Confidential on Discovery Channel also featured Flight 587. The episode was entitled "Pilot Error". A 2011 episode of Why Planes Crash featured Flight 587. The episode was entitled "Human Error". It was aired on MSNBC.
- Passenger Sylvie Greleau, identified as British by American Airlines, carried a French passport. One additional passenger, Jean Heuze, also carried a French passport.
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|Photos of N14053 at Airliners.net|
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to American Airlines Flight 587.|
- NTSB Cockpit Voice Recorder Transcript (76.5 KB; Archive; Alternate of archive)
- Archive of AA.com on November 13, 2001
- Bureau d'Enquêtes et d'Analyses pour la Sécurité de l'Aviation Civile – Reporting on behalf of European manufacturer Airbus
- Photos of the plane involved in the accident and of the crash scene from Airliners.net
- "The Mayor's Fund to Advance NYC – Flight 587 Memorial Project". New York City Government Website (NYC.gov). Archived from the original on March 9, 2012.
- Algarobba, Hector; Burkeman, Oliver (September 11, 2002). "Hector Algarobba's essay on how he was affected by the disaster of AA587". The Guardian. Archived from the original on November 13, 2012.
- "A Wave Exclusive….Flight 587 Witnesses Speak Out At Wave Sponsored Meeting". The Wave. July 20, 2002. Archived from the original on November 14, 2012.
- Switzer, George F. (January 2003). "Documentation for Three Wake Vortex Model Data Sets from Simulation of Flight 587 Wake Vortex Encounter Accident Case" (PDF). NASA.