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Flight 587 Probe Focuses on Rudder

October 29, 2002

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WASHINGTON (AP) _ During the final moments of American Airlines Flight 587, the pilots struggled in vain to keep the plane aloft after encountering turbulence shortly after takeoff, according to the transcript of a tape released Tuesday.

The cockpit voice recorder captured the conversation between Capt. Edward States and co-pilot Sten Molin during the 103-second flight, which ended when the tailfin broke off and the plane crashed into a residential neighborhood in Queens, N.Y., on Nov. 12, 2001.

All 260 people aboard the Airbus A300-600 died, as did five on the ground. It was the second-deadliest crash on U.S. soil.

``Hang onto it, hang onto it,″ States implored as the plane hit turbulence from a Boeing 747 flying five miles ahead of it.

``Let’s go for power, please,″ Molin said.

A second later came a loud bang, which investigators believe was the tail breaking off. Then came the roar of air rushing against the aircraft and alarms sounding in the cockpit.

``What the hell are we into (inaudible)?″ Molin said. ``We’re stuck in it.″

States’ last recorded words came five seconds later: ``Get out of it! Get out of it!″

The National Transportation Safety Board released the transcript at the start of a four-day public hearing on the crash. Investigators also revealed two videotapes of the flight, one from a construction crew and one from a security camera at a toll booth.

The families of the victims, most of whom were Dominican, were stunned to see the videotapes. One showed the plane taking off and, later, the smoke billowing from the crash in the distance. The other showed a tiny, grainy image of the plane as it descended from the sky, developing into a light smudge along its trajectory.

Robert Benzon, NTSB investigator in charge, said the smudge could be misting fuel, smoke or flame that spread from the plane after the engines broke from the wing.

``It was very painful for us,″ said Belkis Lora from New York City, who lost her brother Jose. ``I was crying because it reminded me of what happened.″

An examination of the accident sequence showed the rudder’s movements were consistent with pressure on the pedal that controls the rudder.

Investigators believe a series of sharp rudder movements caused the plane’s tailfin to break off less than two minutes after takeoff from John F. Kennedy International Airport, according to Benzon. Whether the rudder movements were caused by pilot action or by an anomaly in the rudder system is a focus of the inquiry, he said.

Rudders help to keep a plane on course during landing or taking off in crosswinds and in case of engine failure; they’re rarely used at higher speeds in flight.

The NTSB has found that very slight pressure on the rudder pedal of an Airbus A300-600 can cause severe rudder movements when flying at high speeds. It’s unclear whether the Flight 587 pilots were aware of this.

The safety board urged the FAA in February to make sure pilots are trained that moving the rudder back and forth may be dangerous even at low speeds previously thought to be safe.

The crash was the first of an Airbus aircraft in North America. It also was the first that involved the failure of a major structural component made of composite materials _ the tailfin. Most tailfins are made of metal.

Investigators are examining whether the composite materials played a role in the crash, said Carol Carmody, the safety board’s acting chairwoman.

Some families of victims demonstrated briefly outside the auditorium where the hearing was held, saying it should have been held in New York to accommodate those who couldn’t afford to travel to Washington.

Carmody said a Web site has been set up to provide information for the families; a translator was hired for the hearing.

``We thought we had done the very best we could to reach out,″ Carmody said.

She also assured the families the board would find out what caused the accident, though that probably won’t occur for at least several months.

Terrorism already has been ruled out as a cause, as well as engine failure, fire and contact with birds.

___

On the Net:

National Transportation Safety Board: http://www.ntsb.gov

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