N14053, the aircraft involved in the accident, at Miami International Airport in 1989.
|Date||November 12, 2001|
|Summary||Tail structure failure due to co-pilot error while encountering wake turbulence, incorrect pilot training|
|Site||Queens, New York City, United States|
|Fatalities||265 (all 260 on board; 5 on the ground)|
|Injuries (non-fatal)||1 (on the ground)|
|Aircraft type||Airbus A300B4-605R|
|Flight origin||John F. Kennedy Int'l Airport
New York City, United States
|Destination||Las Américas Int'l Airport
Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
American Airlines Flight 587 was a regularly scheduled passenger flight from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City to Santo Domingo's Las Américas International Airport in the Dominican Republic. On November 12, 2001, the Airbus A300-600 flying the route crashed into the Belle Harbor neighborhood of Queens, a borough of New York City, shortly after takeoff. All 260 people on board the flight were killed, along with five people on the ground. It is the second-deadliest aviation incident in New York state; the second-deadliest aviation incident involving an Airbus A300, after Iran Air Flight 655; and the second-deadliest aviation accident to occur on U.S. soil, after American Airlines Flight 191. No commercial airplane crash since then that was ruled accidental and not criminal has surpassed that death toll, though before 2001, there had been deadlier incidents of this type.
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, 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 Boeing 747-400 that took off minutes before it. According to the NTSB, this aggressive use of the rudder controls by the co-pilot caused the vertical stabilizer to snap off the plane. The plane's two engines also separated from the aircraft before it hit the ground.
The accident aircraft, registration N14053, was an Airbus A300B4-605R delivered in 1988, with a seating configuration for 267 passengers (16 first-class seats and 251 economy-class seats); it was powered by two General Electric CF6-80C2A5 engines. The accident flight had two flight crew members, seven cabin crew members and 251 passengers. The flight crew consisted of Captain Ed States (42) and First Officer Sten Molin (34), who was the pilot flying.
The plane pushed back from its gate at 9:00 AM. It taxied to Runway 31L behind a Japan Airlines Boeing 747-400 bound for Tokyo. At 9:11 AM, the 747 was cleared for takeoff. As the JAL flight climbed, the tower contacted Flight 587's pilots and warned them about potential wake turbulence from the 747.
At 9:13:28, the A300 was cleared for takeoff on Runway 31L. The aircraft left the runway at 9:14:29, about 1 minute and 40 seconds after the JAL flight. From takeoff, the plane climbed to an altitude of 500 feet 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 and climbing to 5,000 feet. The departure controller instructed the aircraft to climb to and maintain 13,000 feet.
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 just in front of it. The first officer attempted to stabilize the aircraft with alternating aggressive rudder inputs from left to right. This continued for at least 20 seconds, until 9:15:56, when the stress of the first officer's repeated rudder movements caused the lugs that attached the vertical stabilizer and rudder to fail. 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.
At the moment the stabilizer separated from the aircraft, the plane pitched downwards, headed straight for Belle Harbor. 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. Losing the engines cut off power to the FDR at 9:16:00, while the CVR (cockpit voice recorder), utilizing a battery backup, cut off at 9:16:15 moments before impact with the ground.
The fuselage slammed into Belle Harbor on Beach 131st Street, instantly destroying three houses (258, 262, and 266 Beach 131st Street) and spraying fiery debris along Beach 131st Street south of Newport Avenue. All 260 people aboard the plane and five people on the ground were killed instantly, and the impact forces and a post-crash fire destroyed the wreckage. Flight 587 operated under the provisions of 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 121 on an instrument flight rules flight plan. Visual meteorological conditions (VMC) prevailed at the time of the accident.
The A300-600 took off immediately after a Japan Airlines Boeing 747-400 on the same runway. 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. 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 National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) concluded that the enormous stress on the rudder 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 aluminium, all connected by a titanium bolt; damage analysis showed that the bolts and aluminium 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 because 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.
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. Some witnesses reported seeing one of the engines burst into flames and break off the plane, and others reported hearing a loud sound like a sonic boom.
Since the NTSB's report, American Airlines has modified its pilot training program. Previous simulator training did not properly reflect "the actual large build-up in sideslip angle and sideloads that would accompany such rudder inputs in an actual airplane", according to the NTSB final report.
Because the crash was two months and one day after the September 11 attacks and occurred 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 suggested that it had been destroyed in a terrorist plot, with a shoe bomb similar to the one found on Richard Reid.
In May 2002, Mohammed Jabarah agreed to cooperate with investigators as part of a plea bargain. Among the details he gave authorities was that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's lieutenant had told him 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, and that they had successfully blown up Flight 587, while Reid had been foiled.
The National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the cause of the crash was purely human error: overuse of the rudder mechanism leading to mechanical failure and not—as the public had first feared—a terrorist attack.
According to the official accident report, after the first officer made his initial rudder pedal input, he made a series of alternating full rudder inputs. This led to increasing sideslip angles. The resulting hazardous sideslip angle led to extremely high aerodynamic loads that resulted in separation of the vertical stabilizer. If the first officer had stopped making these inputs at any time before the vertical stabilizer separation, the natural stability of the airplane would have returned the sideslip angle to near 0°, and the accident would have been avoided. The airplane performance study indicated that when the vertical stabilizer separation began, the aerodynamic loads were about two times the loads defined by the design envelope. It can be determined that the vertical stabilizer's structural performance was consistent with design specifications and exceeded certification requirements.
Contributing factors include the following: First, the first officer's predisposition to overreact to wake turbulence; second, the training provided by American Airlines that could have encouraged pilots to make large flight control inputs; third, the first officer likely did not understand an airplane's response to large rudder inputs at high airspeeds or the mechanism by which the rudder rolls a transport-category airplane; finally, light rudder pedal forces and small pedal displacement of the A300-600 rudder pedal system increased the airplane's susceptibility to a rudder misuse.
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 do not operate on a fly-by-wire flight control system, but instead use conventional mechanical flight controls. The NTSB determined that "because of its high sensitivity, the A300-600 rudder control system is susceptible to potentially hazardous rudder pedal inputs at higher speeds". The Allied Pilots Association, in its submission to the NTSB, argued that the unusual sensitivity of the rudder mechanism amounted to a design flaw which 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 tended to exaggerate the effects of wake turbulence on large aircraft. Therefore, pilots were being trained to react more aggressively than was necessary.
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.
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All 260 people aboard the plane (251 passengers and the crew of 9) died, along with 5 Belle Harbor residents on the ground who were killed when their three homes on Beach 131st Street were destroyed in the crash.
Relatives gathered at Las Américas International Airport. The airport created a private area for relatives wishing to receive news about Flight 587. Some relatives arrived at the airport to meet passengers, 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. Because of its role in housing friends and relatives of several plane crashes, the hotel became known as the "Heartbreak Hotel". Due to the fact that many families were ethnic Dominicans, the hotel prepared Dominican cuisine for them. 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 on, some 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 it turned out that Soriano was booked for a flight a few days later; 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.
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 incident, 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 Nov 12, 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.")
In 2001, there were 51 weekly direct flights 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.
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There have been multiple television documentaries made on the accident.
Red roses in hand, about 45 mourners emerged yesterday from a Spanish-language Mass and walked a quarter-mile to a majestic mausoleum at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.... More than five years after American Airlines Flight 587 crashed in Belle Harbor, Queens, killing 265 people, 889 fragments of human remains were placed in four coffins and finally laid to rest behind a wall of granite last week.
|Photos of N14053 at Airliners.net|
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to American Airlines Flight 587.|