Ask the pilot

Questions remain about Flight 587: Why aren't planes designed so stupid pilots can't break them?


Patrick Smith
November 13, 2004 1:30AM (UTC)

Two weeks ago I wrote of my brushes with Jerry Brown, Jesse Jackson, Ted Kennedy, Mike Dukakis and Al Gore. I asked you to identify what each of those star-crossed politicos has in common, and why it was best for me to ride out Election '04 shackled to a wall in a Secret Undisclosed Location.

Joanne Alonso Byars, writing from Gainesville, Fla., was the first to chime in correctly. Joanne gets a signed copy of "Ask the Pilot," though, all things considered, she may not want my dreary karma leaking onto her bookshelves.

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The answer: Yes, all five were Democrats who ran for president. And all five, whether it was the party nomination or general election, lost.

It was an easy question, maybe, but the eeriness of those encounters is something I've never been at peace with. With the election pending and the stars aligning propitiously, it seemed a good moment to come clean. The Boston Red Sox had just won the World Series, a miracle on the order of the loaves and fishes. At a benefit concert in Minnesota, Grant Hart and Bob Mould joined each other on stage for the first time in 16 years. Enough with curses and bad memories.

Not that it worked, obviously.

It was even worse than I let on. After submitting my pre-election column, I realized there was yet a sixth victim. The late Sen. Paul Tsongas, who tried for the Democratic nomination in '92, spoke at my high school graduation in 1984 (St. John's Prep School in Danvers, Mass.). I totally forgot about that one. I'm a straight 0-for-6.

And no, I've never met or seen a Republican presidential contender, winner or loser, in my life. Maybe in 2008, depending how much they're willing to spend, I can sell out to the GOP, who can fly me around the country to speeches and rallies to work my dark magic on whomever they're trying to beat.

Just before Election Day, several of you advised me to approach this proactively, to find George Bush at a rally somewhere and simply appear in front of him. But I'm unsure which way this energy works. There's no telling whether it would have cursed or empowered him, so it was safest just to stay home.

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Go ahead and blame me for hexing Al Gore back in 2000. Kerry, however, is not my fault. At least I don't think so. There remains at least an outside possibility that I managed to jinx him too.

John Kerry lives on Louisburg Square, a courtyard of zillion-dollar brownstones atop Boston's Beacon Hill. Though I'm unsure of Kerry's precise address, I once found, and absconded with, a briefcase in somebody's garbage there.

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It was, if I remember right, the early spring of 1990. Those were my flight instructor days, when I was bringing down a cool $97 a week teaching software designers how to stay alive in their newly purchased Pipers and Cessnas. Beacon Hill is known for its real estate prices, the Brahmin pedigree of its residents, and the vulgar wastefulness found in its curbside garbage on trash night. A family in Equatorial Guinea can live forever on a week's refuse from a single neighborhood townhouse. So, walking to a friend's apartment, my trained, underpaid pilot's eyes were keeping a sharp lookout for anything free and even vaguely useful.

The briefcase was old but otherwise intact, its brown leather only slightly blemished and left and right locks in perfect working order. A few months later, when I went to work as a copilot for Northeast Express Regional Airlines, it became my first-ever flight bag. Unable to afford the $70 models for sale by the airline, I showed up for my inaugural flight with a brown leather fossil dug from somebody's garbage.

Most serious airlines, by the way, are very strict about their uniforms and crewmember accessories, stipulating everything from the color of your watch to the length of your sideburns. This was not a serious airline, and seeing how my take-home pay was about $190 a week, they were going to accept my briefcase fair and square.

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I still have the thing, now used, perhaps fittingly, to house an assortment of mostly depressing mementos. There remains an outside chance that it once belonged to John Kerry. It's a long shot, I know, and pilots aren't supposed to be superstitious. But when the world is hanging in the balance, people start to think funny.

Time for another contest:

Somewhere in this article -- you may or may not have already stumbled across it -- you'll find an amusingly colorful simile. It's a line that I use from time to time, but that I've shamelessly stolen from a famous author. The first person to tell me who the author is, and where he or she originally uses the line, wins a free copy of "Ask the Pilot." Please send full name and address with your submission.

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The following questions pertain to last week's column about the National Transportation Safety Board's determinations regarding the 2001 crash of American Airlines Flight 587.

The NTSB recommends that airlines and pilots be made aware that structural protection of an aircraft is not guaranteed when certain, extreme control inputs are made. Why is it possible to make control inputs that jeopardize the integrity of the aircraft? Why isn't a plane designed so it is impossible to make such inputs? To use a crude analogy, my car does not let me drop into reverse at 60 mph.

True, and neither do state-of-the-art aircraft allow you to bank past certain parameters, pitch past certain parameters, and so on. Airbus was the pioneer, in fact, at using electronics to help keep human beings from crashing airplanes. But it's very hard, and probably a bad idea, to program out every last edge-of-the-envelope temptation. There can be cases when severe, otherwise dangerous, inputs are needed.

Just as with driving, certain actions are foolish only under certain combinations of circumstance. Just as you wouldn't feel safe in a car that can never be dropped into reverse, you wouldn't feel safe in an airplane that can never be banked, pitched, or yawed past certain values. This gets complicated, but in a way that's the point: Trying to fine-tune exactly how and when certain inputs might be harmful begins to introduce more and more variables -- speed, angle of attack, altitude, etc., etc. -- to the point where such safeguards become immensely complex and, possibly, prone to failure.

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And there are plenty of ways in which you can still wreck your car, even as the most obvious ones are automatically disengaged.

There's no reason short of an emergency to command full rudder deflection one way, followed by full deflection the opposite way, regardless of how Sten Molin was trained. That is a ridiculous and uncoordinated response to 587's encounter with wake vortices. Admit it, it was dumb!

I never attempted to exonerate Molin. I'm hardly the most experienced pilot in the world, and I've never driven an A300, but the last time I jammed in full rudder, let alone kicked it back and forth in both directions, was probably in a Cessna 15 years ago. However, I maintain that Molin's actions were not as overtly negligent as they sound. Clearly he overreacted, but he didn't have reason to think his inputs were going to rip the tail off, and he's not the only pilot surprised to learn that full deflection -- even multiple full deflections -- below maneuvering speed, however irregular, are risking structural catastrophe.

I hate to go this way, but there also remains the chance that Flight 587's carbon-fiber tail may have played a role in the accident.

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Carbon-fiber components are tested and examined differently than traditional metals. They are stronger and lighter, but when damaged or weakened, the damage tends to occur internally, in a way that is very hard to detect. There's also the matter of structural load standards. Airbus tails are built to withstand lesser -- though still quite forceful -- amounts of stress compared to Boeing jets.

In 1994 the very same plane involved in the accident, registration N10453, made an unscheduled landing in the Caribbean after it struck unusually rough air at 35,000 feet. Could this have resulted in a structural weakness, more or less undetectable and needing only the right set of circumstances to manifest itself?

The recovered portions of 587's tail were put through advanced CT scanning and analysis by NASA and the Ford Motor Company (for whatever reason, Ford is home to some of the most advanced scanning equipment), to no significant findings. The NTSB officially ruled out the tail's composite architecture as a factor. But not everybody believes this is fair.

These factors, if indeed they played a role, were merely part of the greater disaster puzzle, contingent on a highly unlikely chain of events. I am not suggesting the tails of Airbus A300s are dangerous or substandard. The most pessimistic summary I can offer is this: Not every airplane can be as safe as every other. Don't let that alarm you. Ominous as it sounds, keep in mind the sorts of decimal places we're dealing with. Even a worst case model-vs.-model statistical comparison is chiefly academic.

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I'll accept your premise that tails breaking from airplanes are among the rarest of catastrophes -- Flight 587 and the fictional "Lost" disaster notwithstanding. But don't I recall, some years ago, a jumbo jet crashing in Japan after a similar incident? Exactly how often does this happen?

In 1985, a Japan Airlines (JAL) 747 crashed after a section of its tail was damaged soon after takeoff from Tokyo's Haneda Airport. During climb, the plane suffered a rupture of its aft-most bulkhead, causing pressurized cabin air to surge violently into the unpressurized rear structure, blowing away a large portion of the rudder. (The tail fin of a 747 is roughly the size of a three-story building, and is not a solid, single-piece structure.) Simultaneously, the lines for all four hydraulic systems were severed and bled dry, resulting in failure of the plane's flying controls. Despite the crew's efforts, struggling for more than half an hour to maintain control, the plane impacted a ridge near Mt. Fuji, killing 520 people. The disaster stands as history's second most deadly, just behind the 1977 runway collision of two 747s in the Canary Islands.

Years earlier, faulty repairs had been made to the jet's aft pressure bulkhead following an abnormally hard landing. The airline's president, Yasumoto Takagi, accepted full responsibility for the tragedy and resigned, visiting victims' families to personally apologize. A JAL maintenance manager committed suicide. The FAA mandated changes to the 747's empennage structure and hydraulics to preclude similar mishaps.

1985 was a great year for music -- "New Day Rising" and "Flip Your Wig"; "Psychocandy"; the Reivers' "Translate Slowly" -- but a terrible year, relatively speaking, for air safety. Apart from JAL we had the Air India terrorist bombing (No. 5 on the worst-ever list), the Delta L-1011 incident in Dallas (our last serious wind-shear loss) and the infamous crash of an Arrow Air military charter in Gander, Newfoundland, in which more than 240 U.S. servicemen died. But look at it this way: The 747's weaknesses were addressed after JAL; explosives-screening techniques should prevent another Air India; wind-shear detection and avoidance are so improved that we haven't had a major, shear-related downing in two decades. Things happen; we learn.

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As for tail-related disasters, which is what sparked this whole conversation, we've looked at two. (It's a tad ironic, maybe, that American 587's misfortunes involved the wake vortices spun from a JAL 747.) Off the top of my head I can think of no others. That's admittedly not the most professional of research standards, but I've followed these things closely since I was old enough to read. If nothing jumps out at me, you can take that as a sign that it doesn't happen very often.

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Send them to AskThePilot and look for answers in a future column.


Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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