Pilots’-Eye View

The Crash of Flight 587 Raises Questions About Training and Air Traffic Control

When a big jet crashes, pilots analyze and debate the causes. Naturally, professional aviators are scrutinizing American Airlines Flight 587, the European Airbus A300 that on the morning of November 12 had barely left the ground when it broke apart and plummeted into the Rockaways. All 260 people aboard died, as well as five people on the ground.

In this case, the debate focused on pilot training. "I'm very upset by the training," one retired airline pilot told the Voice. (None of the four pilots interviewed for this article wished to be identified.) "I don't think we're turning out nearly as good pilots as before; even in the military you're [more] a computer programmer" than an aviator. Referring to the violent shaking and loss of control that apparently happened after the Airbus encountered the wake left by a Japan Airlines 747, he said, "When things go to hell, it's still something you've got to control in three axes—pitch, roll, and yaw."

Another pilot agreed, complaining that pilots, trained by rote, are unprepared for sudden emergencies. He also cited what he saw as a disturbing trend toward the increasingly automated environment in contemporary cockpits. "They've thrown all the basic flying skills out the window—young pilots today aren't trained to solve problems," he said. "We had detailed engineering courses—we could build the thing—but today it's a comic book." Several examples came up during pilot interviews of tragedies that should have been avoided—for instance, Swissair 111, which crashed off Nova Scotia in 1998 after the pilot delayed an emergency landing to dump fuel because the plane exceeded the recommended maximum landing weight. "He should have landed heavy," said one pilot in astonishment at such an error.

The pilot in control of the American Airlines jet was 34-year-old Sten Molin, the designated co-pilot on the routine run to Santo Domingo. The Connecticut Post has reported that the Greenwich resident trained at a university flying school, was used to the route, and loved to fly. On September 11, he witnessed the second jetliner crash into the World Trade Center from his cockpit seat as he waited in line at JFK to take off for that morning's flight to Santo Domingo.

"The complaint is they're trained to the instruments, and when something goes wrong, they aren't used to the feel of the aircraft," said Mary Schiavo, former inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation and a fierce critic of airlines and federal regulators. Schiavo allowed that the pilots the Voice interviewed have a point—for example, these days major airlines will hire pilots with significantly fewer hours in the air than they once did. (Molin had been flying for American for 10 years.) But as to automation in the cockpit, Schiavo said, "Aircraft are changing, and it won't be long before it is a flying computer."

In evident frustration at yet another tragedy in the air and, presumably, at another blow to consumer confidence in airline safety, the retired pilot said air traffic control was partly to blame, for imposing on pilots what he called a double standard. He explained that commercial jet pilots concentrate on their instruments, especially on takeoff and landing; that's part of what's called Instrument Flight Rules (IFR), under which pilots are guided by air traffic control. Yet in clear weather they are also expected to look out for obstacles, such as other aircraft. This is called "see and be seen." "You can't always be 'see and be seen' and fly IFR departures at the same time—you just can't do that," he said. Regarding Flight 587, he said, "Controllers have a responsibility to see that you stay away from that turbulence." On this point Schiavo agreed, suggesting Kennedy controllers should have ensured there was more space between the two aircraft. She said, "Probably the FAA will have some explaining to do."

At this early stage in the investigation it's not known if the American Airlines tragedy could have been avoided. But after taking off that morning in clear, calm weather, the aircraft apparently survived two wake-turbulence episodes with all its major structure intact. Then came violent side-to-side movements (yaw), and the tail fin and rudder, used to keep the aircraft pointed forward like an arrow and to control yaw, ripped away from the fuselage.

Reports in The New York Times have suggested that the pilots may have overstressed the rudder in an attempt to control these movements, helping to cause the structural failure. But other reports have made clear that the tail fin itself is suspect. It was first repaired when a weakness was noted by American after the plane was delivered from the French factory in 1988. Six years later it sustained possible damage after an encounter with severe turbulence near Puerto Rico. Schiavo had no doubts where investigators should be looking. "There's no way that anything the pilots could have done would have ripped off the tail," she said. Noting that Airbus has had problems with a dangerous phenomenon called "flutter," in which the tail fin vibrates uncontrollably, Schiavo wondered whether a spasm of flutter in the fin might have exacerbated pre-existing flaws. "I think we'd better focus on the tail," she said.

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