Pilots’-Eye View

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

Yet pilots disagree on whether the turbulence could have been sufficient to fatally damage any part of American 587's structure. One pilot, concurring with Kauffman and Schiavo, said, in effect, no way. "It's not uncommon to encounter wake turbulence," he said. "But what occurred here defies my understanding of aerodynamics and structure—for the tail to come off under relatively benign conditions." But for the retired airline pilot, there is no question that it is possible. "I'm not a bit surprised it did shake the fin loose," he said. A former air force pilot who flew B-52 bombers, he remembers a similar incident in which a B-52 crew managed to land the plane safely despite the loss of its vertical stabilizer.

As it happens, NASA has developed software to assist pilots in controlling an airplane solely by varying the thrust from engines. The software project began at the NASA Dryden research center in Edwards, California, after a DC-10 crash-landed in Sioux City, Iowa, having been flown for miles after an engine explosion severed all the hydraulic lines, so none of the control surfaces could respond to commands from the cockpit.

"We developed the software and flew it on two different types of aircraft with control surfaces locked," said Dryden spokesman Alan Brown. Brown said the program, called PCA for "propulsion-controlled aircraft," was offered to manufacturers, but there were no takers. He cautioned that PCA was designed for use on an aircraft with an intact fin. Taking the fin off would make the plane even harder to control. Still, Brown said, Dryden might have continued the research if the industry had shown any enthusiasm. "We were interested in taking it further," he said, "but it's up to the manufacturer to apply the technology."

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