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THE NATION | THE CRASH OF FLIGHT 587

Jet Crash Inquiry Shifts to Tail Section Breakup

November 14, 2001|ERIC MALNIC and RICARDO ALONSO-ZALDIVAR | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

NEW YORK — The investigation into the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 into a neighborhood in Queens shifted Tuesday from a possible engine failure to an unexplained breakup of the tail section, officials said, raising new questions about the disaster that killed at least 265 people.

Aviation safety investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board are now trying to understand why critical components such as the plane's tail fin fell half a mile from the fuselage wreckage. Also, both engines were found several hundred feet from the main debris field.

"This is a far more perplexing case than people imagined," said aviation consultant Peter Goelz, former managing director of the NTSB. However, officials said the evidence continues to point to an accident, and not a crime or another terrorist attack.

The tail fin--which helps to keep a plane flying straight--was pulled Monday from the waters of Jamaica Bay and appeared as if it had cleanly broken away from the rest of the fuselage. Without the fin, it would be virtually impossible for pilots to maintain control. Officials said initial analysis points to a fracture of the material used to make the tail fin, not the bolts attaching it to the main fuselage.

Witnesses "saw the aircraft wobble, pieces come from it, and then a steep spiraling dive into the ground," said NTSB member George Black.

Another element was added to the puzzle Tuesday when NTSB officials said they were investigating whether the turbulent wake of a Japan Air Lines Boeing 747 could have played a role. The larger jet had taken off two minutes and 20 seconds earlier and was seven to eight miles ahead of the smaller American Airlines Airbus 300.

The time and distance should have been more than enough to forestall any problems, but the cockpit voice recorder on Flight 587 picked up comments indicating that the pilots encountered turbulence.

Asked if wake turbulence could have been a factor, Black responded, "It's possible." Pressed on whether it could have torn off the tail section, he added: "That is certainly one thing that we want to know."

American Airlines spokesman John Hotard was less equivocal. "Terrific forces tore off a tail and apparently the plane's two engines," he said.

Despite the lack of an immediate explanation for the crash, there was no suggestion from the NTSB or the FBI that Flight 587 was brought down by a bomb or some other criminal act.

"Everything that we have seen thus far indicates that this was an accident," said NTSB Chairwoman Marion C. Blakey.

In what Blakey called a "major breakthrough," investigators on Tuesday recovered the plane's second "black box"--the flight data recorder--which should contain critical details on how the pilots worked the controls and other technical aspects of the flight.

Most of the remains of the victims have been recovered from the site of the fiery wreck, allowing the investigation to proceed unhindered, she said.

NTSB member Black told reporters that the cockpit voice recorder, recovered on Monday, picked up sounds of an "airframe rattling noise" after Flight 587 took off Monday without incident and was climbing away from John F. Kennedy International Airport, bound for Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, in the Caribbean.

The initial sound of shaking from the fuselage came one minute and 47 seconds after the plane had powered up for takeoff. Up to that time, nothing on the recording indicated anything was awry, based on a preliminary analysis, Black said.

About seven seconds after the rattling sound, the recorder picked up a comment from Capt. Edward States about wake turbulence from the jet ahead. Another seven seconds later, the rattling noise was heard again. It was quickly followed by the voice of co-pilot Sten Molin, who was flying the takeoff, calling for more power from the jet's two engines.

Then, two minutes and seven seconds after the plane began taxiing for takeoff, the cockpit voice recorder picked up comments from the pilots indicating that they were losing control.

The recording ended 17 seconds later.

Black said the investigation thus far has shown no signs of a catastrophic engine failure, despite early suspicions based on prior problems with the type of engine on the Airbus. He said, however, that no final conclusions have been reached.

He also discounted speculation that an engine could have failed by sucking in birds, which have posed a safety problem on JFK's runways. "There is no evidence of any kind of foreign object damage--including a bird," he said.

New concerns focused on the Airbus tail fin--known as the vertical stabilizer--and on the still-undetermined role of turbulence.

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