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Truth Will Out, Slowly

November 18, 2001|PETER GARRISON | Peter Garrison is a Los Angeles journalist and pilot who writes a regular column on airplane crashes for Flying magazine

Within minutes of American Airlines Flight 587's crash, the speculation machine was revving up. Could it have been a terrorist act? The answer came back quickly from government officials. "There is no indication."

Of course there was no indication; there was no indication yet of anything at all, other than that a plane had crashed. Nor are there likely to be definitive answers about what caused the crash for weeks or months.

But conjecture doesn't depend on facts, and so the speculation continued. Did an engine fail? Well, an engine fell in a gas station several blocks from the main wreckage. Bird strike? Has happened, can damage aircraft systems. Electric? Hydraulic? This is a fly-by-wire airplane. No, maybe this is not a fly-by-wire airplane. Does "engine failure" include falling off? The engines are General Electric CF-6-80C2s. (They have had problems--but then all engines have had problems.) No unusual radio communications. There was an explosion prior to descent; there was no explosion--pick your witness.

But above all, the message went: Don't worry, there's no sign of terrorism! This seems to have been just a plain garden-variety accident. Breathe easy! Travel! Shop!

A certain amount of feverish speculation is inevitable when airlines drop from the sky. Reporters have deadlines, people want answers and expert sources like to see their names in the papers. This accident bred more speculation than most, however, because it happened, against all odds, in New York--and so soon after Sept. 11. It was natural to see a link and equally natural for the authorities to protest--protest too much, in fact--that there was none. But both viewpoints in those early hours and days were pure guesswork.

Actually, given the times, some kind of sabotage was undoubtedly every American's first thought. We were still within the "heightened threat" period Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft had warned of. An Al Qaeda spokesman had publicly cautioned American Muslims and others who opposed U.S. policy "not to travel by airplanes." And given the bizarre nature of the accident, terrorism provided one of the few plausible explanations. Airliners are normally quite capable of continuing to fly after an engine failure, and the chance of debris from a disintegrating turbine completely disabling an airplane's control system is (ever since some obvious design flaws of the DC-10 were corrected more than a decade ago) extremely minute. Even the complete separation of an engine--a failure of the supporting pylon rather than of the engine itself--would not bring an airplane down if the crew reacted properly to it, and in any case would not bring about a plummeting, disintegrating dive like that of Flight 587. As to the tail separating, that was virtually unprecedented and so could not have provided enlightenment in those early hours.

In the hectic days following a crash information emerges slowly. Every random crumb is pounced upon and mauled by ravenous media. Yet the obvious is often overlooked, perhaps because most reporters lack the level of aeronautical expertise needed to put an accident into reasonable perspective. To people who know aviation well, the most striking thing about Flight 587 was that it disintegrated in flight, at a low altitude and a relatively low speed. There were no thunderstorms in the vicinity; no midair collision; the cabin was not yet even pressurized. For an airliner to come apart in flight is fantastically unlikely; for it to happen just after takeoff and in mild weather is all but impossible.

Yet it happened. And so every expert commenting on the accident in the first hours, before information from the voice and flight-data recorder began to emerge, has to have harbored in the back of his mind the idea of a bomb.

Aircraft-accident investigation can be an extraordinarily time-consuming business. Thousands of pieces are retrieved, sometimes from deep oceans or remote wildernesses. They are identified, analyzed chemically, macro-and microscopically scrutinized for the telltale signatures of fire, explosion, fatigue, corrosion, impact or wear. The final moments of the flight are reconstructed, a fraction of a second at a time, from voice and data recorders and from air traffic control radar tapes. Witness statements--often mutually contradictory or logically implausible--are sifted and compared. Aircraft gyrations and cockpit points-of-view are recreated with simulators and computers. Scenarios are proposed, discussed, discarded. Finally, a cause is determined--but it is never officially characterized as more than "probable," and, in fact, competing investigative bodies with different political agendas have been known to arrive at quite different "probable causes" of the same accident.

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