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Copilot's Actions at Heart of Hearings in Flight 587 Crash

Airbus says aggressive use of rudder caused disaster. Airline says it wasn't warned of flaws.

November 01, 2002|Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar and Eric Malnic | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — He was described as a pilot who had "hands of silk" and "did everything by the book."

Even a fellow pilot who offered a rare criticism of Sten Molin's airmanship called him a "perfectionist." Yet despite his skills, federal air safety investigators are trying to discern whether Molin could have made a tragic mistake that caused the tail to rip off American Airlines Flight 587.

Copilot Molin, who was at the controls of the Airbus A300, is the man in the middle of this week's National Transportation Safety Board hearings on the crash. The Nov. 12 accident killed all 260 aboard and five people on the ground in a New York neighborhood.

Molin's actions have become the focal point of an acrimonious battle between Airbus and American, which has brought courtroom-like tension to the accident hearings. The two companies could share tens of millions of dollars in monetary liability over the causes of the crash.

While not directly pointing fingers, Airbus witnesses insisted there was nothing mechanically wrong with the plane. They suggested the tail fin failed because of Molin's overly aggressive use of the plane's rudder to handle turbulence from the wake of a larger plane. Molin had been criticized for overusing the rudder once before and apparently had responded by changing his technique.

American contends that Airbus did not adequately inform its airline customers of the tail fin's vulnerability to abrupt, back-and-forth rudder movements. Tensions between the two companies spilled over Thursday in a discussion of a tangential issue: whether they fully cooperated in addressing safety concerns from a turbulence incident in the late 1990s.

By all accounts, Molin, 34 and the son of an airline pilot, was gifted and careful. But if he ultimately is blamed for the Flight 587 crash, his use of the rudder last November could become a textbook example of what not to do.

"It was clear to me from the first day that they would take a shot at my son," said Stanley Molin, who gave his son, then a teenager, his first flying lessons in a small plane. "I'm aware that he was the pilot at the controls and that statistically [most] accidents are attributed to pilot error. But we still don't know that [these] pilots did that."

Capt. Sam Mayer, who flies for American Airlines out of the New York area, said the younger Molin was known as a meticulous professional with an upbeat attitude and a broad range of interests and friends.

Molin was a gourmet cook and a computer whiz since his teens who also loved centuries-old pursuits such as sailing.

"He didn't fit the mold of your crusty old pilot," Mayer said. "He was a lot more erudite than that."

Molin was hired by American Airlines in 1991 after working for smaller carriers. The voluminous accident case file is full of details about Molin's habits. He was an early riser and a nonsmoker. At 5 feet 11, he weighed a trim 165 pounds. Highly allergic to cats, he took nothing stronger than Claritin for relief.

As a youth in Greenwich, Conn., Molin volunteered for a program that provided rides for teens who may have been drinking. As an adult, he rarely drank alcohol.

Molin was not married and had no children, but he remained in close touch with Diane Mascia, an American flight attendant he had dated for three years until 1997. Mascia spoke to Molin by phone the night before his last flight. She told investigators that he was in good spirits and looking forward to flying the next morning with Capt. Edward States, a family man and one of Molin's favorite pilots.

Earlier that Sunday, Molin had helped a friend cover her sailboat for the winter. In the evening, he invited two friends to his house for dinner. Mascia said he probably went to bed before 11 p.m., because he liked to get a good night's sleep before flying. His father found Molin's alarm clock set for 5:30 a.m.

The one question mark in Molin's professional background was revealed by Capt. John Lavelle, a senior Boeing 737 pilot for American. In an interview last summer with the NTSB, Lavelle reported that five years ago, he criticized Molin for overly aggressive use of the rudder during a takeoff.

The rudder is a movable panel on the rear edge of a plane's vertical tail fin. Operated by a system of pedals, its main use is to keep a plane flying straight when landing or taking off in a crosswind, or if an engine fails. Airline pilots make very little use of the rudder in normal flight.

NTSB investigators said in a report that Lavelle told them Molin had "excellent flying abilities [but] one strange tendency: to be very aggressive on the rudder pedals."

Lavelle said he had seen evidence of this on one occasion in 1997.

The Boeing 727 they were flying encountered turbulence during a takeoff, and Molin "stroked the rudder pedals 'one-two-three, about that fast,' " according to the NTSB report. The effect was to create sharp, uncomfortable sideways forces on the airplane.

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