Rudder Deflection

Q: There’s no reason short of an emergency to command full rudder deflection one way, followed by full deflection the opposite way, regardless of how Sten Molin was trained. That is a ridiculous and uncoordinated response to 587’s encounter with wake vortices. Admit it, it was dumb!

I never attempted to exonerate Molin. I’m hardly the most experienced pilot in the world, and I’ve never driven an A300, but the last time I jammed in full rudder, let alone kicked it back and forth in both directions, was probably in a Cessna fifteen years ago. However, I maintain that Molin’s actions were not as overtly negligent as they sound. Clearly he overreacted, but he didn’t have reason to think his inputs were going to rip the tail off, and he’s not the only pilot surprised to learn that full deflection — even multiple full deflections — below maneuvering speed, however irregular, are risking structural catastrophe.

I hate to go this way, but there also remains the chance that flight 587’s carbon-fiber tail may have played a role in the accident.

Carbon-fiber components are tested and examined differently than traditional metals. They are stronger and lighter, but when damaged or weakened, the damage tends to occur internally, in a way that is very hard to detect. There’s also the matter of structural load standards. Airbus tails are built to withstand lesser — though still quite forceful — amounts of stress compared to Boeing jets.

In 1994 the very same plane involved in the accident, registration N10453, made an unscheduled landing in the Caribbean after it struck unusually rough air at 35,000 feet. Could this have resulted in a structural weakness, more or less undetectable and needing only the right set of circumstances to manifest itself?

The recovered portions of 587’s tail were put through advanced CT scanning and analysis by NASA and the Ford Motor Company (for whatever reason, Ford is home to one of the most advanced scanning equipment), to no significant findings. The NTSB officially ruled out the tail’s composite architecture as a factor. But not everybody believes this is fair.

These factors, if indeed they played a role, were merely part of the greater disaster puzzle, contingent on a highly unlikely chain of events. I am not suggesting the tails of Airbus A300s are dangerous or substandard. The most pessimistic summary I can offer is this: not every airplane can be as safe as every other. Don’t let that alarm you. Ominous as it sounds, keep in mind the sorts of decimal places we’re dealing with. Even a worst case model-versus-model statistical comparison is chiefly academic.


This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.