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August 7, 2002
CNN's Miles O'Brien Report on the Vanity Fair Article on August 6th

O'BRIEN: The investigation into what caused the fatal crash of American Airlines Flight 587 continues. Next week, the National Transportation Safety Board will try to recreate the brief flight in NASA simulators.

But nine months later, a probable cause of that crash remains elusive. Now an article in "Vanity Fair" Magazine is raising some questions about that investigation.


O'BRIEN (voice-over): It isn't easy piecing together the puzzle that is a major airline crash, and so it has gone for American Airlines Flight 587. Nine months after the Airbus A-300 lost its tail fin and crashed shortly after departing New York's Kennedy Airport, killing 265, only a few facts have come to light but the competing contradictory theories abound.

DAVID ROSE, JOURNALIST: To be frank with you, I don't actually have a theory. What I do have is evidence which casts grave doubt on the NTSB's theory, which they've been...

O'BRIEN: Freelance journalist David Rose has penned an article for the September issue of "Vanity Fair." He cites official data, independent analysis, and dozens of interviews that cast doubt on the pilot error explanation.

He takes issue with a statement made by outgoing National Transportation Safety Board Chairwoman Marion Blakey.

MARION BLAKEY, NTSB CHAIRWOMAN: We've calculated that certain rudder inputs by pilots made during certain stages of a flight can cause catastrophic failure of an airliner's vertical stabilizer.

O'BRIEN: Despite this statement, the NTSB has not come to any conclusion about the cause of American 587, which leads us to what we have reported here at CNN. According to crash investigators, it is likely the plane flew into the so-called weight vortices created by a 747 that departed just prior. The vortices are like strong horizontal tornadoes that spin off the tips of wings.

Shortly after hitting that turbulence, the rudder, the movable flap on the tail fin, began swinging wildly to and fro. In seconds, the tail fin sheared off but what caused the rudder to move so violently?

BOB TAMBORINI, PILOT: If you speak to most pilots, they don't believe that. Normally pilots are going to operate a rudder in that fashion.

O'BRIEN: 8300 Captain Bob Tamborini (ph) is among a group of eight American pilots who have launched their own investigation. They believe there's a defect in the Airbus rudder America mechanism, which causes it to move on its own. But American says there is no evidence that happened.

The pilots are also concerned about the strength of the A-300's composite tail. In May, they delivered a petition to American management requesting ultrasound inspections of the A-300 fleet. The technique can identify latent defects beneath the surface.

(on-camera): So is that airbus, A-300 -- is that graphite composite tail design unsafe? UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, I think there are very serious questions about the inspection regime that airbus and the FAA and American Airlines and other operators use.

O'BRIEN (voice-over): But American Airlines says the inspections, which require complete removal of the tail fin could do more harm than good. The airline and the NTSB say if the A-300s were unsafe, they would ground the fleet in an instant.


O'BRIEN: We asked American Airlines to comment, and the company responded with this statement -- "The notion that this story in any way furthers the real investigation of Flight 587 is ludicrous. Fortunately, we don't think the American public depends upon publications like 'Vanity Fair' for credible investigative information on aviation safety, and neither should CNN."

Airbus has this to say -- "The tabloidesque narrative irrationally suggests that the opinions of a small group of people are of more relevance than the ongoing work of the professional investigators. Safety remains the highest priority of all in the aviation community."

We asked the NTSB if they could provide us somebody on camera to talk with about this investigation. They decided not to, but we do have somebody with us who is an expert on such matters. Jim Hall, former chairman of the NTSB, who handled some of the most complicated cases in the history of the board, joining us now from Washington.

Good to have you with us, Mr. Hall.

JIM HALL, FORMER NTSB CHAIRMAN: Good afternoon, Miles.

O'BRIEN: All right, we're nine months post Flight 587. The theories continue to abound, not a lot of facts coming out. Is that something that we should consider unusual or is that the way it goes now with these complicated investigations?

HALL: Well, it's certainly not unusual and obviously, the focus of this story is -- of this show is based on this "Vanity Fair" article that Mr. Rose wrote in which he basically put words into the NTSB's mouth, formed conclusions for the agency that are still under investigation. The TWA accident investigation took us four years; U.S. Air 427 took an almost four-year period of time. The board is doing a very responsible job as it always does and to do that and do a thorough professional investigation, requires time.

O'BRIEN: Of course, journalism being such as it is, sometimes deadlines and pressures bring out stories like this. And I'm curious; as an investigator, on the inside of these investigations, does it hinder your ability to get the job done at all?

HALL: No, not at all. Obviously, I think the investigators, you know, follow the news and pay attention to what's going on like anyone else, but they are trained. Their focus is to let the facts lead them to conclusions and those conclusions then lead to recommendations that will make aviation safer. "Vanity Fair" is an entertainment magazine. I'm sure Mr. Rose was writing against a deadline. It's too bad he did not wait until the October hearings so that many of the questions that he sort of sets up and provides answers to will be obviously, answered in those October hearings.

O'BRIEN: Now, do you have the sense of, by October, when those hearings begin that this will be one of the investigations that the NTSB is able to come up with some probable cause or is this one that might, in fact, stump the investigators?

HALL: No, there have been rare instances in which the board has not been able to determine a probable cause. But again, there is a significant investigation. The first investigation of what is a major -- an accident involving a composite flight surface. So the board certainly needs to take its time and look at the certification, obviously, at all of the issues surrounding the pilot operations and what happened to the rudder, the effects of the weight turbulence, all of these things are being looked at separately. Then, they have to be brought together in the hearing and looked at and an opportunity for people to express their views. It's a process that is independent and it's a process that has served the American people well.

O'BRIEN: Mr. Hall, we are just about out of time, but I've got to ask you before we get away. If investigators had found some sort of defect in that A-300, the tail or the tail mechanism by now, would there have been a request from the NTSB to ground those aircraft?

HALL: Well, of course, there would. The NTSB -- obviously, any time there is a safety of flight issue, brings that issue to the attention of the FAA and the appropriate authorities. What is unfortunate here is that the pilots who -- many of the pilots here who form the basis of this article aren't helping me support cockpit -- cameras in the cockpit that would have answered many of the questions that they're posing in terms of what happened, what the pilots did or did not do during the accident sequence.

O'BRIEN: Jim Hall, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, always a pleasure to have you with us.

HALL: Thank you very much.


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