THE MYSTERY OF AMERICAN AIRLINES FLIGHT 587
Programme : CHANNEL 4 NEWS
Duration : 4 MINUTES 50 SECONDS
There were horrible echoes of September the 11th when American Airlines Flight 587 crashed into New York's Rockaway Peninsular last November. It was soon declared an accident with the theory that the plane had become trapped in the turbulence of the plane travelling in front of it - pilot error was another theory - but now an investigation by the magazine, Vanity Fair, casts serious doubt on the official line and reveals dangers lurking in the Airbus A300/600.
Our Science Reporter, Julian Rush has been examining the evidence.
JULIAN RUSH: Reporter
Coming two months after September the 11th, the crash of Flight 587 was the last thing the battered and reeling US airline industry needed. Within hours, even before its investigators were on the scene, the newly appointed NTSB Chairwoman, Marion Blakey, said is was an accident. The USA breathed a sigh of relief; the terrorists had not struck again. But the NTSB's rush to judgement, perhaps under political pressure, had alarmed seasoned investigators.
VERNON GROSE: Former NTSB Board Member
So from that very point on, there's only two ... it's a lose-lose: if it turns out to be an accident, then everybody will suspect the NTSB is twisting the evidence; if it turns out to be a terrorist act, then it'll look as though they tried to mislead the people.
Forced to come up with an alternative explanation, the NTSB suggested pilot error. A Japanese Airline 747 took-off 105 seconds before Flight 587. Official said the Airbus' data recorder had registered two small separate jolts consistent they said with Flight 587 flying into the turbulent wake of the jumbo jet. The pilots they claimed overreacted. But the calculations based on radar data and known wind-speed and direction suggests that simply never happened. They've been done by a network of pilots and experts across the internet.
DAVID ROSE: Writer, 'Vanity Fair'
Victor Trombettas, who lives in Queens, has assembled this remarkable network of aviation experts and on whose work I have drawn very heavily, has calculated using the radar data, the relative positions of the two planes and computed that with the wind-speed and direction on the day, and what he has shown is that the wake from the from the 747, the air mass that contains that turbulence, doesn't even get halfway to Flight 587.
The NTSB investigation has focused on the tailfin that snapped-off almost certainly after the rudder was jerked from side to side five times. Pilot overreaction has been suggested. But Rose discovered US pilots have sent the NTSB a dossier of what are called 'un-commanded rudder movements' on the Airbus A300 - unexplained, but they suspect the plane's electronic control systems. They asked for the fleet to be grounded, the NTSB refused.
The internet investigators found more. Recordings of radio traffic and what's known about what was said in the cockpit suggest the plane was already in trouble long before the fatal rudder movements.
One of the very first things that happens is the plane sends out corrupt, unreadable radar data - something very, very unusual. Now, was that the first sign of some huge control or electronic system malfunction. We know from witnesses that the plane was flying for quite some time in a very strange attitude, the nose was out of alignment with the direction of flight - it was skidding across the sky long before these rudder movements started. Now, what had caused that?
Then there's the ground audio tapes that record Flight 587 acknowledging instructions as normal.
American 587 heavy, turn left, proceed direct wavey.
PILOT: American Airlines, Flight 587
Turn Direct wavey American 587 Heavy
Then they catch a voice saying 'Try escape!' that the father of the Airbus co-pilot has identified as his son.
CO-PILOT: American Airlines, Flight 587
Escape is a known emergency procedure where pilots apply maximum power. Moments later they did. Why is the big mystery.
MAN #1 (Tom Lynch):
And I saw an explosion in the sky and I saw the plane it looked like one of its wings fell off.
There are a number of eyewitnesses from quite a variety of positions of observation that did see fire on the right side of the aircraft, on the fuselage, aft of the wing, prior to the time the tail even came off.
Fire can be cause or effect, but Grose says officials will, as they have done before, dismiss eyewitnesses as 'unreliable'. Tonight, the NTSB said its investigation was ongoing. It's early judgements though looking increasingly questionable.