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Turbulence May Have Caused Flight 587 Crash

Aired November 14, 2001 - 14:40   ET


JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: The other major story we are following this week: the crash on Monday of an American Airlines passenger plane, an Airbus in Queens, just outside New York City at JFK -- just close to JFK Airport.

Aviation expert and journalist Jim McKenna joins me now in the Washington studio. Jim, and you have come up with some new information about the amount of distance between the previous plane that took off and the American Airlines -- 587?

JIM MCKENNA, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: That's right, Judy. The investigators are looking into the possibility that the American Airlines aircraft somehow encountered turbulence from a 747 that was flying ahead of it.

The indications they had yesterday were that the airplanes has taken off about two minutes apart from JFK, which would be a standard separation for the airplanes. But as they flew through the air, investigators now believe that the American airplane somehow caught up with the Japan Airlines 747 so that when this event began that led to the accident, the American airplane was only about 90 seconds behind the Japan Airlines aircraft in flight.

WOODRUFF: Now why is that significant?

MCKENNA: That's significant because time is the critical factor when you are talking about wake turbulence. Wake turbulence is a horizontal tornado that spins off the wing tips of an airplane. And if you fly into it, you are going to get bumped around quite a bit.

If you are too close to the airplane ahead of you, the wake turbulence could actually cause your airplane to go out of control. So the FAA has set standard separations. In this case, it would be about four nautical miles or two minutes. The plane that was involved in the accident reported some loss of control as...

WOODRUFF: From the voice cockpit -- the cockpit voice recorder.

MCKENNA: ... from the cockpit voice recorder, so the significance is did the wake turbulence not have enough time to dissipate to a safe level so that the American Airlines aircraft could pass through it. Was it still spinning too wildly that it was a danger for the American Airline. WOODRUFF: If that's what happened, Jim McKenna, what would that cause -- and we are looking at some animation here of a plane I presume like the one taking off, going down a runway and then making a sharp turn to the left as the American flight did.

MCKENNA: That's correct.

WOODRUFF: What would happen to the airplane, in that rear situation, if it did get too close? What would physically happen, because -- I'm asking because we've now -- the tail section is found in the bay, apparently or possibly having fallen off before other parts of the plane.


Now, what typically happens in a wake turbulence encounter is that as the one aircraft goes out ahead and the -- say the American airplane was turning in behind that. If the American airplane encountered the wake turbulence from the Japan Airlines 747, it would encounter a severe bit of turbulence.

Wake turbulence, in particular, tends to cause an aircraft to roll over on its side. The pilots would have to combat that by using the rudder, which is a segment that fell off this airplane as well as the other controls on the wings to stabilize the airplane.

WOODRUFF: Jim, I'm told this is NASA -- I'm sorry to interrupt you -- I'm told this is NASA video of turbulence as it -- I just caught a quick glimpse of it there because I was trying to focus on what you were saying.

MCKENNA: Yes, and there is a good example of the vortex or the horizontal tornado that spins off the leading airplane. And you can see that when this airplane encounters that white stream that represents the wake vortex, the airplane tends to roll to its side. In a severe case, the airplane could roll almost to the point of getting out of control.

It's important to note that the investigators are only looking at this as one piece of the puzzle, possibly a triggering event that confronted the pilot suddenly with an emergency and then tested their ability to assess that emergency and react properly to it. And they will subsequently look at the other elements to see what the response of the pilots was and whether that was the proper response to keep the airplane out of trouble.

WOODRUFF: Jim, what do pilots normally do to avoid getting too close to the plane in front of them, which you are suggesting may have been what happened here.

MCKENNA: Normally, the pilots will work with the controllers to maintain a safe separation in terms of the number of nautical miles between you and the airplane ahead of you.

WOODRUFF: But what would cause that not to happen? What would cause that to break down? MCKENNA: Well, that would break down if one airplane was flying faster than the airplane ahead of it, which was probably not the case in this instance.

It would also happen if, for instance, the Japan Airlines plane took off from Kennedy Airport and entered the left turn. And then the American airplane took off behind it and entered a turn earlier and turned in tighter behind the Japan Airlines.

WOODRUFF: In effect, almost turning into the turbulence that already existed.

MCKENNA: That's correct.

WOODRUFF: But again, planes are taking off from airports like JFK all the time. Why wouldn't we see this thing occur more often? I mean, pilots must know that this is a potential hazard.

MCKENNA: The pilots would know that it's a potential hazard. The investigators will want to assess how much is known about this particular hazard in terms of turning into wake turbulence on a departure, out of an airport like JFK, whether that information has been properly disseminated to the pilots, whether the pilots have been trained adequately to deal with that circumstance. As you said, thousands of airplanes take off every day, and this has never caused a crash before, to anybody's knowledge. So they'll try to...


MCKENNA: So they will try to figure out why this particular set of events and circumstances led to a fatal crash.

WOODRUFF: All right.

Let me just finally ask you again about that tail section of the plane that came off. Would the frantic efforts by the pilots to get the plane under control, would that in any way -- if this is what happened -- in any way explain the tail section coming off first?

MCKENNA: It might. Theoretically...

WOODRUFF: Again, we're in the realm of speculation.

MCKENNA: Theoretically, the tail on an airliner like the A300 should not fail in circumstances like that. The investigators will be working with Airbus Industry to find out just what that tail is built to take and whether the circumstances that led to this accident exceeded those limits. If it didn't, then they will try to figure out if there may have been something inherently wrong with the tail.

WOODRUFF: Well just quickly, Jim McKenna, the 90 seconds -- they are firm about that now? They know that there was that 90 seconds between...

MCKENNA: The investigators believe that the airplanes were only separated by about 90 seconds. WOODRUFF: All right.

Jim McKenna, who is an aviation expert and journalist that we have been talking to ever since Monday's crash, Monday morning. All right, thanks very much. And I know we are going to be wanting to come back to you a little bit later.

MCKENNA: Thank you.

WOODRUFF: I want to go directly from Jim out to the site of the crash of the American Airlines flight.

Brian Cabell is there. Brian, I know you have been listening to all this and talking to people there.

BRIAN CABELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, the investigation, Judy, is in its third day. Investigators trying to put together the pieces. Unfortunately, they have a good number of substantial pieces.

The fuselage itself right behind me, about a block behind me. They have both engines, apparently, in relatively good shape. And they have the tail section.

Now the very first video since those first couple of hours came out just about an hour or two ago. They've released that from this block that was devastated by this crash on Monday. What you see, of course, is the fuselage. You see four homes destroyed, seven damaged, five people missing from this neighborhood and presumed dead.

A number of theories apparently being discounted so far. No bird apparently ingested into the engine, that's the preliminary determination. The engines appear to be OK. No bomb heard onboard, so that's more or less being discounted, but again, the question being raised by you and others: Why did the tail come off so early? What happened there?

The black boxes -- this is the good news -- have both been recovered. The bad news is they are not in very good shape. In fact, the flight data recorder has been sent to the manufacturer to try to retrieve some information. But from the cockpit voice recorder, as you've been saying here for the last couple of minutes, this theory of wake turbulence. What role did that play?


GEORGE BLACK, NTSB: We are looking into the flight path of a preceding airplane to see if this had any affect. The data recorder should give us the G-forces, the accelerations in all of the axes of the airplane which will tell us how severe the turbulence was, and then that will go into making the decision about what the effects were.


CABELL: One family particularly hard hit in this neighborhood, just a block or so away from the fuselage itself, the McKeon family. One of the engines fell directly onto their home. A big fire ensued. They barely escaped. But now, of course, they are out of their home.


KEVIN MCKEON, HOME DESTROYED IN CRASH: American Airlines has been here with representatives and all kinds of people. And no one has approached us and said -- you know, you know -- "We are sorry for what happened and, you know, has there been any fatalities or any injuries or do you have a place to live or how are you doing or who are you with" -- nothing.

They just pass us by with a cold shoulder. And we feel that, you know, we are homeless. We are the victims here.


CABELL: We are attempting to get a response from American Airlines. We made a couple of calls. We are expecting that shortly.

As for the investigation here, this will continue certainly for several days behind me. There may be a working theory as to what went wrong on Monday and in the next week or so. But we probably will not have a final determination for another year or so -- Judy.

WOODRUFF: All right.

Brian Cabell, there seems to no end to the tragedy in that particular neighborhood in Queens, where the plane went down on Monday. Thank you, Brian.




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