Fat Steve's Blatherings

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Airbus and MSM Info

      Although the U.S. MSM didn't cover it to any great extent, there was a near disaster with an Airbus-310 on Sunday, March 6th this year. (Multiple Hat tips: Prof. Glenn Reynolds).  The rudder suddenly fell off Air Transat Flight 961, an A310 heading from Cuba to Quebec.

      This is technically very interesting, as a rudder came off an A300 (almost identical to the A310) in Nov. of 2001, killing 265 people aboard American Airlines Flight 587.  Flight 587's crash was blamed on the pilot overstressing the rudder.

      There have also been other accidents with the A300, fortunately non-fatal.  It looks like European socialist air transport isn't what it's been cracked up to be.  That ought to have some interesting ramifications for Airbus's future, especially since the company is eager to sell its new super-jumbo A380.

      A politically interesting point now comes from BitsBlog.  The pilot of the Air Transat flight asked to land in Ft. Lauderdale.  Note that word asked.  If the pilot had declared an emergency, they'd have put him down wherever he wanted.

      But since the pilot only asked, he was offered Miami (no customs officials at Ft. Lauderdale that day).  The pilot then called his home office, and was told to return to Cuba.  He did, landing safely -- but the story was put out that the U.S. refused to allow Air Transat to make an emergency landing.  That seems to be untrue.

      It looks like someone decided to use this as an opportunity for a little USAmerica bashing.  Besides slandering us, it diverts suspicion from Airbus's engineering.

      Wonder how long it will be before the MSM really picks up on this? There are currently (10:41 PM) 628 stories on Wolfowitz as the new World Bank President, 944 on the Senate voting to allow drilling in the ANWR, and 807 on whether Italy will pull troops out of Iraq, and only 44 on the Airbus accident.

      Looks like an opportunity to humiliate the MSM again.  It comes just in time, too.  In an update to this story, the Washington Post editor Philip Bennett claims he was egregiously misquoted and distorted by the Chinese People's Daily Online.  With Bennett off the hook, we need another victim.

      Update: Short, Final, Cleared to Land has an entry on the Airbus (do NOT miss the photo), and adds this question about Flight 587:
Regarding Flight 587, the NTSB report prompted me to ask an airline pilot I know about the typical usage of the autopilot. Flight 587 was at almost 3000 feet when the tail separated, and I was wondering why the autopilot wasn't on yet. If the theory regarding the inputs of the pilot having caused the loss of the vertical stab[ilizer] is correct, the tragedy would be that it wouldn't have happened if the autopilot was being used.

According to the pilot I talked to (737 Captain for US Airways), the autopilot will normally be engaged within the first 1000 ft. of altitude in the Boeing 737 he flies, but often much sooner for the Airbus due to its more modern systems. The actual altitude of engagement is up to the pilots discretion, but it seems to be commonly the case that the autopilot is engaged very soon after lift-off. This is borne out by my admittedly limited experiences in flying jets. I always preferred to hand fly since it's so rare that I get the opportunity, but the pilots always seemed to want to get on autopilot asap.

I don't know, (and didn't ask) if there is any way to tell if the autopilot was engaged on Flight 587, and I couldn't find anything in the NTSB report that says one way or the other. I'm left wondering if the autopilot was, in fact, engaged at the time of the loss of the stab, or whether it would have made any difference one way or the other in light of what happened on Flight 961.



  • Commenting on the vanishing rudder on flight 961, he pointed out that nothing was said about composite inspection in the NTSB's report on flight 587.

    IIRC, the 587 investigation initially considered reports of delamination in the tail structures. The final report seemed to indicate that pilot error had to have caused load above rated loads (in particular, a "swaying" movement to compensate which instead led to high loads to try to damp an oscillatory phenomemon). But the question does arise as to how strong the composites are at those loads, and whether bad composites will significanly impair structural integrity (and how often there are flaws in the composite construction).

    I know composites are popular (and essential to such as the F-22), but there may be a learning curve, similar to that found with the problem of metal fatigue in the earlier days of large airplanes after repeated flexing, leading to an abandonment of the static load tests that failed to show this problem. . . .


    By Blogger Arne Langsetmo, at 12:46 AM  

  •       Good comment, Mr. Langsetmo.

          I'd think it would be obvious that when working with new materials, you'd ask how you test them.  I'd also think that if hitting the rudder pedals too hard could make the tail come off, there'd be an interlock to prevent that happening.

          Some accidents, you can see how multiple causes interact unpredictably, but in this case, it just seems like bad design on the tail, and bad design on the maintainence regime.


    By Blogger Stephen M. St. Onge, at 12:06 AM  

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