WASHINGTON – The National Transportation Safety Board (search) ruling that a pilot's mistake caused the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 (search) on Nov. 12, 2001, doesn't settle the controversy over who was to blame for the crash.
The Airbus A300-600 plunged into a New York City neighborhood after losing its tail, killing all 260 people aboard and five on the ground.
The safety board ruled that the co-pilot improperly moved the rudder back and forth to try to steady the plane, which put more pressure on the tail than it could bear. The NTSB also ruled that the plane's overly sensitive rudder controls contributed to the accident, as well as the airline's inadequate pilot training.
The decision prompted angry reaction from Airbus Industrie, which manufactured the plane, and American Airlines, which trained the co-pilot. Each said the other shouldered more blame.
Both companies are being sued by families of the victims. The NTSB's reports can't be admitted into legal proceedings, but those familiar with air crash litigation say that lawyers use them as guides to develop their cases.
The safety board recommended that the Federal Aviation Administration (search) set new standards to make sure pilots can handle planes safely when the aircraft veer to the side. The FAA should also study whether the A300-600 can be redesigned to limit the danger of overusing the rudder, the board said. That recommendation also applied to the Airbus A310, which U.S. passenger airlines do not use.
Airbus spokesman Clay McConnell said the company will work with the FAA to study whether it's possible to redesign the rudder control system.
The NTSB also recommended that the FAA standardize and upgrade the way pilots are trained to recover from aircraft upsets.
NTSB Vice Chairman Mark Rosenker, who successfully urged the board to place the Airbus' rudder design ahead of American's training as a probable cause, said the Airbus A300-600 is an "extremely safe" aircraft.
"I believe we can make some changes to this aircraft to make it even safer," Rosenker said.
Board member Debbie Hersman said other American pilots received the same training without making the same mistake that co-pilot Sten Molin did on Flight 587.
The crash occurred just after the jet bound for the Dominican Republic took off from John F. Kennedy International Airport. The plane ran into turbulence caused by a Boeing 747 that had taken off just ahead.
According to investigators, Molin tried to steady the aircraft using pedals that control the rudder, a large flap on a plane's tail. When his initial movement failed to work, Molin tried repeatedly, causing the tail to break off within seconds.
The NTSB staff concluded Molin's use of the rudder was "unnecessary and aggressive."
NTSB investigator David Ivie said the only time pilots should use the rudder is when they're landing or taking off in a crosswind, which was not the case for Flight 587.
"The rest of the time, your feet should be on the floor," he said.
American is the only U.S. commercial passenger airline that uses the A300-600, with 34 in service. FedEx and UPS also use that model aircraft. Airbus claimed the airline failed to train its pilots properly to fly the jet, while American Airlines accused Airbus of failing to disclose problems with the rudder system.
The NTSB was divided 3-2 on which factor was the larger contributor to the accident.
American Airlines issued an angry statement after the decision, saying the pilot could not have caused the accident because he did not know about the rudder's sensitivity.
"How is safety served, how is future aviation safety enhanced, by blaming the pilot who had no way of knowing the design sensitivities of that airplane because Airbus, who did know, never told safety investigators, never told operators and never told pilots?" the statement said.
Airbus, in a statement, said it was surprised by the safety board's decision because the sensitive rudder had nothing to do with an accident caused by the co-pilot stomping on the rudder pedals.
Airbus's McConnell said American's training system for pilots failed to account for information it provided about the rudder system.
"This was a pilot acting on training he received," he said. "We made a good-faith effort to share what we knew, what was relevant about any previous incidents."