No sign Flight 587 engines failed

Pilots heard rattling

flight data recorder to be analyzed today

November 14, 2001|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

Investigators said preliminary inspections yesterday revealed no immediate signs of engine failure behind the crash of American Airlines Flight 587, which killed more than 260 people when it dived into a waterfront neighborhood of New York City on Monday morning.

After inspecting the engines for cracks, missing pieces and disintegration, National Transportation Safety Board member George Black Jr. said there was "no evidence of any sort of internal failure of the engine. They all seem to be in one piece."

As the investigation continued to focus on possible mechanical problems last night, the team provided the first accounts from a cockpit recording showing that the pilots apparently struggled to control the plane after hearing a loud rattling noise.

The Airbus A300 departed John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York bound for Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic at 9:14 a.m. Monday. About two minutes later, it crashed into Belle Harbor, a close-knit Queens neighborhood on a peninsula that separates Jamaica Bay from the Atlantic Ocean.

The cockpit voice recorder was found amid the wreckage Monday. The flight data recorder was discovered yesterday near the plane's scorched fuselage and was taken to Washington overnight for analysis.

Another key piece of evidence that could point to the cause of the crash - the aircraft rudder - was recovered from Jamaica Bay.

"Things are proceeding rapidly," said NTSB Chairwoman Marion Blakey. "All of those are significant pieces of progress that mean this investigation is really coming to a head here."

Nevertheless, she said, it was too early to speculate on a cause. Investigators said none of the evidence so far suggests terrorism.

"The public should feel reassured that there is no evidence of criminal activity and no evidence of foul play," Blakey said. "But we're not going to stop working on those questions until we are sure."

Investigators planned to begin a thorough review of the cockpit voice recorder this morning to decipher each sound on it. The only voices on the tape are those of the pilot and co-pilot, officials said.

The first portion of the flight appeared normal, Black said. But 107 seconds after take-off, an "airframe rattling" sound is heard. Shortly afterward, the pilot makes a comment about "wake encounter" - suggesting the disturbance might be the result of flying through the wake of another aircraft, perhaps a nearby Japan Airlines 747.

At 121 seconds, the rattling noise is heard again, followed almost immediately by a call for maximum power from the co-pilot.

At 127 seconds, comments suggesting loss of control are heard.

The recording ends 144 seconds after takeoff.

"Not only are words important on a tape, but sounds are important," Blakey said. As specialists begin reviewing it this morning, she said, they will have a library of taped sounds at their disposal to help identify every "clunk and clink."

Investigators also had planned to work through the night studying the contents of the plane's flight data recorder - the "black box" that tracks nearly 200 of an aircraft's functions, including speed and the actions of its engines and instruments.

That recorder could help resolve key questions. Investigators want to know, for instance, whether the plane's tail was ripped from the fuselage amid furious rattling after takeoff or came off after the plane began disintegrating.

Black said flight crews in the area at the time gave "remarkably similar" accounts of seeing the aircraft "wobble" before pieces fell from it and it made a steep, spiraling dive into the ground.

A former NTSB lead investigator, Greg Feith, said one possible sequence is that the tail detached from the plane, which caused the aircraft to turn sideways with sufficient force that one or both of the engines were ripped off. Experts say the sudden loss of a jetliner's tail is almost unprecedented in modern aviation. In a 1985 Japan Airlines accident that killed 520 people, investigators believed the pressure bulkhead separating the cabin from the tail section failed, allowing pressurized air to fill the unpressurized tail and bursting it.

`Foreign debris' unlikely

Investigators searched Jamaica Bay by air yesterday and made 15 dives into the water to search for evidence. But officials said little of significance was recovered.

"The bay is clear, you can see the bottom ... old tires and other things," Black said. "We did not observe any debris. We should have been able to see lightly colored pieces of aluminum." He dismissed reports last night that "foreign debris" had been found in one of the plane's engines, suggesting that birds could have been sucked into it, causing a malfunction and fire.

"There was no evidence on initial inspection ... of any foreign-object damage from a bird," Black said.

Many experts scoffed at the idea, in part because planes are designed and pilots are trained to handle collisions with birds.

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