Remember American Airlines 587? This was the Airbus 300 that, shortly after “9/11” crashed on departure and not far from Kennedy Airport in New York City. The accident was attributed to “wake turbulence” from a heavy-747 that had departed ahead of the Airbus. But something very disturbing came out of that investigation.
The Airbus is a “fly-by-wire” airplane. In other words, there are no mechanical linkages between the pilot’s joystick controller and the actual ailerons, elevator or rudder. No pushrods, no cables, no nuthin. Just electrical wires that run through a computer.
This computer is programmed so that the pilots cannot break the airplane. It will not allow the pilots to make a control input so fast or severe that it would overstress the things. On the surface, you might say, “This is good!” Yeah, well…but there’s always an exception, right? And there is one here, too. It’s the rudder.
Investigators discovered that below certain speeds, the Airbus computer allows the pilot much more rudder authority than would be expected or assumed. In fact, without knowing it, an Airbus pilot could push on his rudder pedal with sufficient force to snap the rudder clean off. Which is exactly what happened with American 586.
Okay, to clarify, not the rudder but the fin. Most people would probably call the whole vertical tailpiece the “rudder.” But it’s not. The rudder is just the part that wiggles back and forth to actually yaw the nose of the plane (or keep the nose from yawing, as the case may be). It is attached to what we call the “vertical fin,” which is the big immovable part. As the rudder wags back and forth, it imparts it’s aerodynamic loads on the fin, which is attached to the fuselage.
On the Airbus, the vertical fin is composite, not metal like on your basic Boeing airplane. The whole fin slides into a slot and is bonded to the fuselage, much like a big model airplane. I kid you not. In the crash of AA587, the whole damn fin snapped clean off as the pilot tap-danced on the pedals in response to the rockin’ and rollin’ his plane was doing as it reacted to the wake turbulence of the 747 ahead.
As it fin tore away, the aircraft yawed violently from side to side, generating enough force to snap the engines off and send them flying in two different directions. (This is why reporters were confused at first. There were three “crash sites” in Rockaway Beach, Queens. Turned out that one was the airplane and two were just fires created by the engines slamming into buildings on the ground, away from the main wreckage.)
Ever since this trait of the Airbus line came to light, I’ve never really liked riding in them (and I haven’t). I know it’s silly and irrational. I mean, how often do tails just snap off of airplanes in flight? I’m sure that Airbus has modified the algorithms in their computers so that it’s more difficult if not impossible for a pilot to stomp on the rudder pedal hard enough to damage the plane. Right?
But then I saw this picture.
What you're looking at there is the entire vertical fin *and* rudder from AF447. It does not look like it hit the water with the rest of the airplane. Rather, it looks like it snapped clean off and fell separately.
The question will be: Did it happen as a result of the crash? Or was it part of the events that caused the crash?
I had a bad feeling about this before, and it's not getting any better.