OpinionMeister

Monday, March 14, 2005

Is the Airbus Safe?

The Mail and Guardian reports of major problems with the rudder of the Airbus. Link. Thanks to Glenn Reynolds for the link.
At 35 000 feet above the Caribbean, Air Transat flight 961 was heading home to Quebec with 270 passengers and crew. At 3.45pm last Sunday, the pilot noticed something very unusual. His Airbus A310's rudder -- a structure over 8m high -- had fallen off and tumbled into the sea. In the world of aviation, the shock waves have yet to subside.

Mercifully, the crew was able to turn the plane around, and by steering it with their wing and tail flaps managed to land at their point of departure in Varadero, Cuba, without loss of life. But as Canadian investigators try to discover what caused this near catastrophe, the specialist internet bulletin boards used by pilots, accident investigators and engineers are buzzing. (...)

He and his colleagues also believe that what happened may shed new light on a previous disaster. In November 2001, 265 people died when American Airlines flight 587, an Airbus A300 model which is almost identical to the A310, crashed shortly after take-off from JFK airport in New York. According to the official report into the crash, the immediate cause was the loss of the plane's rudder and tailfin, though this was blamed on an error by the pilots.

There have been other non-fatal incidents. One came in 2002 when a FedEx A300 freight pilot complained about strange "uncommanded inputs" -- rudder movements which the plane was making without his moving his control pedals. In FedEx's own test on the rudder on the ground, engineers claimed its "acuators" -- the hydraulic system which causes the rudder to move -- tore a large hole around its hinges, in exactly the spot where the rudders of both flight 961 and flight 587 parted company from the rest of the aircraft.

That's a lot of incidents involving one kind of rudder. There has to be something very wrong either with the rudder itself or with how it is configured on the planes. Should the FAA continue to allow the Airbus in US airspace until the problem is identified and corrected? Prudent passengers may wish to avoid carriers flying the Airbus until a fix is found and made.

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