November 29, 2016
AS NOVEMBER comes to a close, we’ve passed a remarkable milestone. It has now been fifteen years since the last serious crash involving a major U.S. air carrier.
On November 12th, 2001, American Airlines flight 587, an Airbus A300 bound for Santo Domingo, went down in the Belle Harbor section of Queens moments after takeoff from JFK airport, killing 260 people (see below for details). Since that day, there has not been a large-scale, multiple-fatality disaster involving a U.S. major. Over ten billion passengers have traveled safety aboard American, United, Delta and Southwest. We also could add jetBlue, Alaska, Hawaiian, Spirit and Frontier to that list; and, when they still were around, US Airways, AirTran and Northwest.
To be clear, there have been a handful of tragedies involving regional carriers and freighters, from the UPS accidents in Dubai and Birmingham, to the Colgan Air and Comair crashes, in which dozens died. And, in 2005, a young boy in a car was killed when a Southwest Airlines 737 overran a runway in Chicago. Some will argue that it’s unfair to gerrymander statistics in this fashion, separating airlines into categories of convenience. However, it’s necessary. Regional carriers, for instance, can have substantially different cultural and operational environments than their legacy carrier affiliates. It’s the majors that set the standard, and it’s only fair that we measure from there. And, in decades past, one or two catastrophes a year involving a legacy carrier was considered normal, even expected. Where we stand today is almost unbelievable. Fifteen years is by far the longest such streak, ever.
How we got here is mainly the result of better training, better technology, and the collaborative efforts of airlines, pilot groups, and regulators. We’ve engineered away what used to be the most common causes of accidents. Yes, we’ve been lucky too, and lack of a headline tragedy does not mean we should rest on our laurels. Complacency is about the worst response we could have. Air safety is all about being proactive — even a little cynical. Our air traffic control system needs upgrades, our airports need investment. Terrorism and sabotage remain constant threats, and regulatory loopholes need closing.
All duly noted, but a congratulatory moment is well earned. Despite seething public contempt for airlines, and despite the fiscal devastation these companies have been through (at least five bankruptcies during the 2000s), the nation’s mainline carriers have nevertheless maintained an almost perfect safety record.
This isn’t a minor story. On the contrary, it’s one of the most significant and impressive accomplishments in American aviation history. Predictably, however, the media is silent. Plane crashes, not a lack of them, are usually the juicer news. At the five-year mark, the ten-year mark… nowhere along the way has this streak been acknowledged. Neither will it be acknowledged, I’m afraid, when the inevitable accident finally comes. So, let’s acknowledge it now.
Postscript: In a sad coincidence, that this article was posted on the same day that a plane crash in Colombia killed 71 people. Not every region of the world has been as fortunate as ours, and we are wise not to gloat. Condolences to the friends and family of those who died yesterday near Medellin.
Notable U.S. airline accidents since 2001
2003: Air Midwest (US Airways Express) flight 5481, a 19-seat turboprop, crashed in Charlotte killing 21 people.
2005: A Pinnacle Airlines (Northwest Airlink) regional jet went down near Jefferson City, Missouri during a repositioning flight, killing the two pilots.
2005: Corporate Airlines (American Connection) flight 5966 crashed near Kirksville, Missouri, killing 13.
2005: At Chicago’s Midway Airport, a Southwest Airlines 737 overran a snowy runway and collided with a car. Although none of the 103 occupants of the aircraft were seriously hurt, a six year-old boy in the car was killed.
2005: In Florida, 20 people died aboard a vintage seaplane flown by Chalk’s Ocean Airways. Metal fatigue caused one of the plane’s wings to separate.
2006: Forty-nine people perished when a Comair (Delta Connection) regional jet crashed after attempting takeoff from a too-short runway.
2009: Two pilots died when a FedEx MD-11 crashed on landing at Narita Airport outside Tokyo.
2009: A Colgan Air (Continental Connection) Dash-8 Q400 crashed outside Buffalo. Fifty people were killed, including the occupant of a house struck by the plane.
2010: Both crewmembers died when a UPS Boeing 747 caught fire and crashed after takeoff from Dubai. The fire is believed to have been ignited by a large shipment of lithium batteries.
2013: All seven crewmembers of a National Airlines 747 were killed when the improperly loaded jet crashed after takeoff from Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan.
2013: A UPS flight crashed on approach to Birmingham, Alabama, killing the two pilots.
American Airlines flight 587
Seconds after takeoff from Kennedy airport on the morning of November 12th, 2001, the Airbus A300, encountered a burst of wake turbulence spun from a Japan Airlines 747 that had departed just ahead of it. The wake itself was nothing deadly, but the first officer of flight 587, Sten Molin, who was at the controls, overreacted, rapidly and repeatedly moving the widebody jet’s rudder from side to side, to maximum deflection. The rudder is a large hinged surface attached to the tail, used to help maintain lateral stability, and Molin was swinging it back and forth in way it simply wasn’t designed for. Planes can take a surprising amount of punishment, but airworthiness standards are not based on applications of such extreme force. In addition, the A300’s rudder controls were designed to be unusually sensitive, meaning that pilot inputs, even at low speeds, could be more severe than intended. In other words, the pilot didn’t realize the level of stress he was putting on the tail. The vigor of his inputs caused the entire tail to fracture and fall off.
Quickly out of control, the plane plunged into the Belle Harbor neighborhood of Queens, a skinny section of Rockaway only a few blocks wide, with ocean on both sides. All 260 passengers and crew were killed, as were five people on the ground. It remains the second most deadly aviation accident ever on U.S. soil, behind only that of American flight 191 at Chicago, in 1979.
Flight 587 was well known among New York City’s Dominican community. In 1996, merengue star Kinito Mendez paid a sadly foreboding tribute with his song El Avion. “How joyful it could be to go on flight 587,” he sang, immortalizing the popular daily nonstop.