Bob Francis: The American Airlines Flight 587 investigation
Bob Francis is CNN's aviation analyst and a former vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. While he was with the NTSB, Francis was the senior official on the investigations of the crashes of TWA Flight 800 off Long Island and ValuJet 592 in the Florida Everglades. Before joining the NTSB, he was a senior representative for the FAA in Western Europe and North Africa. CNN: Federal transportation officials told CNN on Wednesday that the American Airlines Flight 587 took off only 90 seconds after a Japan airlines aircraft at JFK airport. What are the implications of that finding?
FRANCIS: They took off almost two minutes behind, as I understand it, and that is a standard separation between those kinds of aircraft, to avoid wake turbulence problems. The issue became the fact that the American flight appears to have turned a little more closely, as they were turning to go south, and thus was turning inside the Japanese aircraft. Thus, the distances in times between the two aircraft were somewhat reduced. The cockpit voice recorder on the American aircraft had sounds that were interpreted by the crew as being wake turbulence from the preceding aircraft. Generally, this type of turbulence is not dangerous, and will not upset or do any damage to another aircraft. We now have to see from the flight data recorder more detail as to what happened to the American flight before we draw any conclusions regarding the spacing between the two aircraft. This is an important question.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Can turbulence shake off an airplane's tail?
FRANCIS: To my knowledge, it's never happened previously, but it certainly is something that will be under very close scrutiny by the NTSB. The fact that the vertical part of the tail on the American aircraft was composite, rather than metal, makes the question even more interesting.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Does this aircraft have a record of crashes?
FRANCIS: There have been several accidents involving airbus A-300's, but no real pattern of problems, and no accident that is in any way similar to this accident. Previous accidents have involved controlled flight into terrain, two accidents in Nepal, and several accidents involving the piloting of the aircraft. Thus, this is a new type of accident for the A-300. But I would add that there are hundreds of these aircraft flying every day, and this plane has a very good safety record.
CNN: Is this an issue of air traffic control, rather than say, pilot error or a failure of mechanical structure?
FRANCIS: This is an area that would involve some speculation on my part, and I think that it's best if we try in any investigation to stick with factual information. There certainly is a period in every investigation where one must interpret the facts, but we are too early in the investigation for that. I don't think that there is any evidence at this stage which would call into question the air traffic control.
CNN: JFK Airport has been identified in the past as an airport that experiences overcrowding issues. Could this be evidence of that problem?
FRANCIS: I think the answer here is no. JFK is an airport that experiences heavy traffic at certain times of the day, particularly mid-afternoon to evening, when flights are arriving from and departing to Europe. But for the most part, JFK is not an airport with significant capacity problems at other times.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Has a vertical stabilizer snapped off any other aircraft while airborne?
FRANCIS: Not to my knowledge. But I would say that I've really only been in accident investigation for the last seven or eight years, and there have been a lot of accidents in the history of civil aviation. But certainly not recently.
CNN: You investigated TWA 800. In light of the September 11 events, do you think this recent crash will be surrounded by as much speculation of conspiracy theories as TWA 800 did?
FRANCIS: I certainly hope not. In my working with CNN in commentary on this accident, I've gone out of my way to point out that there is absolutely no evidence of criminal activity, and as long as that is the case, it should be investigated as an accident.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: I saw a computer simulation of what happens with wake turbulence and wondered how often they field test and what danger would a field test involve?
FRANCIS: There has been considerable work done over the years on the safety implications of wake vortices. The most recent work in this area, of which I'm aware, was done by the NTSB, the FAA, and Boeing, at the FAA technical center in Atlantic City, New Jersey. This was a result of our efforts to better understand an accident that took place in 1994 near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. But I might say that the problem of wake turbulence has not been a major safety problem for large aircraft. The difficulties have tended to be smaller aircraft running into the wakes of larger aircraft. This more often than not is on landing or takeoff.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Are the Airbus 300s less structurally sound than other planes? Would another aircraft have had more of an advantage to survive such turbulence?
FRANCIS: I think that's far too speculative to be trying to deal with a question like that at this point. These aircraft are certified, tested extensively, and they're safe. Airbus 300 has millions and millions of hours of experience, and I think we have to be careful about making those kinds of judgments.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Have they been able to get any info from the data recorder that was seriously damaged?
FRANCIS: My understanding, as of last night, is that the data will be recoverable. There was some damage to the recorder and in order to be certain to recover as much as possible, the recorder was sent to the manufacturer in Florida for them to assist the NTSB to recover the data. I'd imagine that we will see the results of this in the next day or so.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: How old is this plane class, and has it ever been overhauled for upgrades?
FRANCIS: The A-300 was first delivered in the mid '70s, as I recall. That was an A-300 B-4, many of which were bought by Eastern Airlines. As I recall, in the early to mid '80s, fairly extensive alterations to design were made in the A-300-600. These changes included things like two pilots, rather than three, a cockpit with more automation, and different instruments, and a number of capabilities for flying further, etc. So, the aircraft has been out, and I believe this particular aircraft was delivered to American Airlines 13 years ago. In commercial aviation, a 13-year-old aircraft is considered to be middle aged.
CNN: You are a former Federal Aviation official, in addition to being a former NTSB Vice chairman. If this proves to be an issue of turbulence, what should the FAA do to prevent further incidents such as this?
FRANCIS: Obviously, and I'm always a little careful of answering questions that contain the word "if" because it's speculative, but certainly the issue of the separation of the aircraft could be an issue. The issue of flight procedures that aircraft follow, routes they follow when departing a particular runway at an airport might require some modification or re-evaluation. But as I said earlier, it's very, very soon in this particular investigation to be postulating the necessity for any alterations in procedures.
CNN: Do you have any closing comments to share with us?
FRANCIS: What I just said, regarding the last question, is very important, that we, both as accident investigators and people concerned with aviation safety, try to be as careful as we can in terms of drawing early conclusions. Accident investigation has been, and should be, a very disciplined and deliberate process. The important product is a safer aviation environment. And the ordinary investigation should be done at a deliberate pace, where you can be very certain that you're dealing with whatever the true and root causes were, and that you're not risking creating a situation that could be less safe, rather than more safe, in the end.
CNN: Thank you for joining us today
FRANCIS: I appreciate very much having a chance to chat with you, and hope that this was helpful.
Bob Francis joined the chat room via telephone from Washington, DC and CNN.com provided a typist. The above is an edited transcript of the interview on Thursday, November 15, 2001 at 12 p.m. EST.
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