November 12, 2001
Jim Lehrer talks to aviation experts about possible reasons behind the AA flight 587 crash in New York, and the investigation in its early stage.
JIM LEHRER: For information on the crash, we're joined by Lee Dickinson, a former member of the National Transportation Safety Board. He's now the director of Exponent Failure Analysis, a firm that specializes in investigating transportation accidents; Douglas Laird, a managing partner of B.G.I. International, a consulting company on counter-terrorism and aviation security. He is a former security director at Northwest Airlines; and Paul Czysz, a professor of aerospace engineering at St. Louis University.
Mr. Dickinson, the NTSB, the National Transportation Safety Board, is investigating this as an accident.
LEE DICKINSON: Correct.
JIM LEHRER: What should we read from that? What does that mean?
LEE DICKINSON: What that means is, Jim, that typically the NTSB is responsible for investigating all civil aviation accidents that happen in the United States. That is their mandate by law.
I think your question is, because you didn't hear the word or the letters FBI, does that mean the FBI is not involved? The answer to that question is most likely not. The FBI will continue to work until there is determination made that there is no reason for the FBI to be involved.
|Sabotage or mechanical failure?|
JIM LEHRER: But I think I'm really asking is, was a separate determination made based on early evidence that they found this morning or this afternoon that this was most likely an accident rather than sabotage, so the NTSB is the lead person or the lead agency or would that have happened no matter what?
LEE DICKINSON: That would typically happen no matter what. Now if they had information that would lead the FBI to take a lead role, then that would be the cause of action.
It's my understanding and it's been released that they have right now at the present time no knowledge that there is a terrorist attack and therefore the NTSB is taking a lead role to determine the cause of the accident working with the FBI.
JIM LEHRER: As a matter of practice and based on your experience, is it better to assume going in that it is an accident and work from there, or is it better to assume it was sabotage and go from there or does it matter?
LEE DICKINSON: It does matter. The number of actions that I investigated when I was a member of the NTSB We worked hand in hand with the FBI and what would happen is the FBI would do their work and the NTSB would do their investigative work.
When it was determined that one of the agencies could back out, if you will, of the investigation and the other take over as in the... If you recall TWA 800 that went on for a number -- a long period of time, to see who is going to be responsible for the action, the NTSB or the FBI. That's the formal course of events. That's how these investigations unfold.
JIM LEHRER: To get to the specifics of today I'm not going to hold you to this I any way whatsoever, I'm going to ask Mr. Laird and Mr. Czysz the same question. Based on what you've read and what you heard, does this have the smell of an accident or the smell of sabotage?
LEE DICKINSON: Again this is very early on. We're not even 12 hours into this accident.
Some of the things that I've heard about the possibility of witnesses saying that an engine may have fallen off -- we saw from your earlier video that there was an engine sitting in the front of a gasoline station. That would give me some concern, at least I'd want to look at why there was a piece or a component of the airplane that's separate from the main debris.
We also saw that the vertical tail financial, which is the piece that you normally see the logos on for American Airlines, also separate from the debris field, I would want to know why the airplane apparently was coming down or components were coming down in separate locations. What that... All that is telling me from an investigative standpoint is that there are a lot of questions to be raised and a lot more answers that you have to find out.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Czysz, on the .. Professor Czysz, excuse me, on the separation of the engine, what does that tell you? What causes an engine to fall off? What could possibly cause an engine like that to fall off an Airbus 300?
PAUL CZYSZ: That's a very unusual occurrence. There would be very few things that I think would cause an engine to fall off. The General Electric engines are designed for containment of the fan blades.
|Evidence from the Airbus wreckage|
JIM LEHRER: There are two engines on this airplane. General Electric engines, yes, go ahead.
PAUL CZYSZ: CF-6, and the engines are about 12, 15 feet in front of the wing-leading edge, and even if the engine disassembled itself, it would not hit the wing structure.
So it's a very unusual occurrence to see an engine come off of an airplane. I know only one other case that it's happened and that was the one in Chicago with the DC-10.
JIM LEHRER: What caused that to happen?
PAUL CZYSZ: That was traced to an installation error in which the forklift actually jammed the engine, the cell into the pylon and cracked it.
JIM LEHRER: But as a practical matter to come at it from a different direction, if a saboteur of some kind wanted to cause that engine to fall off, would that be a very difficult thing to do?
PAUL CZYSZ: Not really because it's a very high-stressed part at full throttle. And if you knew what you were doing, you could do that very effectively and very simply.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Laird, what does this look to you just at first glance?
DOUGLAS LAIRD: At first glance it appears to me to be a major mechanical failure of the engine.
JIM LEHRER: What kind of mechanical failure is possible here, that would have this kind of result?
DOUGLAS LAIRD: The disintegration of the engine. My understanding is that the GE engines tend to come apart and blow to the back of the airplane.
If you recall when the LL freighter crashed into the apartment building in...outside of Skippel Airport a number of years ago, that engine actually separated from the aircraft and for a brief moment got ahead of the aircraft and then the aircraft crashed into its own engine, so some really bizarre things can happen.
JIM LEHRER: But what about the... we don't... The flight data recorder has been recovered. We don't know what's on it.
They say there was no communication of a distress at least between the pilot and air traffic control. What does that tell you about what might have happened?
DOUGLAS LAIRD: I believe your other guests may be more qualified to answer that than I am, but my guess would be that they were so engrossed and busy in trying to save the aircraft there literally was not time to do anything but deal with the issue at hand.
JIM LEHRER: Is that how you read that, Mr. Dickinson, that they didn't have time? Well, go ahead. You answer the question.
LEE DICKINSON: There are a couple of things, Jim, you need to look at: One is to get a sequence of events, timing on when the airplane actually took off and when it actually crashed.
Part of the problem that we're dealing with already or the safety board is dealing with already is it's been reported and the chairman just reported on your video that the flight data recorder had been recovered. It's also been reported that the cockpit voice recorder has been recorded. My understanding is only one of the two have been found. I'm sorry, have been found.
So what has to be, if indeed the CVR, the cockpit voice recorder has been recovered, that would give you information if everything is working properly on what the crew was actually doing, who they were talking to in the cockpit itself. If the flight data recorder had been recovered and that is able to be... Information is able to be obtained, that will give you information on what the airplane was actually doing, how the airplane was responding to the input by the pilots. But you need both of those or you'd like to have both of those to put a time line together.
JIM LEHRER: Now, Mr. Czysz, these planes are designed to fly on one engine, are they not?
PAUL CZYSZ: That's correct. In fact, Mr. Dickinson's comment about the airplane parts being separated in flight is really what makes this very suspicious, but yes the Airbus as all twin engine airplanes are designed to lose rotation on take off and safely continue a flight to come around and land again.
JIM LEHRER: Go ahead. I was just going to say when you use the word suspicious, explain that word. Why are you using that?
PAUL CZYSZ: I come from the airplane side and airplanes very seldom disassemble themselves of their own accord. Even when I was at McDonnell with combat airplanes they take a very large amount of damage before they start falling apart.
So when I see a tail out of Jamaica Bay and an engine several blocks away I start asking myself, what was it that caused this airplane to start breaking apart?
JIM LEHRER: And what do you answer to yourself in this case?
PAUL CZYSZ: I would start doing what the NTSB is doing is some very careful investigations to look exactly what caused the separations to occur and what might be the sequence of events and did the engine come off first or did the tail come off first and see what actually they can put together, a time line.
|Reflection on aviation industry and security|
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Laird, you see it slightly differently, right? You think this probably was a mechanical failure. You do not see anything suspicious thus far from your perspective.
DOUGLAS LAIRD: No I don't. I feel this was an international flight departing from JFK international flights undergo more stringent security requirements than domestic flights.
So I would be very, very surprised if it were an act of sabotage.
JIM LEHRER: Why?
DOUGLAS LAIRD: Because of the additional security measures in place, not only for domestic flights today but also for international flights. This was an international flight.
JIM LEHRER: But in order to accomplish what happened to this plane today would require severe security breeches is what you're saying, right, based on what the security is today?
DOUGLAS LAIRD: If, in fact, it was an act of sabotage, it certainly would, yes.
JIM LEHRER: Of a monumental way.
DOUGLAS LAIRD: Monumental, yes.
JIM LEHRER: Would you agree with that, Professor Czysz?
PAUL CZYSZ: It all depends how you interpret the local thing. Some of the people in air transportation think a lot of the security is cosmetic. Others believe it has some increased security.
I still think that it's possible to do sabotage and get by the current security system, which is basically focused on passengers not necessarily on the rest of the airport.
JIM LEHRER: You mean like airport workers and people who are around the airplane, mechanical people, folks like that?
PAUL CZYSZ: Yes.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah.
PAUL CZYSZ: The food handlers. The cabin crew. There's just lots of access people have to airplanes today.
JIM LEHRER: Well, Mr. Dickinson, the NTSB, based on all of this and what you know at this point, is this going to be an easy one or is this going to be a hard one to find out?
LEE DICKINSON: I think it's probably going to be somewhere in between. Part of the good news, if there is any good news at all, at least from the investigative side, is that a good portion of the airplane was indeed on the ground. It's not in the water. Hopefully the flight data recorder or the other, the cockpit voice recorder, both of them will be recovered.
As I've mentioned to you before though, typically it's not just a single event that is going to cause an airplane to crash so I think although we're early on, we're probably going to find that there are a complex number or several items occurring at the same time that may have brought this airplane down.
JIM LEHRER: What do you think of Mr. Czysz's theory on this?
LEE DICKINSON: Well, I understand that he has his theory. I don't know really the full support for that.
The information that I have seen and just the public information that's been released, I have no belief or reason right now to suspect that it is a terrorist activity.
JIM LEHRER: But you don't have to subscribe to his theory. Let me put the question differently.
What about his point that when things start falling off of airplanes, as many things did here, that makes you think that that's not a natural... I mean it's hard to put that on a mechanical failure, is essentially what he's saying, that the tail comes off, an engine comes off, other parts of the plane comes off.
LEE DICKINSON: He's right there. Keep in mind though that what we have to do is determine what happened first. For example, did something occur that then led to the engine coming apart or separating from the wing, if indeed that were true?
If the engine came off first, that would force me to ask the question, well, what has happened to this? Has this airplane been maintained recently? Was some work being done on the engine? I'm not saying that that's what occurred. You need to ask those questions, develop a time line so you know this happened first, which is followed by something else. You need to be able to determine cause and effect.
|Learning from past failures|
JIM LEHRER: Sure. Also on the sabotage part of the investigation that the FBI will conduct in conjunction with the NTSB, there are all kinds of tests that can run on the metal to see if there was a bomb... Run us through some of the basics there as well.
LEE DICKINSON: Exactly. For example, the engine that again was mentioned earlier about it's in front of the gasoline station. One of the things that the investigators will do both from the NTSB and the FBI will be looking at the materials.
For example, if it were a bomb, you can look at what type of residue, chemical residue, may be on the material itself. That would give you some indication.
JIM LEHRER: You can do that fairly quickly, can't you?
LEE DICKINSON: You can but you can't do it sitting in the gas station. You need to do something... Exactly.
JIM LEHRER: Right.
LEE DICKINSON: There are other things you want to look at to see, fractures, for example. The professor mentioned the 1979 the DC-10. He's correct. That engine did come off. That was a maintenance-related issue.
What the investigators will be able to do, the material specialists will be able to look at the fractured surfaces to see whether or not there's a problem, was it an overload problem? Was it fatigue? Was it something that was problematic with the material itself, those types of things.
JIM LEHRER: One final question for you, Professor Czysz, the fact that this plane was put on the line in 1988, is that considered old in the airline business?
PAUL CZYSZ: No, not really. If you're flying 747-200s, they're a lot older than that. I think the grandchildren of the original B-52 pilots are flying them now. So a 50-year-old airplane can still be quite safe.
JIM LEHRER: 1988, nobody should be concerned about that.
PAUL CZYSZ: No one should be concerned.
JIM LEHRER: Thank you all three, gentlemen.