Better Training, Technology and Regulation Have Made Flying Safer than When Flight 587 Fell from the Sky
We made it. I had my doubts, but we pulled it off.
Nov. 12 marks the 20th anniversary of the crash of American Airlines flight 587 in New York City. We have now gone 20 full years since the last large-scale crash involving a major U.S. carrier. This is by far the longest such streak ever.
On the sunny morning of Nov. 12, 2001, American 587, an Airbus A300 bound for the Dominican Republic, lifted off from runway 31L at Kennedy Airport. Seconds into its climb, the flight encountered wake turbulence spun from a Japan Airlines 747 that had departed a few minutes earlier.
The wake itself was nothing deadly, but the first officer, 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. Molin was swinging it back and forth in a manner for which it wasn’t designed.
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 levels of stress he was putting on the aircraft. The vigor of his inputs caused the entire tail to fracture and fall off.
There are nearly twice as many planes, carrying twice as many people, as there were on Nov. 12, 2001. Since then, the mainline American carriers have safely transported more than 20 billion passengers.
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-deadliest 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.
This was a catastrophe to be sure. It was also the last multiple-fatality crash involving a legacy American airline and the last on U.S. soil; there were more than 50 fatalities.
To be clear, there have been a number of post-2001 tragedies involving regional carriers and freighters. The worst of these were the Comair (2006) and Colgan Air (2009) crashes, in which 50 and 49 people were killed, respectively. In 2005 a young boy in a car was killed when a Southwest Airlines 737 overran a runway in Chicago, and in 2018 a woman on a Southwest Airlines 737 was killed after being partially ejected through a blown-out cabin window.
What we haven’t seen, however, is the kind of mega-crash that was once brutally routine, year after year. Take a look through the accident archives from 1970s through the 1990s. Seldom would a year go by without recording one or more front-page mishaps, with 100, 200, sometimes 300 (or more) people killed at a time. In the 18 years prior to November 2001, and not counting the September 11th attacks, the American legacies, which at the time included names like Pan Am, TWA and Eastern, suffered 10 major crashes. The idea that we could span two full decades without such a disaster was once unthinkable.
Many More Flights
It’s especially remarkable when you consider there are nearly twice as many planes, carrying twice as many people, as there were in 2001. Since then, the mainline American carriers have safely transported more than 20 billion passengers. Today they operate over 4 000 Airbuses and Boeings between them, completing 10s of thousands of flights weekly.
The streak also takes in those dark years of the early 2000s, when pretty much all of the big carriers were in and out of bankruptcy, fighting for survival. The challenges of the last 20 months, brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, were dire. Best of times, worst of times. All it would have taken is one screw-up, one tragic mistake. Yet here we are.
When we expand the context globally, the trend is even more astonishing. Between the 1980s and the mid-2000s there were dozens of air disasters worldwide — sometimes five or more in a year. In 1985 alone, 27 major crashes killed almost 2,400 people.
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 the 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 threats and regulatory loopholes need closing.
The saga of the 737 MAX has been a cautionary window into just how fortunate we’ve been and exposed some glaring weaknesses.
Duly noted, but a congratulatory moment is, for today, well earned. This isn’t a minor story.
Almost nobody in the media is paying attention, trust me. Crashes, not an absence of them, make the news. Call it the silent anniversary, but there’s no overstating it: We have just passed one of the most significant milestones in commercial aviation history.