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Rudder could be cause of Air France crash, pilots and experts say

There's been a pattern of irregularities linked to the tail fin, but Airbus says it's too soon to know.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 19, 2009

New York

As they work to unravel the mystery of Air France Flight 447, aviation analysts and pilots are now urging investigators to focus attention on the plane's tail fin, known as the vertical stabilizer, in addition to the design of the Airbus's computerized flight controls.

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The vertical stabilizer is one of the largest intact pieces of the plane recovered so far, and the Times of London reported this week that "one of the 24 automatic messages sent from the plane minutes before it disappeared pointed to a problem in the 'rudder limiter,' a mechanism that limits how far the plane's rudder can move."

Aviation analysts note that several Airbus 300 series jets have had tail fin and rudder problems in the past. (The rudder is the flight control on the vertical stabilizer, or tail fin.)

The most recent incident was in 2005, when the rudder suddenly ripped off the stabilizer of an Airbus 310 flying at 35,000 feet from Cuba to Quebec, Canada. That plane managed to land safely.

The most deadly event was the 2001 crash of American Airlines Flight 587, in which 265 people died when the plane's vertical stabilizer tore off soon after takeoff. Investigators blamed that crash on "over use" of the rudder pedal by the co-pilot. But critics note that just prior to take off, that plane also had problems with a computer tied to the rudder. That computer was reset by a technician prior to takeoff.

Request to look again at Flight 587

In light of the circumstances surrounding the loss of AF447, some analysts and pilots are now calling for the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to reopen the investigation of AA587 in light of potential similarities between the two crashes. They're also calling for a thorough review of all past vertical stabilizer, rudder, and computer incidents on Airbus planes.

"Absolutely the NTSB should reopen the investigation," says Lee Gaillard, an aviation analyst in Saranac Lake, N.Y. "Given the implications that seem to be surfacing in this Air France crash involving the rudder and potential computer problems, the whole [Airbus] computerized system needs to be taken a very close look at."

French investigators see progress

French investigators Wednesday said they're now developing "an image that is progressively less fuzzy" about what happened that stormy night June 1 over the Atlantic Ocean, when Flight 447 disappeared.