American Airlines Flight 587 was a regularly scheduled passenger flight from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City to Santo Domingo's Las Américas International Airport in the Dominican Republic. On November 12, 2001, the Airbus A300-600 flying the route crashed into the Belle Harbor neighborhood of Queens, a borough of New York City, shortly after takeoff. All 260 people aboard the plane (251 passengers and nine crew members) died, including one dog carried in the cargo hold. Five bystanders and one dog on the ground were killed. It is the second-deadliest aviation incident in New York state; the second-deadliest aviation incident involving an Airbus A300, after Iran Air Flight 655; and the second-deadliest aviation accident to occur on U.S. soil, after American Airlines Flight 191. No commercial airplane crash since then that was ruled accidental and not criminal has surpassed that death toll, though before 2001, there had been deadlier incidents of this type.
The location of the accident and the fact that it took place two months and one day after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in Manhattan initially spawned fears of another terrorist attack. Terrorism was officially ruled out as the cause by the National Transportation Safety Board, which instead attributed the disaster to the first officer's overuse of rudder controls in response to wake turbulence, or jet wash, from a Japan Airlines Boeing 747-400 that took off minutes before it. According to the NTSB, this aggressive use of the rudder controls by the co-pilot caused the vertical stabilizer to snap off the plane. The plane's two engines also separated from the aircraft before it hit the ground.
The accident aircraft, registration N14053, was an Airbus A300B4-605R delivered in 1988 with a seating configuration for 251 passengers and nine crew and powered by two General Electric CF6-80C2A5 engines. On-board were two flight crew members, Captain Ed States (42) and First Officer Sten Molin (34); seven cabin crew members and 251 passengers.
With the first officer at the controls, the plane pushed back from its gate at 9:00 AM. It taxied to Runway 31L behind a Japan Airlines Boeing 747-400 bound for Tokyo. At 9:11 AM, the 747 was cleared for takeoff. As the JAL flight climbed, the tower contacted Flight 587's pilots and warned them about potential wake turbulence from the 747.
At 9:13:28, the A300 was cleared for takeoff on Runway 31L. The aircraft left the runway at 9:14:29, about 1 minute and 40 seconds after the JAL flight. From takeoff, the plane climbed to an altitude of 500 feet above mean sea level (msl) and then entered a climbing left turn to a heading of 220°. At 9:15:00, the pilot made initial contact with the departure controller, informing him that the airplane was at 1,300 feet and climbing to 5,000 feet. The departure controller instructed the aircraft to climb to and maintain 13,000 feet.
Data from the flight data recorder (FDR) showed that the events leading into the crash began at 9:15:36, when the aircraft hit wake turbulence from the JAL flight just in front of it. The first officer attempted to stabilize the aircraft with alternating aggressive rudder inputs from left to right. This continued for at least 20 seconds, until 9:15:56, when the stress of the first officer's repeated rudder movements caused the lugs that attached the vertical stabilizer and rudder to fail. The stabilizer separated from the aircraft and fell into Jamaica Bay, about one mile north of the main wreckage site. Eight seconds later, the stall warning sounded on the cockpit voice recorder.
At the moment the stabilizer separated from the aircraft, the plane pitched downwards, headed straight for Belle Harbor. As the pilots struggled to control the aircraft, it went into a flat spin. The resulting aerodynamic loads sheared both engines from the aircraft seconds before impact. The engines landed several blocks north and east of the main wreckage site. Losing the engines cut off power to the FDR at 9:16:00, while the CVR (cockpit voice recorder), utilizing a battery backup, cut off at 9:16:15 moments before impact with the ground. The main impact location was the intersection of Newport Avenue and Beach 131st Street