When part of the rudder on Air Transat Flight 961 apparently 'fell off' the aircraft 30 minutes north of Cuba, the captain requested an emergency landing at the nearest suitable airport, which was Fort Lauderdale International. Then inexplicably and in violation of international aviation treaties and law, America refused, forcing the crippled Canadian jet to return to Cuba.
by Joe Vialls
It is more than a little convenient for Boeing that the crash of American Airlines 587 in New York, and the near-crashes of Transat 236 and 961 in Cuba and the Azores, all permitted the media to hysterically point the finger at advanced carbon fiber composites used by Airbus but not by Boeing. If foul play was involved in these incidents, the subliminal suggestion appears obvious: All Americans should fly in thirsty old-fashioned riveted American Boeings, the airborne equivalents of US Army Abrams battle tanks, and stay far far away from 'flimsy European Airbus rubbish'.
Before we wade into the distinct possibility of direct American sabotage of European Airbus aircraft in general, first get one essential fact straight in your head, and get it straight right now: Pilots are not politicians, and they do not play political games in emergency situations at 35,000 feet. The actions of aircrew in emergency situations like losing part of the rudder or elevator, are well-rehearsed and virtually automatic, including terse messages to the passengers during the emrgency, attempting to explain the inexplicable.
Such was the case as Canadian Air Transat Flight 961 headed north from Cuba to Canada on March 6, when the aircraft suddenly went into a steep dive without warning. Though the Captain managed to recover, he swiftly discovered that the rudder, part of the vertical stabilizer responsible for turning the aircraft left and right, was not responding to control inputs. Clearly the rudder or vertical stabilizer had suffered significant damage, meaning that the aircraft needed to land as straight ahead as possible, thus avoiding any lateral strain on this essential vertical structure.
The airport best suiting this emergency requirement was Fort Lauderdale International in Florida, but to his astonishment, the American authorities refused him permission for an emergency landing, in direct violation of international law. Continuing another 2,000 nautical miles north to Canada without knowing the level of the damage was impossible, so after conferring briefly with Air Transat headquarters, the captain made the following verbatim announcement on the aircraft public address system, heard by everone on board.
"Ladies and gentlemen, we have a minor problem with the aircraft but the American authorities have denied us landing permission in Florida. We are therefore returning to Cuba and should be landing in about forty minutes." Please note that the use of the word "minor" is normal on the public address system, designed to disguise the severity of the emergency and minimize panic amongst the passengers.
Then the captain very slowly and very carefully reduced his forward airspeed, before commencing a 180 degree turn back towards Cuba, using only his elevators and ailerons. But regarless of how gentle he was, the unnecessary turn he was forced to make as a direct result of the American refusal, placed enormous strain on that piece of the aircraft he already knew to be seriously damaged - the rudder.
Any slight miscalculation during that forced turn, could have exceeded the shear stress limits on the damaged vertical stabilizer, causing complete separation and a chilling death plunge into the Florida swamps for 270 passengers and crew.
Depending on exactly where the Airbus came down, you can confidently add a few dozen or hundred American dead on the ground in Florida, either crushed by falling debris or turned into screaming human roman candles by blazing jet fuel in their own back yards.
This 'terrible tragedy' would then have generated enormousy adverse publicity for Airbus in general, and in particular for the maiden flight of the giant double-decker Airbus A380 'Super Jumbo', scheduled for mid April 2005. But it would have been very good news for Boeing, wouldn't it?