When the tail fin of a seemingly fine aircraft rips away on a clear morning, as it did in the Nov. 12 crash of American Airlines Flight 587, you'd think blame might lie with how the plane was built. New evidence, however, suggests a problem may also have been in how it was flown. According to a blunt 1997 letter obtained by TIME, safety officers from Boeing and Airbus, the plane's builders, had warned American that its pilot training relied too much on the rudder to recover in turbulent situations, which can "lead to structural loads that exceed the design strength of the [tail] fin."
John Hotard, a spokesman for American, says the carrier reworked its pilot-training program in 1999 to de-emphasize use of the rudder and that both pilots on Flight 587 would have received the updated training. Meanwhile, the National Transportation Safety Board continues to investigate all possible causes of the crash. The NTSB has asked NASA to help it analyze the tail fin, which was made of composite materials, in its effort to determine whether some structural flaw in the plane was responsible for the still mystifying crash.
--By Sally B. Donnelly