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March 25, 2006 -- New rudder problems have been found on French-made Airbus jets that could cause disasters like the deadly 2001 crash of American Airlines Flight 587 in the Rockaways, federal safety officials warned yesterday.

The rudders of many Airbus passenger jets are made of composite plastic that appears dangerously prone to disintegrating, the National Transportation Safety Board said.

NTSB officials want airlines to immediately comply with recommendations issued by Airbus earlier this month for checks on its A300, A310, A330 and A340 aircraft.

"This urgent recommendation, if acted upon quickly, will go a long way to prevent a catastrophic failure of the rudder," NTSB acting chairman Mark Rosenker said.

Federal Aviation Administration officials are working on a directive that would make the NTSB's recommendation mandatory for all airlines.

American Airlines - the only U.S. passenger carrier flying the A300 model that crashed in the Rockaways - said it has already complied with Airbus' recommendations, which were issued March 2.

Not all Airbus jets are subject to the NTSB's recommendation. None of the Airbus A320 jets flown by New York-based JetBlue are covered by the NTSB order.

The NTSB took notice of the rudder problem in November, when mechanics working on an A300 owned by Federal Express found that hydraulic fluid had caused some of the composite material in the plane's rudder to "disbond," or come apart.

That discovery recalled for the agency's investigators a March 2005 incident 2005 in which the rudder came apart on a Canadian A310 airliner after taking off from Varadero, Cuba.

About 15 miles south of the Florida Keys - at an altitude of 35,000 feet - the crew of the Air Transat jet "heard a loud bang followed by vibrations that lasted a few seconds," the NTSB said.

The plane returned to Varadero, where the crew found that most of its rudder had come apart - and that the parts that held it together were so burdened, much of the plane's tail was in danger of falling off.

"These high stresses may have been dangerously close in magnitude to those that caused the in-flight separation of the vertical stabilizer during the Nov. 12, 2001 accident involving American Airlines Flight 587," the NTSB said in its recommendation letter.

Exactly what made the Air Transat rudder disintegrate is still being investigated.

The Rockaways crash, which killed 260 people aboard the Dominican Republic-bound jet and five people on the ground, was mostly blamed on the first officer's "unnecessary and excessive" use of the rudder controls.

But the 2001 crash and yesterday's NTSB recommendation raise questions about maximum capabilities, or "limit load," of many Airbus rudders, said Robert Spragg, an aviation lawyer for the Manhattan firm Kreindler and Kreindler.

"If there are a number of events where the limit load is exceeded, that would draw into question Airbus Industries' initial calculations," Spragg said.


NTSB News - NTSB URGES INSPECTIONS OF CERTAIN AIRBUS A300 RUDDERS (Safety Recommendation A-06-27 and -28)

Safety Recommendations