The Airbus A300 that crashed shortly after takeoff from Kennedy International Airport on Monday shed part of one of its two engines, raising the possibility that the jetliner had suffered a catastrophic breakup of the engine or that the engine had detached from the plane _ an event so severe that pilots do not even train for it.
The plane carried two General Electric CF6 engines built in Cleveland, and these normally would have been at or near maximum thrust on departure. Fast-rotating internal parts have been known to come loose on such engines, sometimes penetrating the outer shell of the engine and sending parts that act as missiles into the plane.
A CF6 engine on a Continental Airlines DC-10 broke up on takeoff from Newark International Airport in April 2000, and in June 2000 a CF6 on a Varig Airlines Boeing 767 broke up.
In several cases, engines of various types have come off a plane. An engine on an American Airlines DC-10 came loose when the aircraft was taking off from Chicago in May 1979. The plane crashed near the airport, killing about 270 people.
A plane can fly on one engine, but if an engine fell off or broke up, it could destroy the three hydraulic systems that are required to fly.
American Airlines spokesman Al Becker said the left engine had gone 694 hours since its last overhaul; the right engine had gone 9,788 hours. The engines are typically overhauled every 10,000 hours.
An A300 is a midsize jet, slightly longer than the Boeing 767 but with a shorter wingspan.
Dick Williams, owner of Aviation DataSource in Denver, analyzed government records and found "only 62 service difficulty reports" had been filed on the crashed aircraft since 1995.
"That is an extremely low number. . . . A third of those dealt with cosmetic issues," he said.
He found only three incidents that would have alarmed passengers. Problems with the air-conditioning system on Sept. 5, 1996, and July 25, 1999, produced cabin smoke. Both times the aircraft returned to its origin _ Miami and Kingston, Jamaica _ and made routine landings.
On May 9, 2000, problems in one of the aircraft's three hydraulic systems required a precautionary unscheduled landing in Orlando.
An inspection, on Sept. 24, 1998, found corrosion that had weakened the right engine mount. "That could turn out to be significant. It could turn out that those repairs failed, or that the same problem later developed on the left engine and had not been detected," Williams said.
The plane that crashed entered service on July 12, 1988, and was new at the time. It was checked Sunday, had a heavier maintenance check on Oct. 3 and a major overhaul in December 1999, Becker said.
The jetliner that plunged into a Queens neighborhood was Airbus' first crash and the first fatalities in the United States, according to Airbus officials.
Five other A300s have crashed since 1988. An IranAir plane was mistakenly shot down by a U.S. Navy missile cruiser in the Persian Gulf. In addition, A300s have figured in three terrorist hijackings, including the one that was ended by an Israeli military raid at Entebbe, Uganda.
"It was the wide-body A300 that led to the success that Airbus currently enjoys," said J. Mac McClellan, editor-in-chief of Flying Magazine.
_ Information from the New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer and Associated Press were used in this report.
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