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Gulf Air Jet Crashes Into Persian Gulf

Aired August 23, 2000 - 2:10 p.m. ET


NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: And we continue to follow updates -- give you updates on the crash of this A320 in the Persian Gulf today. The airplane, the Airbus, was taking off from the capital of Bahrain. It was on a scheduled flight to Cairo. We do not know any confirmation on why this plane went down, how many people were aboard. We don't have much information on what rescue effort might be under way. We just received word of this plane crash within 20 minutes ago, so we continue to try to get you some more information.

We have the Web page for the operators of this airplane, which was Gulf Air. It is the national carrier of Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. It gives folks more information about this airline and the airplanes that it operates.

We have with us on the telephone Susan Coughlin. She is CNN's aviation analyst, expert in the field of aviation.

We talked with you earlier, Susan. And since then, I was trying to remember if -- while being on CNN, I remembered a plane crash where people survived when a plane crashed into the water, and there was one off the coast of Africa when that pilot tried to bring that plane in as a glider on the water there and some people swam to shore. No one knows how this plane might have come down and what the situation is, whether this plane is intact. But there have been successful attempts of aircraft on water before. Any more that you recall?

SUSAN COUGHLIN, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: Well, as you point out, Natalie, it certainly is possible. It depends on the phase of the takeoff. And the speed at which the airplane impacted the water obviously has a great deal to do with whether there would be survivors.

There was an airplane accident in the United States, I believe, in the early -- I'm thinking it was the early '90s and it was at La Guardia. Rejected takeoff, the plane actually did go off the end of the runway into the water.

ALLEN: US Air, I think.

COUGHLIN: Yes, and there were survivors in that accident. So I think it really depends on what the circumstances were, the speed, and a number of factors that really are going to determine the survival of the passengers. And hopefully in this case it was such that the pilot had some control over the airplane and was able to bring it in such a way as to maximize those people that might have survived.

ALLEN: Well, these are questions which we should have answers to pretty soon as we start hearing from eyewitnesses and people at the scene that might be able to give us more information.

And earlier, you said if reports are true that we heard from the Ministry of Information in Bahrain, that the pilot communicated there was a fire in one of the engines, you told us a lot would depend on, you know, where this plane was shortly after takeoff, on what he is -- what he plans to do or what he is skilled to do in that point.

COUGHLIN: Well, certainly the crew -- the crew's assessment of their trouble and their reaction to that trouble is key to managing the crisis. And we really don't have enough details to understand, if there was a fire, what kind of a fire it was, what caused the fire, what the crew's reaction to it. Were they aware of it? Did they radio their problem, you know, indicating that they knew that there was a problem? or whether this was just an event that overtook the crew without an opportunity to respond.

And, again, very preliminary, much too early to talk about what might -- the circumstances might have been, but that will unfold fairly quickly here.

ALLEN: All right, I'm reading -- I just got the latest news. I'm trying to see if there's anything new and able to ask you about. The report here I'm getting, scores of ambulances were seen heading toward the airport, helicopters seen flying in the same direction. Of course, the word that we have is that this plane went down into the gulf several minutes after taking off from Bahrain International Airport. Still saying they don't know how many passengers were on board.

KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: There is a flight number.

ALLEN: And we have a flight number. It's flight GF072. GF072 is the flight of this Airbus A320 that went down today. And state Bahrain television also reporting that the crash was caused by a fire in one of the aircraft's engines.

Back to Susan Coughlin.

Susan, what have investigators learned from all the work they did with the TWA crash, TWA Flight 800, which plunged into the ocean? What have they learned about how much information you're able to get on a flight once an airplane goes into the water?

COUGHLIN: Well, again, it depends on the depth of the water when -- that the aircraft crashes in. I would presume that this Gulf Air aircraft was equipped with a cockpit voice recorder and a flight data recorder which will yield information on the status of the engines, whether they were producing power at impact and all the kinds of things that help investigators put together a picture of the final sequence. And I'm quite sure that there will be volumes of information. Once they take care of the rescue of potential survivors, they will begin the process of recovering enough of the airplane to unravel the final sequence of the flight.

But at this point, again, very preliminary, but I would imagine that there would be a wealth of information available to investigators, assuming that they were in a depth of water that was workable and that those containers, the flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder, which are ruggedized, would have survived the impact and could be recovered and read out.

ALLEN: Susan, thank you. We'll continue to talk with you.

We know we're getting a little bit ahead of ourselves, but we thank her for the information because we just have just very little information on this airplane that went down in the Persian Gulf. Susan telling us that much depends on how much control the pilot still had over that plane on whether there are survivors in this cash today.

About 30 minutes ago, I talked with Saeed al Bably. He's with the Ministry of Information in Bahrain, and here's a portion of that.


SAEED AL BABLY, BAHRAIN MINISTRY OF INFORMATION: There was a fire in one engine and they sunk down in the sea near Bahrain International Airport. Right now, we don't have any more information about any survivors. That's all that we have right now.

ALLEN: Well, so it had just taken off then?

AL BABLY: Yes, yes.

ALLEN: So we want to be clear. Our information was incorrect. This plane took off from Bahrain. It was on a scheduled flight to Cairo, Egypt.

Do you know if there is a rescue effort under way?

AL BABLY: There is. The effort is under way right now and the crown prince is there at the airport. And the -- his highness, the emir, is ordering all the necessary arrangements to see if there is any survivors in the area.


ALLEN: So, again, the rescue effort under way. We do not know if rescue vessels have reached the airplane, if there are any survivors or any information on how this plane went into the water. We do know it crashed shortly after takeoff from Bahrain International Airport, the capital of Bahrain, and was on its way to Cairo. And, again, we just learned the flight number is GF072.

This announcement of the plane crash was made a short time ago on Bahrain television, so that is another avenue that we will continue to keep close tabs on. What information they give to their viewers, and as we get that information translated, we will pass it along to our viewers as wall. So, again, plane crash. We just received word about it 30 minutes ago. Plane taking off, crashing into the Persian Gulf on a flight to Cairo. No word on survivors or how many people were on that flight, but a rescue is under way. And as we get more information, we'll pass it along.

For more now on the story, here's Kyra.

PHILLIPS: And hopefully we'll be able to get more information. We're going to turn to our Carl Rochelle. He's one of our aviation experts. He's in our bureau in Washington, D.C.

Carl, thanks for getting on the horn there with us. What do you know about this aircraft, the Airbus A320?

CARL ROCHELLE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Kyra, a bit about it. I've actually flown the A320 simulator and I've got some figures on it from back as of February 29 of 2000. These are the last figures I've got from Airbus. And there are 1,162 A320 models of the Airbus in service worldwide, and they have had, as of that point -- they have had six what they call "whole loss" accidents. And that's when -- "whole loss" means that the airplane is damaged severely enough that it would have to be taken out of service and likely not even repaired.

Some pictures of it. I can show you one here. This is a picture that Airbus -- let's see if I can get that at a tilt, at an angle. This is the Airbus. And if you'll stay with me a minute, let me page through and I'll show you a couple of other things about -- significant about this aircraft. And this is from some of the material that they...

PHILLIPS: What are some of the benefits of this aircraft. What are some of the benefits? Why would someone want to fly this aircraft?

ROCHELLE: Well, this aircraft is a fully automated aircraft. It's called a "fly by wire" system. It's unusual in the sense of that.

Now, here's one of things I was looking for. Let me show you this. This is what the cockpit looks like. And it uses a side-stick controller. See where it's marked "side stick" right under my fingers? You can see that. There's one on each side. And the throttles are in the center. The throttles are automatically operated. The side stick controller computer driven. So when you move that side stick controller, and I'll take it down now. When you move the side stick controller, you're actually telling the computer what to do with the aircraft. And it is extremely easy to fly. I didn't try the airplane, I flew the Airbus A-320 simulator and had absolutely no problem at all.

And I flew it through what was called a "stall series," where you bring the aircraft up and try to stall it. It will not stall with the computer systems on. It is designed to guard against that. I flew it with an engine out, with only one engine operating on the aircraft and flew it through some violent maneuvers in that mode and then flew down to the ground and made a -- what's known ILS landing, an instrument landing system approach with one engine out, using this computerized automated system. And it's extremely easy to fly.

It does have the ability to compensate for the loss of an engine. Now, with an engine on fire, not sure exactly what all the parameters are. You have to reach a certain speed when you take off. You have to maintain that speed. It is still a twin-engine aircraft. The engines are -- here's a model of the aircraft. You can see it's small. But from this angel you can see it has two engines, one out on each side. And you get into a situation when you lose one engine called asymmetrical thrust. In other words, you're getting all of the thrust out of one engine, and no thrust out of the other engine. And you can reach a point if you get too slow where the force of the one good engine takes over the force of the other one and the airplane tends to roll against that bad engine. And you can crash from a situation like that, so.

PHILLIPS: So it's hard to recover?

ROCHELLE: It is hard to recover if you get yourself beyond that point. But it is designed not to get to that point and that's one of the curious things about this. And we tried, when I was flying the simulator, and this was a demonstration that Airbus put on for me and for a number of other reporters several months ago, tried to get that airplane in a mode where it wouldn't recover and I could never get it to that point.

Now, here, again, it was set up, this is a simulator that I was flying, not actual aircraft. And things happen in actual aircrafts that you cannot completely replicate in the simulator. It's a wonderful training device. But you'll never know for sure all of the things that are going to happen until you get in the airplane actually and fly the airplane in the air.

An engine out is a serious situation but not a usually a life threatening situation. These planes are all designed to fly on one engine. Given enough runway, they will take off on one engine and they will land quite easily on one engine. So there are more extenuating circumstances to this than just losing the engine.

Now with the engine on fire you can have some difficulty with control systems. Fires tend to burn hot and very fast. They are fed by the fuel on board. And, of course, the principle of a jet engine is there's a fire in the center of it anyhow. That's how it developed. The heat of a jet engine expands the air. It pushes it out the rear end. That's what makes a jet engine go.


ROCHELLE: So you've got fire burning in it and very hot, it could do some damage.

PHILLIPS: Well, you talked about the full advantage of flyby wire flight controls, but that wouldn't even be an advantage, you're saying, if an engine caught fire, because that would wipe out that high-technology. ROCHELLE: Should not wipe out the high-technology, Kyra, that should be there. Now what happens if the fire burns through some cables. If the fire burns through the cables, then, of course, you have a more serious problem. If the fire burns through and causes your hydraulics to go away. The computer system wouldn't go down just because of a fire. It is triple redundant. There at least three, I believe, and possibly even more than that, computers on board the aircraft that are all linked together. And they talk to each other. Each of the computers talks to each other. And if one of the computer senses something is wrong with another computer, it checks with the third computer and they work out what is it that this airplane is doing. And literally when the kind of small planes that I normally fly, when I push the control stick I move a control. With the Airbus A-320 and the automated control system, when you push the stick, you tell a computer what to do, and what you want the airplane to do. And the computer does it.

The difference with the automated flight system is it takes out the human factor in it. And it does it a lot better than a human can do it, quite frankly. The control movements are smoother. It guards against getting into areas of the flight envelope where you might have a problem with the plane. That's why it's extremely difficult to explain. When one of the airplanes crashes, the automated system very, very good. So it's got to be more than just an engine out. On fire, and like I said, fire can do damage to the airplane. It can weaken, it can burn through metal structures. It can weaken a wing. They could've had more of a problem. Why did the engine catch on fire? was it - did it ingest a bird? sometimes that happens. You suck up a bird in the engine intakes on take off, and it causes major damage. It could be a lot of factors in it that we, of course, don't know at this point.

PHILLIPS: All right, Carl, we're going to ask you to stand by, great information.

Natalie has some developing information for us. We're going to switch to her for a moment.

ALLEN: Well, we have on the line with us as well, Kevin Darcy, he is an independent aviation analyst, has worked on the investigations of some well-known crashes that we covered here recently. Mr. Darcy, if -- first of all, talk about this Airbus. It has a very good safety record, correct?

KEVIN DARCY, AVIATION SAFETY CONSULTANT: Yes, it does. It started off early, they had some problems, had some accidents, but it's got a fairly good record now.

ALLEN: Was there any particular cause for the accidents that it had early on?

DARCY: Well, I don't know that there was a continuous thread, or one thing common between the accidents. I think that there were some concerns about the kind of the man-machine interface early on. But the airplane is has a large number of flights on it now, about probably approaching eight million flights. And it has fairly respectable record.

ALLEN: And we're looking at file tape of just it's an A-320 in operation. Certainly, it's not the plane in question that has gone down in the Persian Gulf this afternoon. Again, We're still trying to get information on how many people might be on that plane and whether there are possibly survivors.

Mr. Darcy, what about if you're taking off in one of these planes? we just got a lot of information from Carl Rochelle who has flown one in a simulator. What's the first thing a pilot does if he detects there is a fire in one of the engines, which is what Bahrain television is reporting might have been communicated from the pilot on this plane today?

DARCY: Well, the airplanes are designed such that they're actually fairly tolerant of an engine fire. The first thing the pilots would do, would be really to make sure they maintain control of the airplane and continue the take off. Then there's a set fire drill that is a memory item for their checklist, so then they know exactly what to do. They'll confirm they got the fire, shut the engine down. And if the fire warning doesn't go away, they would fire the fire extinguisher. And then, you know, from there make a decision to return to the airport.

So the airplane, as Carl mentioned, should be actually fairly tolerant, it is designed to be tolerant to the things like that. Unless they really start to get out of hand because of prolonged fire or more damage than a typical engine failure.

ALLEN: So whether or not there's a potential that some people might have survived this crash into the Gulf would depend how much control that pilot had over the plane when it went down?

DARCY: Yes, that's exactly right. If they were able to -- if you had a situation where you were able to get the airplane slowed down and touch in a relatively stable attitude and slow, you'd certainly have a better chance. We don't have a whole lot of past history of airplanes ditching actually. And there's been actually very few. So it's just really hard to say and I think there's got to be a big element of luck involved in that.

ALLEN: When you talk about "ditching," is this something -- is there any way to be able to practice for such maneuvers or trying to do something like that in a simulator and ground versus water in a situation like that?

DARCY: Well, I don't think there's really much that is really worth practicing that. The basic procedure is to get the airplane, you know, slowed down and touched down as low as possible but still in control. I would like to emphasize, it's very, very rare that you make an intentional ditching, and it, you know, would be far more likely that the crews would be considering or trying to get back to the departure airport, or if another airport was closer. I think an intentional ditching in the water would be probably a pretty -- one of their last chance type of thoughts. ALLEN: Kevin Darcy, we thank you for talking with us. As we get information on the particulars of this plane crash, we hope to talk with you some more.

Want to tell you, again, the flight number of this flight today that has gone down. It is GF072, Gulf Air Flight 072, the type of plane Airbus A-320. As you just heard from Mr. Darcy and other people, experts we talked with today, this is plane with a very good safety record. However, Bahrain television, reporting the cause of the crash was due to a fire in one of the aircraft's engines. But according to our analyst, this is something this airplane is designed to sustain with safety features to be able to get this plane down, if that is the case. And they get that information, we are told, from communications with the pilot on board the plane before it went down.

This plane today was taking off from the capital of Bahrain. That's just due east of Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf, and was on a scheduled flight to Cairo when it went down. We still do not have word on whether there's a possibility of survivors, we don't have word about how this plane impacted the water. We haven't heard from witnesses yet.

But there is a rescue under way. And we are certain to get more information for you soon. We talked with Saeed al Bably. He is with the Ministry of Information. And he was going to get us more information and call us back. So when we get him. We will bring his new information to you. We'll take a break. We'll continue to follow this developing story this afternoon. Be back in a moment.



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