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Gulf Air Flight 072 Crashes Just East of Saudi Arabia

Aired August 23, 2000 - 3:08 p.m. ET


NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: We're continuing on here with the developing story, the crash this afternoon -- it's evening there in the Persian Gulf -- of Gulf Air flight 072. It was trying to land in the capital of Bahrain there just east of Saudi Arabia, which is pretty much surrounded by water. Flight was from Cairo, Egypt. The word we have as far as people aboard, 143 passengers, and that -- 143 people, excuse me, that includes a crew of eight onboard this airbus A320.

KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: And we're going to go to our aviation correspondent once again, Carl Rochelle, who's been with us throughout the afternoon. Carl, he is in Washington D.C.

Let's begin with talking about the fact that the pilot tried to make two landings. They were unsuccessful. The third one, of course, as we've been reporting, the aircraft plunged into the Persian Gulf. Let's talk about this.

What do you think -- it's all speculation of course. What do you think the pilot was trying to do, and talk about the process here?

CARL ROCHELLE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The one thing that really leaps out at you is why? Why was he making -- why was he not able to get down in the first pass? Why did it take three passes and then wind up with a third one going into the Gulf?

Here again, I must caution you that that's early information, and we believe it's accurate from a source that was following it. And we are told they made, the crew made two passes. the third pass put down in the water about three miles offshore, and I can tell you the water is shallow in that area. I've been in that area, both in Gulf Air jetliner back during Desert Storm and Desert Shield, also written around the Persian Gulf in that area, around Bahrain extensively with the U.S. Navy in some of those helicopters they are trying to use in this rescue attempt to try to see if there is anyone they can find in there.

But back to the plane, the reason - it's difficult to parse a reason why the plane would go around and make approached like that.

It could that he had a problem going on, I would think, within the aircraft, because a normal approach, unless there was something on the runway -- unless he was waved off for reasons: the runway was closed or the traffic didn't get off of the runway in time -- then there would be no reason to go around, unless he is having a problem inside of the aircraft. And that's sort of what that tells me.

PHILLIPS: OK, Carl, you've said -- oh, here is an animation -- why don't we take a look at this animation.

ROCHELLE: Two engines. It's a flyby wire system. The airspeed on this aircraft -- let's see, it's about 430 knots is the speed of it. That puts you up in roughly the 500-mile-an-hour range for those people who don't do nautical miles. It has a flight crew of two. It is a flyby wire computer driven system that uses side-stick controller. That is on the left side.

The captain is in the left seat. He flies the control stick in his left hand -- two throttles in the center. They are auto- throttles. They automatically go to the position you want them in. It's got a rather significant flight management system in and a flight director system in. You dial in the speeds that you want that you need and the airplane will pretty much take you there.

From the cockpit, there's a little square box in the center of it that you put over a set of cross hairs. And as long as you take that side-stick control and put it over there, the airplane flies and stays within the envelope, even with the loss of an engine. Now, just off the top of my head -- and pure speculation, Kyra -- I don't like to speculate a lot -- but one of the things you can look at if they made two approaches and then had an engine on fire on the third approach -- and I'm assuming that the information that the engine was on fire at one point in this is very good -- it tells you that there was some kind of problem that they were trying to deal with.

And that could be the reason they missed approach the first couple of times around and then the third time apparently got away from them and put it down in the water. So there was a problem going on, Kyra.

PHILLIPS: Carl, and earlier on, Kevin Darcy (ph), who is an aviation safety consultant who was with us, mentioned something about the safety records being pretty good. They have a good safety record, but that there had been problems with the man-machine interface. Could explain what that is and if that parlays into what you're talking about?

ROCHELLE: Right. What was that term you used?

PHILLIPS: The man-machine interface.

ROCHELLE: The man-machine interface, OK. The man-machine interface is exactly what we were talking about with this computer- driven system, where the man and the machine go together and the computer puts them in. When you fly an Airbus with that automated system, you move the control stick. The control stick tells the computer what you want the airplane to do. And the computer tells the airplane to do it. So there's your interface.

The computer is actually the interface in between the two. And I know you had asked about what you would do if you have a fire onboard. Well, the first thing you do is you pull -- there's a fire lever that you pull that turns the engine off. It tells the fire extinguisher bottles to put whatever extinguishing agent they are using -- probably halon -- into the area where the engine is to put the fire out. There's a great deal of fire extinguishing agent in. It should get the fire out and get it control under.

But man-machine interface, absolutely, this is a modern solid- state computer-driven aircraft, Kyra.

PHILLIPS: OK, Carl, aviation correspondent, stick with us, please.

We're going to go to Natalie now for other information.

ALLEN: Now on telephone with us is CNN contributor Nada Mohammed with Bahrain Television.

Nato, we have just learned that this airplane went down during its third attempt to land. Is that information that you are hearing?

NADA MOHAMMED, BAHRAIN TV REPORTER: Not at this moment in time, no. We don't know -- we haven't been known, actually, how may attempts it had made to land. What we know, that it was coming towards from Cairo to Bahrain and it crashed in the sea of the north coast of Bahrain. One of the engines caught fire. We know a number of people onboard was 143 passengers. And that's including the crew. We also know that the black box has not been found yet and the search is still going on.

The rescue operations are in full progress. We have reports of bodies being pulled out, but we do not have confirmed numbers. And the rescue is being carried out by air and sea rescue teams. I mean, of course, what makes this even more difficult that it's night now in Bahrain and it's very difficult to see. The crown prince, Shaikh Salman al-Khalifa, has been supervising this rescue operation. And we are just waiting for more news to come through.

ALLEN: Have you heard, Nada, of any eyewitnesses that saw this plane go down?

MOHAMMED: No, not that we know of. But what we have been told, there were people near the site. They have seeing bodies floating, but again, we don't have any confirmation of the numbers.

ALLEN: Right, and as we...

MOHAMMED: Not yet, we don't have an official figure to release.

ALLEN: Right, no reports of survivors then.

MOHAMMED: Not yet. But we can still hope for survivors.

ALLEN: And, any -- do you know how extensive the rescue is? Is it difficult to reach...

MOHAMMED: It is extremely expensive. As I said, it is air and sea rescue operations going on. There's helicopters all over the place. Lights are being flooded down. There's sea rescue teams. It is an intensive effort, the rescue effort.

ALLEN: And what was the weather at the time of this crash this evening in Bahrain?

MOHAMMED: Well, it's hot. The temperature here is about 37 degrees Celsius.

ALLEN: Clear skies?

MOHAMMED: But it's clear. It's a clear night, yes. Clear skies.

ALLEN: The information that you have that one of the engines aboard this -- on this plane had caught fire, was that from communication that the tower received from the pilot?

MOHAMMED: That's information actually released by an official at the Ministry of Transportation.

ALLEN: All right.

MOHAMMED: So obviously, it was like relayed to us at the television station. So it must be confirmed.

ALLEN: OK. Nada Mohammed with Bahrain TV, we thank you. As she said, it is dark there now. The rescue is under way. Bodies have been pulled from the water some four miles from the airport where this plane went down. No word of survivors. I have just received the latest report that the plane crashed in about 18 feet of water. Rescue crews have located debris, but again no survivors. And as she reiterated, the numbers we are getting is 135 passengers, eight crewmembers, 143 total on this plane in Bahrain.

PHILLIPS: We're now going to turn to Orelon Sidney. You mentioned the temperatures and what it is like there now. Natalie, Orelon has been checking into that and has that for us -- Orelon.


It is pretty weather benign as you can say across parts of the Middle East. We're looking here at the Red Sea. Here's the Persian Gulf. Here is where Bahrain is located. And you notice that on the infrared satellite picture, there's not much to see at all. There are not very many clouds. Most of that is moving off to the southwest. Temperatures have been in the 90s. And they generally will be even after the sun goes down there for several hours.

You will see temperatures in the 90s. Winds, at the last report and over the past couple of hours, have been very light out of the East. So that is going to be coming in from this direction, pushing the clouds off to the southwest at about eight to 10 miles per hour. So it is very calm, very good flying conditions, at least at the surface, as far as weather is concern. Even in the upper levels, we're just not seeing a whole lot of action there. I don't see any disturbances around the area. And that certainly wouldn't affect anything very close to the airport. So weather, at this point, looks like it is going to be a minor factor if at all -- Kyra.

PHILLIPS: All right, well, that's good for rescue efforts -- OK, Orelon.

And where are we going to go now? Natalie.

ALLEN: We have Commander Jeff Gradeck with us again. Is he live with us or are we going to tape? All right, we are going to go to tape with Commander Jeff Gradeck with the -- he's with the Navy's 5th Fleet, posted there in Bahrain, and talked with us about the Navy assisting in the rescue and recovery of this crash. All right. We don't have that at the moment.

I can tell you the commander told us that there were at least -- let me find my notes -- at least perhaps seven vessels operating from the Navy trying to help out with the rescue attempt at sea and air. Helicopters were over the scene. He could not tell us anything about what they were seeing at the crash site. He didn't have any information on that.

But back to Carl Rochelle, our aviation correspondent.

So far no good news, Carl. We're learning just -- they are pulling bodies from the sea, but no survivors. And we have learned the plane crashed in about 18 feet of water. And, as you told us, this was the third attempt for this plane to land there tonight but -- and Nada Mohammed with Bahrain TV reiterating the report that there was a fire in one the engines.

Is it very unusual -- you hear about fire in an engine on take- off, Carl -- but what about on landing?

ROCHELLE: It's not too often you hear about fire in an engine on landing. That would indicate some sort of a problem that went -- that took place in association with going in. Now, remember, the -- it made two unsuccessful attempts to land. How close did it come? Did it go down and make what's called a low approach, a pass down the runway and up and out again?

Did it break it off at altitude and come around? Here again, once you get down into the low altitude, the envelope where birds actually fly, you can still suck up a bird in an engine. You don't have to be taking off to get a bird in the engine. Seagulls, anything flying in the area, can do some considerable damage to an engine. So it is possible, once they go down below say a couple thousand feet in that envelope where a bird could be flying around, they could have ingested a bird, cause the engine to go down. I would think that probably the fire in the engine may have been associated with the problem that may have led to them making the two unsuccessful passes here in the beginning.

Here again, we need to know more details from the tower controllers in Bahrain, what they were talking to, if the crew said that they had any problems coming in. That's something we haven't heard from yet. What we hear from cockpit voice recorder will give us a lot of indications on that. The flight data recorder tell us what the airplane was doing at the particular time, whether the engines was having a problem, whether there were some control problems. But you know, the answer to your original question, pretty unusual to have an engine fire at that point. You're not at maximum thrust. You are throttled back.

Typically, the way you bring a jet aircraft is what they call a stabilized approach, and if you've done a lot of flying, you probably recall when you got around to the point where the airplane decided it was going to land, it got sort of quiet, and then you heard all these thumps and bumps, and that's putting the slats out on the front end of the wing and the flaps out on the back end of it and dropping the landing gear down. And as all that happens, you hear the engines begin spool back up. Well, they go to somewhere 50 or 60 percent of power, and the reasons, operational reasons for doing that, but it also lets them get what they call a stabilized approach, that brings the aircraft down at a fixed airspeed and a fixed rate of descent that is designed to bring it down to the runway, then the bring the power back and land.

So the power is not at full throttle in any part of that envelope, unless they have to go around. If they go around, they power up to full power, clean the airplane out, go around and do the approach again.

ALLEN: How much altitude would a pilot go to after a missed landing to go about around?

ROCHELLE: Well, in that area, it's flat, so I would guess it would probably go to about a couple thousand feet. Now if we had the approach plates for that particular airport, you could get a pretty good idea of it. But the procedure when do you a missed approach is to clean the airplane up, go around, take out the checklist, and reset everything, go back around, and try to do it again, being very careful. Because one of the very critical areas in landing airplanes is when you have to do a missed approach. And this is a time where if you don't go back and do a checklist, you can make errors by trying to remember exactly how to do it by rote. So you go back go through that whole checklist and work it out.

Probably go back up to a couple thousand feet, depending how close he got down to the runway before deciding the misapproach and go back a proud. Go back around to the end of the runway, landing into the wind, of course, and get the airplane up and set up to bring it back in to try to make the landing again.

, the curiosity here is why he wasn't able to get the plane on the ground the first time around.

Let me throw in, Natalie, Kyra was talking about the safety record, and the latest figures I have -- this was back as of February of this year. There were 1,162 Airbus A320s in operation worldwide. This was according to Airbus, and the total number of whole losses, accident where the airplane was total loss, and that has was six, and that's since the inception of the aircraft. So that -- if you do the arithmetic on that, that sounds like a pretty good safety record, and it is. It is a safe airplane to fly. Airbus has been making inroads in selling their aircraft throughout the world and has become a major competitor to Boeing, the U.S. airmaker, based out of Seattle. In fact, there are some months now that Airbus outsells Boeing. It's quite popular in aircraft, particularly in Europe and the Middle East. It is reasonably easy to fly. It's fast. It's clean. It's a nice airplane. And they've found a good market for it.

So there are a lot of them out there, and the safety record is very good at this point. So that much I can tell you about the Airbus and the safety record of it. What happened in this particular case, we don't know. There will a lot of people who will be trying to find that out, and I shouldn't be at all surprised to find that the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board will send a representative in, even though it is not a U.S. aircraft nor U.S.-manufactured aircraft, they have a great deal of expertise that they can to loan to a country in a situation like that. So don't know it yet, but I wouldn't be at all surprised to see a U.S. representative go in to offer some guidance on the problems of the aircraft.

ALLEN: And they should get a lot of information, shouldn't they, if it's true that this airplane was trying its third attempt to land. They should be -- there should have been plenty of communication between the tower and the airplane.

ROCHELLE: It is. The cockpit voice recorder typically runs in a 30-minute loop, and some of the modern ones used digital technology, which of course doesn't mean audiotape, but still, it fills the bubble of memory in the digital recorder, if you will, records over itself. You typically have 30 minutes. Some of the newer ones run a bit longer than that in the cockpit voice recorder. I believe the flight data recorder, off the top of my head, gives you the last 48 hours, which would tell you not only this particular flight, but will tell you the last couple of flights, any flights that it made -- of course it's only operating 48 hour mode, when the aircraft is actually powered up and beginning to take off. So it would give them a history of the last three or four days to go back and look through the aircraft and see if perhaps it had a problem, an incipient problem, if you will, before it go to Cairo, in the process of leaving Cairo, a problem that happened en route. They'd look for glitches showing up on that flight data recorder to show if there was anything, any problem that was indicated during that particular period before the airplane got down to try to make the approach into Bahrain.

And of course they'll look very closely at all of the parameters for those last several minutes. And you know, we've had several crashes recently where the flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder stopped before the event was completely over with. EgyptAir is one situation where the plane was going down toward the water and it stopped. TWA 800 was one where all of a sudden it stopped.

But in a case like this, where the plane actually flies all the way to the water with power on and engine on, they should have a complete recorded history of what was said and what the flight data recorder saw and recorded all the way up to the time the plane hit the water, and that should help them out a lot -- Natalie. ALLEN: All right, Carl Rochelle, thank you so much for your information. For more now, here is Kyra.

PHILLIPS: Also in D.C. standing by is Jim McKenna with Aviation Safety Alliance. He joins us from D.C. to talk a little bit more about safety records and issues of safety.

Jim, why don't we start -- Carl touched a little bit on the safety records and the number of accidents that he was able to investigate and account for. He had mentioned that overall, the plane has had a good safety record and that he could only account for six accidents since the inception of the aircraft. Is that the same numbers you have? Are those the same?

JIM MCKENNA, AVIATION SAFETY ALLIANCE: Yes, Kyra. That's about right. It's important to keep in mind that these first few hours after a crash that the initial reports are often very unreliable, and it may even be too early to focus on whether this was a problem that specifically related to the A320. Investigators are going to want to get on the ground, figure out exactly what the circumstances were that led to the crash, and then figure out whether in fact it's a problem specific to the airframe, the A320, or to its engines, or perhaps if it's some more general problem such as the presence of some foreign object, debris or even birds on the runway.

PHILLIPS: What could cause an engine fire? What are some of the other possibilities? You mentioned the debris, a bird.

MCKENNA: And, again, we have to keep in mind that in days after Concorde crash, we spent a great deal of time talking about engine failures and fire only to find out that in fact we didn't have an engine fire in that crash; we had a fuel tank leak that led to a major fire. Even at this point, focusing on the possibility of an engine fire with this crash is a bit premature. Certainly, investigators will look to see whether there was some kind of internal failure within the engines that might have led to a fire, whether that failure might have been a catastrophic failure that led to debris being flung out of the engines. They will look for some other possible leak in the fuel system. They'll look at whether the engines ingested something like large bird that could have damaged the engines. But again, one of the most common reports after an airplane crash is that the engines were on fire. And nine times out of 10, that proves not to be the case.

PHILLIPS: OK, well, the previous accidents, the six accidents that have occurred since the plane's inception, what were the causes from those crashes? What was determined?

MCKENNA: Generally, the previous accidents were related to a breakdown in the interaction of the pilots with the aircraft systems itself. The pilots got the airplane into a condition such as a steep descent or a shallow descent or climb, and didn't fully appreciate what the systems of the airplane were doing or didn't correctly interpret the data that the systems were displaying for them. In some cases, perhaps the data wants displayed in a way that was easy for the pilots to interpret, and they got in a situation in which the pilots got into, what investigators call, behind the airplane, and lost control of the airplane before they could save it from hitting the ground.

PHILLIPS: Jim, I was reading that this is the first airliner to take full advantage of the fly-by-wire flight controls.

Carl had talked a little bit about it, but maybe you can expand on the advantage of this, and if a failure within this system could have possibly caused the crash.

MCKENNA: Certainly, investigators will want to take a very close look at whether there's anything that indicates that the fly-by wire system might have been implicated in this incident. Fly-by wire systems have been used for decades in military aircraft. The Airbus aircraft are fairly pioneering in their incorporation of fly-by wire into commercial airplanes and airliner.

And what the system essentially does is team the pilot up with a vast array of computers that are able to control the airplane and respond to outside influences and the control inputs of the pilots to provide a much smoother and safer flight than previous generations of aircraft. Likewise, the latest aircraft built by the U.S. manufacturer Boeing incorporates some fly-by wire capabilities, and it just is intended to reduce the workload on the pilot, help them work more efficiently, and safer in flying the airplane.

PHILLIPS: You mentioned Boeing. Boeing and Airbus are big competitors, correct?

MCKENNA: They are fierce competitors.

PHILLIPS: And the reason for that?

MCKENNA: Well, the reason for that is they are the two remaining large airline manufacturers in the world, so for the entire world's market they either win a competition or they lose a competition. So every time an airline is looking to order new aircraft, basically new large aircraft like the A320, or its similar airplanes, Boeing and Airbus are slugging it out.

PHILLIPS: Jim McKenna, with Aviation Safety Alliance, live from D.C., thanks for being with us. I'm sure we'll be checking with you again. Thank you.

Once again, to wrap up on our breaking news coverage, the latest that we know right now, a Gulf Airbus A320 bound from Cairo to Bahrain crashed a few miles short of a landing strip at Bahrain International Airport today. The flight number, once again, if you are curious to know is GF072, it crashed in the waters of the Persian Gulf a number of hours ago. Officials in Bahrain say one of the plane's engines caught fire, we are not sure how it caught fire, or what caused that to happen yet. We are still working on that.

We are told that 144 passengers were onboard, that's the number we are going with right now. There is no word on survivors, but rescue crews have reported finding debris from the crash, however, they have not been able to find any survivors yet. The U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet is aiding in the rescue efforts right now. The Desert Ducks helicopters have been called in along with a number of ships and other small craft.

We will continue to follow this story and bring you as much information as possible as it comes to us. We are going to take a quick break, we'll be right back.




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