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Breaking News

NTSB Discloses Preliminary Findings in Pennsylvania Jet Crash

Aired May 22, 2000 - 3:18 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: We have the National Transportation Safety Board making its first statements on the crash of the commuter airlines, Executive Airlines twin engine turboprop, which was carrying 17 passengers home from a gambling trip in Atlantic City, New Jersey over the weekend and crashed with all aboard.

Here's -- here's the news.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

GEORGE BLACK, NTSB: ... Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, the Pennsylvania State Police, the Lucerne County Sheriff's Department, the Turnpike Authority, or commission, numerous local fire and ambulance companies, local and national red cross, Salvation Army, and Lucerne County Coroner's Office -- and I believe I met out there several other area coroners yesterday. These people long before we got here had done -- would you hold that for me? -- had done excellent work in preparing for us.

We always -- we always get there a little after the fact during the early responses, and we count on these people to do what needs to be done from an emergency standpoint, rescue sometimes, and then also prepare for us and control the scene until we can get there. And the support has been excellent. And I would like to thank you personally and for the board for that support.

I would like to, since there's a relatively new group, go very briefly through how the board investigates accidents. We respond at a go team. We have people on-call and all modes of transportation 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. And yesterday, midafternoon, it was determined that there would be a launch up here, and we had about a group of 12 or so on the airplane coming up. There have been more that have come in later from the Safety Board.

We basically do investigations by taking our specialists from inside the board on various disciplines and then -- and forming groups. A board person is the chairman of each investigatory area group, then those groups are staffed by the FAA and then by parties to the investigation.

For instance, the parties to this investigation are the FAA, Executive Airlines, Honeywell, which is Garrett (ph) Engines -- there have been some takeovers there and the names have changed over the years -- and British Aerospace, they are helping us with this investigation. There are other people asking -- acting as advisers.

But these groups and the groups that we are of investigatory areas are operations and human performance, air traffic control, weather, structures, that's the structure of the airplane; systems, that would be the electrical system, the hydraulic systems, other systems on the airplane; power plants, that's the engines; maintenance records, survival factors, that would be people -- we would be looking at in this case the cause of death if it can be determined and how that might have occurred and if there's some way we can do something about that; and aircraft performance, aircraft performance is basically an aerospace engineering group that looks at the -- a model of the airplane, they look at input data from the -- from radar and other sources and then try to describe with mathematics the path of the airplane and this allows us to reconstruct the accident.

Those are the groups associated with this particular accident. We also are having join us a group from the Department of Health and Human Services, the federal -- whatever they call the health department of the United States. I think the name has changed since I looked at it. But this a volunteer group primarily of morticians and forensic pathologists who frequently respond to us at scenes where maybe the local people need a little extra help with identifying victims and that sort of thing, and that group will be coming here with their mobile mortuary, and I don't know when they will be here, but they are usually very responsive.

Activities, we have spent -- Frank, I gave away the sheet. I gave away one of the sheets that I should have kept. There's not so much space up here.

Basically today we have been interviewing witnesses and interviewing -- they are trying to interview the air traffic controllers, I think we are still working on that area. We are mapping and documenting the wreckage at least up until the time it started raining. We are, as I said, interviewing witnesses, this would include the owner of the aircraft and I think we've also spoken with some people who were eye or ear witnesses to the accident during the day. People have been very good about coming forward. I would take this opportunity to say if there are any other people who saw something or heard something, we would really like to hear from you, and you can call us here at the hotel and we would be more than happy to talk to you.

I would now like to get into the area of the -- one more issue that came up. We also have obtained fuel samples from the truck that fueled this aircraft in Farmingdale, New York, which I'm told is on Long Island. A preliminary review of that information indicates no problems. We will be looking at that in more depth, and looking -- we want to make very sure about our fuel information on the airplane.

I would now like to talk a little bit about the cockpit voice recorder. Again, a bit of background, larger airliners have a flight data recorder, which records things like altitude and air speed and power settings, all sorts of things varying from just a few parameters up to two or 300 parameters. This airplane did not have nor was it required to have a flight data recorder. So the other recorder that was onboard this airplane -- I would like to read to you for completeness here some statements that have been prepared to tell you a little bit about this particular recorder and some information about it.

The cockpit voice recorder was a Fairchild Aviation Recorders of Sarasota, model A-100-A, it was a four channel, 30-minute tape cockpit voice recorder, it was found in good condition in the tail of the airplane. Some minor impact damage to a rear connector. The recording contained from -- the recording obtained from the accident CVR was completely blank with no conversations or aircraft noise heard on any of the four channels. The accident cockpit voice recording was configured to be installed in an aircraft that would supply 115 volts AC, alternating current power for operation. And neither the recorder or its associated systems would operate on 28 volts DC, direct current power.

According to the manufacturer's manual, the Jetstream 31 aircraft is normally configured to supply 28-volt DC electric power to the cockpit voice recorder. The recorder did not contain an internal AC/DC, or A -- DC to AC inverter, which would have been required to produce a recording, produce power that would be necessary for the recorder to operate. Without appropriate electrical power, the cockpit voice recorder unit would not pass its internal crew initiated self test checks.

We are looking at FAA requirements and company procedures with regard to testing and application of cockpit voice recorders on this series of airplanes that's in progress. We would note that all previous Jetstream accidents that we could find information on that the board had investigated did have these inverters installed in the cockpit voice recorders to produce the proper power for operation. We are looking at this particular aircraft to determine if there are any irregularities in the wiring that would not be -- that would change these sources of power for the recorder.

And with that, Frank, can you think of anything else we need to...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (OFF-MIKE)

BLACK: Yes. Thank you.

We are -- well, let me talk just for a second about the effect of that. I suspect there will be a question or two. What affect that has again in an accident like TWA 800, we had a cockpit voice recorder and a multichannel flight data recorder, in most aviation accidents we have this. Commuter airline accidents, again, of aircrafts of this size we have the cockpit voice recorder and radar data.

We are now reduced on this accident to having only radar data and whatever information we can glean from that, eyewitness statements, and so we are -- we have requested from the air traffic control -- the FAA's air traffic control office for this area the original tape of the transmissions that occurred between the tower and the airplane, and the reason for that is we can sometimes in background noise through spectral analysis, sound spectral analysis, we can somehow -- sometimes get engine RPM and other information about power settings and things of that nature. So we are having that complete tape delivered to us.

We are also, I believe, trying to obtain the privately made recording that some of you have played on television and radio today, see if we can get the original of that copy, and I don't know whether we found that person or not. But we will be trying to obtain that recording.

This seriously hampers the investigation, let's face it. One of -- a lot of times I've heard people say that the flight data recorder tells you what happened, and sometimes if you are lucky the cockpit voice recorder tells you why something happened.

So we now don't have what happened because we have no data recorder, and we also do not have the voice recorder which might have explained to us some of the conversations between the crew during this last part of the flight that would have helped us in understanding what happened here. So this is somewhat disappointing and we are going to do the best we can without it.

I think that's it -- Carl.

CARL ROCHELLE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Mr. Black, how -- in your experience in covering aviation accidents, how often is it when you get in a situation with a twin-engine aircraft that both engines quit simultaneously like that, and what are the indications beyond contaminated fuel that might take you there?

BLACK: Without doing a search of our -- we -- I have some data just on this airplane. Without searching for that particular thing, I don't know have many we've had. It is a very rare event. I think I heard you say that earlier today on television. One of the reasons for having two engines is so that you can have two almost totally independent systems, separate fuel feeds, separate ignition systems just as this kind of a backup. So the chances of two of them failing simultaneously makes us very curious about the cause.

Yes, ma'am.

QUESTION: Sir, in your experience, do you consider these private planes, these small planes, high-maintenance?

BLACK: I don't know exactly what you mean by high-maintenance. I think they basically -- their inspection schedules and that sort of thing are pretty much the same as any airplane. They have the same systems, they're just smaller. They have engines, they have landing gears, they have seats, they have doors, the same sorts of things that are maintained on larger airplanes. They fly more cycles. They usually fly more takeoffs and landings in a day, and that makes them wear faster. But then there are -- the inspection sequence for airplanes -- for these airplanes takes that into consideration. They're designed for that.

QUESTION: To follow up on that point, sir, which -- being that there were three of these similar crashes, including this one... BLACK: I don't think we've said that there were three similar crashes.

QUESTION: Well, according to my information there have been three crashes of small planes in the northeastern Pennsylvania area. That's...

BLACK: No.

QUESTION: Is that -- that's not correct?

BLACK: There probably have been at least three general aviation accidents. I don't recall another part 135 or 121 accident up here, so I don't think you can compare this with a general aviation flight.

Yes, sir.

QUESTION: You mentioned the last time that the plane was known to have been refueled. Have you calculated how much fuel must have been on board at the time of the crash?

BLACK: We're interviewing people right now to try to determine that information.

Yes, sir -- Bob.

QUESTION: The condition of the engines in the wreckage, since that may be crucial to look at those engines (OFF-MIKE)

BLACK: I would describe them as being fire-damaged but not destroyed. They're intact, and we will hopefully be lifting them out tomorrow sometime to brick them to a hangar here to inspect. But I've seen worse, let's put it this way -- and I'm sure Frank has.

Yes, sir.

QUESTION: The cockpit voice recorder was not working properly, it wasn't -- the power switch wasn't working properly. Does that mean basically that laws were broken?

BLACK: We're looking into -- as I said, in the bullets that I read, we're looking into the exact requirements for this type of operation. So we will certainly be looking to see if there's anything that should have been done differently with regard to it.

I'm not prepared to say that a law was broken, use "law." I don't know whether it would be a regulation or a law or a maintenance manual item or whatever.

Yes, sir.

QUESTION: Two at one time, if I may, because I think that we have had an initial report that there might have been a refueling in Atlantic City, so let me ask you about that.

And also, although this hampers the investigation, this power- source situation, is there any reason to believe that that's going to play a role in progress?

BLACK: All right, to answer to the first question, I do not believe the airplane was (OFF-MIKE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The information that we have is that it was not, but we -- it's still very early. We still haven't checked all the records yet.

BLACK: Come on up here, Frank, closer.

The second question was -- I've already forgotten.

QUESTION: While this power situation certainly hampered the investigation, is there any reason that anyone might believe that it's somehow connected with the accident?

BLACK: No, the airplane was designed to operate that way, and it just so happens that basically the cockpit voice recorder that you put into this airplane has an internal inverter, and you connect it to the DC power. It changes DC to AC, and then it operates. But it's a different part number.

QUESTION: Did both engines fail at the exact same time, or did one fail first?

BLACK: We do not have that information. That would have been possibly discernible from the cockpit voice recorder, but now we only have -- we will have timings from the radar and timings from the air traffic control tape, and that will be all we will have. And whether we can do a performance study, tell when an engine went out or went in from that, that's going to complicate things more. But we cannot answer that question, and we might not ever be able to answer that question.

WATERS: National Transportation Safety Board member George Black telling reporters the early indications that they're getting about all the work that lies ahead in determining the cause of the crash that Jetstream 31 near the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton airport at 11:48 Sunday morning, yesterday morning. That plane had taken off on a charter flight, after picking up 17 passengers from Atlantic City. And it went down nine miles from the Wilkes-Barre airport, and it may have missed its first approach because of bad weather. It was raining and visibility was poor, but NTSB people believe the cause may have been something else.

There were early indications this morning from George Black himself that investigators were looking at fuel and fuel systems and whether they may have been contaminated, because we have one piece of evidence, and that is the transmission between the plane and the tower indicating that both engines had shut down.

Let's listen to that now.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... standby. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... minimum vectoring altitude there is 3,300.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Standby...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Tell them we've lost both engines.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We've lost both engines...

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WATERS: That is the tape that you've been hearing here on CNN most of the day. NTSB wants its hands on the original of that tape to be able to detect any background noise to give them information, because there was no cockpit voice recorder due to improper equipment installed, which might be a violation of some kind of regulation. And federal aviation does not require a flight data recorder on those commuter planes, the Jetstream 31.

So that's all we know right now, except the investigation is in high gear. They only have the radar data, the eyewitnesses and that original tape, which we just played for you, to go by right now, so there's a lot of work to be done.

I'm Lou Waters at CNN Center. TALKBACK LIVE after a break resumes.

TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.fdch.com

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