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Gulf Air Flight Crashes in Persian Gulf Near Bahrain

Aired August 23, 2000 - 2:50 p.m. ET


NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: A little -- just one piece of new information about the crash today of Gulf Air Airbus A320. I just read that there are reports that once this plane impacted the water it did burst into flames. No word yet on how many people were aboard. We do know it took off from the capital of Bahrain, which is Manama, just due east of Saudi Arabia -- Bahrain, that very tall speck within that square on the right of your screen. This flight was scheduled to land in Cairo, Egypt.

We have talked with aviation analysts today that describe the Airbus as a very reliable aircraft and if it's true that there was a fire in the engine, as we have received information that could be the case, that there are many parameters that pilots had to be able to correct this situation. However, a catastrophe today, the Airbus going into the water. We have received information that members of the Navy's 5th Fleet, which have a regional base in Bahrain, are headed to the scene of the crash to try and help in any rescue. No word yet on whether there could be survivors.

We have with us on the telephone now -- I am just getting this. Let me write it down. With "Jane's Defence Weekly," which is an aviation -- a highly regarded military report, Paul Beaver is with us, someone we talked with just earlier this week about the submarine. So, highly-regarded people there at the magazine.

And Mr. Beaver, what can you tell us about the Airbus A320?

PAUL BEAVER, "JANE'S DEFENCE WEEKLY": Well, the Airbus A320 is very (AUDIO GAP) airplane, more than a thousand in service. It first flew in 198 (AUDIO GAP) ... for now for nearly a decade, one of the first users. And Gulf Air itself is a very reputable airline. It started by a couple of ex-pat Brits back in -- just after the war and now -- it's now taken over by local management, but it's still a very effective airline. I use it at least two or three times a year going in and out of Bahrain. The airport there is very efficient.

And as you say, the 5th Fleet is close by in Bahrain, so there are the search and rescue facilities there. We have to hope that they may find survivors. But the -- it's not usual, I am afraid, to -- for aircraft to be able to, when they are heading off to takeoff to be able to ditch in the water and for people to survive. So we have to hope that everything goes well.

ALLEN: I would assume once you -- as soon as you take off from the airport there in Bahrain that you are immediately over water.

BEAVER: You are indeed. You are straight over the Gulf and you'll find that basically you've got Kuwait close by, you have (UNINTELLIGIBLE) close by, Iran beside Iraq. But pilots are used to doing it, the air traffic control is very good there, this was clear weather. I think we -- it looks as if we might have had an engine malfunction with this aircraft which caused the fire, and it seems that the pilot was unable to control the fire and get the aircraft into a sensible flight regime. So we have to presume that this was a result of the fire and he probably was struggling to gain control.

ALLEN: Yes, but we talked with many analysts, and you can probably add more information to this, that say this aircraft is so well-suited to be able to handle an engine fire on takeoff.

BEAVER: It is. It's been designed to be a pilot-friendly air. And it's got a computer-control system which allows it to be flown to the absolute limits without actually causing a major problem to the aircraft. You cannot stall the aircraft. You cannot overbank it. And it's got its fire control systems (UNINTELLIGIBLE) two-man crew. There is a very good fire control system in the aircraft. So it can actually be dealt with, problem can be dealt with in the aircraft very speedily indeed.

ALLEN: And what can you tell us, Mr. Beaver, about Gulf Air?

BEAVER: Well, I like Gulf Air, it's a good airline to fly with. They fly -- one of their main hubs is out of Bahrain. A lot of British crews, South Africans, Australians, Americans, Irish, both in the captain and on the flight deck a very good mixture of crews, some Arab crews as well. So it's a very pleasant airline, and they specialize in really good hospitality, excellent safety record. So it is a great surprise that Gulf Air should suffer this accident.

ALLEN: How often do you hear of an airplane that takes off, discovers there is a fire in one engine and is able to turn around and land back safely, is that a common occurrence?

BEAVER: Well, luckily, engine fires are a very unusual occurrence. They do happen, and there have been a number of successful recoveries from that position. So it's not something that we should sort of talk about in the sense that it's a common occurrence. But when it does happen, there is a good chance that the pilot can extinguish the fire and continue to fly the aircraft.

ALLEN: Paul Beaver with "Jane's Defence Weekly," we thank you. We're sorry we had to talk with you about -- twice in one week regarding now two disasters, we talked with him earlier this week about the submarine disaster there in Russia, and now he joins us now to talk about this. Again, Gulf Air Flight 072 went down in the Persian Gulf today. No word on survivors.

KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: OK, we are now going to turn to Saeed Al Bably, who we talked to earlier when this story just broke, the minister of information for Bahrain. Mr. Al Bably, thank you for getting back with us. You had said you were going to depart from us for a few moments to try and get some more information. Can you tell us the latest information, what you know at this point?

SAEED AL BABLY, BAHRAINI MINISTER OF INFORMATION: Yes, what we know right now is airplane was coming from Cairo to Bahrain.

PHILLIPS: And we have confirmed...

AL BABLY: It was...

PHILLIPS: I am sorry, go ahead.

AL BABLY: It was coming from Cairo. It was coming from Cairo to Bahrain. It had involved 140 passengers, including the crew.

PHILLIPS: So it was going...

AL BABLY: And they...

PHILLIPS: I am sorry.

AL BABLY: Hello?

PHILLIPS: Did you say it was leaving Cairo to Bahrain?

AL BABLY: Yes. Yes. Yes.


AL BABLY: It was coming from Cairo to Bahrain.

PHILLIPS: OK. I am sorry you said?

AL BABLY: And onboard was 143 passengers, including the crew. And they fall in the sea four miles north of Bahrain.

PHILLIPS: And anything you can tell us with regard to the rescue mission? Has -- who else...

AL BABLY: The rescue mission is going on. And what we found right now is the wreckage of the plane. We have no information about any survivors here.

PHILLIPS: OK, Saeed Al Bably, minister of information for Bahrain, thank you for that quick update. We will go back to you.

Natalie, I understand you have some more information.

ALLEN: Well, Mr. Saeed telling us that this plane was in fact now landing in Bahrain. Is that what he reported? So now we have information that it was coming from Cairo and landing in Bahrain, if that is what I understood him to say.

PHILLIPS: Right, he changed it again. So now it looks like it's switched back from Cairo to Bahrain. ALLEN: So that is the information we have. He's saying that this plane went down four miles north of Bahrain into the Persian Gulf and that so far rescuers have only found wreckage. No information on any survivors.

But we have with us by telephone, Commander Jeff Gradeck, with the U.S. Navy, he's the public affairs officer with the 5th Fleet stationed in Bahrain. What can you tell us about this crash and any chance for survivors today, Commander?

Commander, can you hear me?


ALLEN: Yes, hello. You are on the air.

Anything you can tell us about this crash today and what efforts are under way for possible survivors?

GRADECK: I can't provide any detail on the crash itself. I think you spoke with Saeed Al Bably, I think he gave you some information there. However, the Bahraini government has requested the assistance of the U.S. Navy in the search and rescue effort. At the moment, we have three helicopters, two of which from the aircraft carrier USS George Washington, which are participating. We have two small harbor craft from our naval support activity here in Bahrain, which are assisting. We have three ships en route to the area also to assist at the moment.

ALLEN: So up to seven vessels helping out from the U.S. Navy today?

GRADECK: Including small craft.

ALLEN: OK, do you know how -- if any of this -- the Navy vessels have reached the site yet of the crash?

GRADECK: The small harbor craft have -- correction there. Three of those are helicopters, OK.

ALLEN: Have the helicopters been over the scene and have been able to report back on what they have seen?

GRADECK: No. No. No information yet. It's still dark, it's...

ALLEN: What time is it there?

GRADECK: Right now it's almost 10:00 at night.

ALLEN: OK, and do you know about the approximate time this plane went down? Did it go down when it was dark?

GRADECK: I do not have that information. I do know that it went down north of the runway of Bahrain International Airport.

ALLEN: And... GRADECK: And I do know that the flight was en route from Cairo.

ALLEN: And the U.S. Navy is involved in the rescue. But on information, no eyewitnesses yet on how this plane impacted the water?

GRADECK: No, not yet.

ALLEN: Thank you so much, Commander, Commander Jeff Gradek. We'll be continuing to talk with you.

The U.S. Navy sending vessels out to the rescue sight. It is 10:00 in the evening there, so it is dark. And as we learned earlier from the office of the Ministry of Information in Bahrain, 143 passengers, and that includes the crew, were aboard this flight today, and again, the information that changed, again -- we apologized for that, but we had given two bits of information on where this plane was coming from and where it was going. The latest that we know is the plane was coming from Cairo, Egypt, that Gulf Air Flight 072, and was attempted to land at the capital -- in the capital of Bahrain, but went down four miles north of Bahrain. Rescue vessels on the site.

And we bring back in our correspondent, aviation correspondent, Carl Rochelle, who is helping us through this crisis today -- Carl.

CARL ROCHELLE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Natalie, a little bit of information that I just picked up before. And details are sketchy, and we just learned, of course, that the airplane was actually arriving and not departing, as we had thought earlier, and the source who is familiar of what is going on over there, told that this Airbus, the A320, made two unsuccessful passes, two unsuccessful attempts to land in the airport on Bahrain. And in the third unsuccessful pass apparently wound up in the water about three miles offshore, and no reason why the passes were not unsuccessful. I don't know what the weather was like in that area. I don't know what the leather was like in that area. I do know, having spent a lot of time in that area, that it's rare to have bad weather. It usually is clear skies over there. It may be nighttime, not familiar with the times actually over there at the moment.

But I can tell you a little more about the airplane, the Airbus A320. It was delivered in September of 1994. That puts it to be about a six-year-old aircraft. It had 17,000 hours on it and 14,000 cycles. Now a cycle is one takeoff and landing all the way through, and it did have CFM engines. That's one that's supplied by France with the Airbus. A little bit more detail than we knew before.

ALLEN: So it doesn't give us anymore information, though, as far as would this pilot be attempting to make landings if there was a fire onboard? We just don't know, do we?

ROCHELLE: It raises some quite different questions, because the situation when you are bringing an airplane in to land, of course, the two most critical times are takeoff and landing, but bringing an airplane into land, why did he miss approach two times? Did he have a problem already on board when he got there? That is something that we'll have to learn from the Gulf Air people, and something that, here again, we go back to the so-called black boxes, the cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder. They will give a wealth of information. This is a fairly modern aircraft, modern design, which means that the flight data recorder on it likely is one of the extremely high-parameter recorders, and that simply means that it records parameters, different pieces of information, and this likely records in the neighborhood of probably close to a hundred, perhaps even better than 100 parameters.

So they can tell what almost everything on board that aircraft was doing in the last I think it runs 48-hour period, and then laps back over itself. But it will give it engine thrust. It would give it temperatures inside the engine, for instance, the tailpipe temperatures, the different turbine blades in it, which was going which direction, speed, control position and movement, all kinds of things like that, and of course the cockpit voice recorder would pick up the sounds of the crew as they were trying to deal with whatever the emergency was onboard.

Now, having made two passes, if the information we have, the earlier information, stays with us, and bears out to be exactly what happened, and we believe that to be the case at the time, that it made two passes unsuccessfully, and then on the third pass went down about three miles offshore from Bahrain, from the airport, then surely the crew of that plane was in contact making some kind of communications with the control tower, with controllers at the airport and perhaps from that, we'll learn what kind of difficulty they were having and why they did not -- were not able to get the airplane to ground the first time around many.

As I mentioned, under no normal circumstances, based on flying in the simulator, and everything I know about the airplane, I know some pilots who actually fly them in the United States, they love them, they swear by them, all of the planes are good, but they say it's not a terribly difficult plane to fly, should be OK, Natalie.

ALLEN: Compelling information that you bring us, that this pilot tried to make two attempts to land before crashing. We thank you, Carl Rochelle. We continue to keep in contact with you. Again, that Gulf Air Flight 072. We'll continue to bring you developments.

And we'll take a break. More after this.



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