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U.S. Military Searching for Missing Cuban Plane

Aired September 19, 2000 - 12:30 p.m. ET


GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, CO-HOST: Today on BURDEN OF PROOF: A small, single-engine plane hijacked in Cuba, destination: the United States. But the plane went down before reaching U.S. waters.

ANNOUNCER: This is BURDEN OF PROOF, with Greta Van Susteren and Roger Cossack.

VAN SUSTEREN: Hello and welcome to this breaking-news edition of BURDEN OF PROOF. We're following a story off the Florida Keys where a plane was reportedly hijacked in Cuba and is now down in international waters.

The U.S. Coast Guard has dispatched a rescue helicopter to the site, and a Coast Guard Cutter is expected to reach the scene any minute.

Joining us here in Washington is Rick Wester, spokesperson for the U.S. Coast Guard. Joining us here in our studio is Steven Thoreau (ph), former FAA Chief Litigator Michael Pangia and Brian Forty (ph). In the back row, Brian Dreganauck (ph) and Leslie Smith (ph). And also joining us here in Washington is CNN correspondent Carl Rochelle.

Rick, let me go, first, to you. What is the latest from the Coast Guard on this developing story?

RICK WESTER, U.S. COAST GUARD: Well, first of all, I want to emphasize the fact that we have not confirmed that the aircraft has gone down. We have reports of lost radar contact with the aircraft, but we have not confirmed that it has gone down.

VAN SUSTEREN: What does -- let me just say, what does lost radar contact mean?

I mean, that, to a layperson like me, that means gone -- I mean, that it's in the water. Is that a false assumption on my part?

WESTER: That would be an assumption. We're not sure what happened to it. We don't know if it has gone down or if it's still in the air. It's just that we have lost radar contact with it and we're actively searching for it at this time.

VAN SUSTEREN: Is there ever any logical explanation -- let me go to you on this, Carl -- Carl, when something has lost radar contact, is there any, sort of, explanation other than the fact that it's in the water? Can it escape radar?

CARL ROCHELLE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, Greta. The way radar works, it's a line-of-sight transmission. Radar sends a signal out, it bounces off the surface of the aircraft and comes back.

But it's -- as line-of sight, of course, the earth is curved; and as the airplane moves further away from where that last receiving antenna is, it goes below the area. So the radar signal is, literally, going over the top of it.

In fact, when you fly around, you'll see MRA on some of your charts as you fly. It says Minimum Radar Altitude, a minimum vectoring altitude. When you get below that altitude, they can't see you any more. You could be flying along the knap of the earth. It's what the military uses to evade radar when they're trying to make an entry into a country covertly. They just fly below the radar screens and off they go.

VAN SUSTEREN: Rick, what is the Coast Guard now doing to assist in this -- whether it's a rescue mission, I don't know -- but whatever it is that we have on our hands?

WESTER: Well, we should have a Cutter on scene, as well as a Coast Guard helicopter and a Coast Guard jet, and they're actively searching for the aircraft at this time.

We also have other aircraft and Cutters en route to the area.

VAN SUSTEREN: Did we get -- how did we get the call, and by "we," I mean the United States government, the United States Coast Guard?

WESTER: The call came in to the Miami air traffic controllers and they notified the Coast Guard of the report of the lost radar contact.

VAN SUSTEREN: From whom did the call come?

ROGER COSSACK, CO-HOST: Rick, didn't...

VAN SUSTEREN: I guess we now have Roger, who's joining us from L.A., go ahead, Roger.

COSSACK: Greta, I'm back.

VAN SUSTEREN: You're back, go ahead.

COSSACK: I'm back, thanks for carrying it for me.

Rick, I want to know, are we getting any cooperation -- I mean the United States, as Greta indicated -- from the Cubans in searching for this plane?

WESTER: Well, the initial notification did come from Havana, I think it was the Havana Air Control, notified Miami, and that's how we got the initial report of the lost radar contact. It was Havana. COSSACK: Do they have any vessels or planes there?

WESTER: I think they have one military cargo ship that is searching. I'm not aware of their location, however.

VAN SUSTEREN: Rick, can you give us some idea of the water temperature out there and can you give me any idea -- I don't know if you can or not -- as to how long someone could survive in that water?

WESTER: The water temperature is about 76 degrees Fahrenheit, and that is relatively warm and, you know, if someone is in the water they could, conceivably, stay alive for a pretty long time in that temperature of water.


COSSACK: Rick, is it so unusual that that plane would have that many passengers in it?

WESTER: I'm not sure of the aircraft itself, what it's designed for.

VAN SUSTEREN: Let me go to Carl.

Carl, tell me about this aircraft and, I understand, that -- or, at least, we've -- there's been some report this might be a C-Plane or maybe a modified plane of some sort.

ROCHELLE: Confusion about exactly what the modifications are on it. It is an An-2. It's an Antonov. It is a Russian-made airplane, single-engine biplane, but it will carry up to 20 passengers; and the initial report we received this morning, and this is information from the crew of the aircraft to Havana air traffic controllers, and then back to Miami air traffic control, was that there were 16 people onboard, plus a crew of two.

That would indicate about 18 people. Now, that airplane is a workhorse, the Soviets use it -- the Russians use it to ferry people around. It's an original Soviet design, now part of the Russian fleet; and, also, it's one that they sold to some of their client countries like Cuba. So it could be used to carry people around.

Now, what we were told, initially, was that it was a float plane, but, understand, that it is believed to be, at this point, according to a number of sources, a plane that was being used by the agriculture ministry, possibly to ferry people around.

The initial reports said that it was a crop-dusting or a fumigation-type aircraft, but believed not. Believed to be one that the agriculture ministry used to ferry people around. That would indicate the number of passengers on board.

It's not fast, 100-miles-an-hour, range of about 485 miles.

VAN SUSTEREN: Let me ask you, Carl, I mean, the reports that we're having, I mean, that I heard first that the maximum speed is 80, you're telling me now it's 100. It's about 90 miles from Cuba to the United States and there was a report that they -- and someone said that they had enough fuel for an hour-and-a-half.

Can you reconcile for me, in a sense, that, you know, could this plane have made it to the United States?

ROCHELLE: All right, the closest point is Havana to Key West, and that's about 90 miles as the crow flies, a straight line from Havana to Miami.

But this plane took off in an area that is south and west of Havana, would have had a longer distance to go. The speed would be between 80 and 100 miles an hour depending on -- 100 knots -- depending on the configuration, 100 to 115 miles an hour. That would mean it would take anywhere from an hour-and-a-half, perhaps two hours, depending on the course.

And this 90 miles is directly to Key West. If he came back up in the area where the Gulf of Mexico is, then he could have a much longer area to try to get back in.

VAN SUSTEREN: It sounds like, Carl, I mean, just the numbers -- trying to reconcile these numbers, and it's very early, obviously we don't know all the facts. But I'll tell you, it was a hell of a stretch to think that you'd get from Cuba to the United States with that type of aircraft and that much fuel.

ROCHELLE: Well, if he had full tanks on board, then, yes, it shouldn't be any problem at all. But if he had partial tanks -- now, here again, look at this wild card: All that we know at this point is that that is where it went off of the Havana radar scopes, and the further away it was from Havana, the lower -- it wouldn't have to -- you get off the radar scopes by going down, OK.

The further you get away from that radar antenna, the less lower you have to go. In other words, as your distance horizontally increases, your distance vertically diminishes.

So, once it disappeared off the scopes, and I think the interesting question to put to the Coast Guard, has anybody seen the aircraft -- the helicopters they flew over, any of their surveillance aircraft, the F-15s that were scrambled by the Air Force to take a look -- has anybody actually seen this aircraft, or is it down there somewhere, flying below radar scopes?

VAN SUSTEREN: Rick, what is the likely coordination, if any, between the Cuban government and the U.S. government in this search in these waters; and what about, even within the different organizations in the United States, who takes charge of this?

WESTER: Well, the Coast Guard is, of course, actively searching for it and we will, you know, take that help and information from whatever agencies and whatever countries we can get in searching for this aircraft.

The safety of the crew is of paramount concern right now, and we'll take all the help that we can get.

COSSACK: All right, let's take a break.

Carl Rochelle and Rick Wester, thank you both for joining us today.

Up next, more details in the investigation of a downed plane hijacked this morning from Cuba. Stay with us.


COSSACK: The U.S. Coast Guard is heading into the Atlantic and trying to find the remains, if any, of this airplane -- this hijacked airplane from Cuba. It's been reported that two F-15s have circled the area and have failed to find any trace of it. They have now been replaced by two F-16s from Tindle Air Force Base in Panama City, Florida -- Greta.

VAN SUSTEREN: Roger, we're now going to go to Chris O'Connell, out of Clearwater, Florida, who is with a CNN affiliate, who has the latest on the search and rescue.

Chris, what can you tell us?

CHRIS O'CONNELL, BAY NEWS REPORTER: Well, Greta the search and rescue call came in just about an hour ago and just minutes ago a Coast Guard C130 from Coast Guard Air Station Clearwater just departed with a group of search and rescuers. They are going to do what they call a grid search right off the coast of Key West, in between Key West and Cuba.

What they're looking for, anything, any kind of debris, any evidence of any kind of a downed plane. Now what happens, they just fly -- they're one of five different Coast Guard Air Force airplanes and helicopters, as well as some Coast Guard cutters doing boat searches.

They will figure out an area, about 150 to 250 square miles, and they will just go line by line, go down what they call a grid search, just hoping for something.

As you've said, there's no evidence yet that this plane has gone down, it just got off the radar screen. So right now they're not sure what they're looking for, that's the problem.

They said they are really looking for a needle in a hay stack right now, and they are just not sure what they're looking for. They think if they do get there, if the plane did go down, one of the two things could have happened. One, it could have just sunk to the bottom, or debris could be scattered. But they said, in either case, there should be some sort of evidence of some sort of happening like a downed plane, some sort of debris that they're looking for.

But right now no confirmation that the plane did crash, just confirmation that it was a hijacked Russian-made Antinof AN2. It was, we believe, it was headed towards Opa-Locka Airport, an executive jet center there, but obviously it didn't make it there.

So a massive search underway. Coast Guard, five different airplanes as well as surface cutters are searching the waters off of Key West and in that area between Florida and Cuba. But, so far, nothing yet and they are going to be out there all day if they have to, just searching for some signs of life -- Greta.

VAN SUSTEREN: Chris, over the weekend, tropical storm and then Hurricane Gordon hit the area. Do you have any idea whether the sort of aftermath of that storm is in any way going to -- in any way create a problem in this grid search?

O'CONNELL: Greta, I don't think so, the reason being, we -- yesterday we caught up with some cruise passengers who were stuck out in the Gulf of Mexico, but they made it back safely. They said it was a little choppy out there, but you can only assume it has gotten better today. But so far no effects of Hurricane Gordon at this point. It's just they're trying to look for something, that's their thing, they can't see anything, they just to have to do surface searches and air searches, just trying to come up with something.

But as far the weather goes, it looks like right here in Clearwater, it is beautiful out, a clear day, just some small overlaying clouds. But down there, we understand the weather is even better out there. So the search effort, visibility should be good off the coast.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right, Chris O'Connell. Chris, thanks for joining us out of Clearwater, Florida.

Now let's go to Mike Pangia.

Mike, in terms of this aircraft, there is something called the Air Defense Identification Zone. What is that? and how does that impact a search like this or even a plane coming into our territory?

MICHAEL PANGIA, FORMER FAA CHIEF LITIGATOR: Well, surrounding our country over the waters, over international waters, we have this Air Defense Identification Zone, ADIZ in short, and airplanes that are coming into that area towards the United States must be identified. And identification is made through a pre-filed flight plan.

VAN SUSTEREN: Where is this identification? at what point do you have to identify yourself?

PANGIA: It's about 12 miles off the shore, it begins about 12 miles off the shore, and it's not a restricted airspace because we can't restrict traffic there because it is over international waters. But we can set up a security system, which we do through this ADIZ, Air Defense Identification Zone, so that any airplanes coming into that area that are not identified we will generally scramble military aircraft to take whatever appropriate action they may find.

COSSACK: Mike, it would seem to me that obviously, if someone is hijacking an airplane, they're not going to file a flight plan, advertising that fact, what happens under these situations? PANGIA: Well, they'll generally scramble interceptions and...

VAN SUSTEREN: What does that mean to scramble an interception?

PANGIA: To scramble an interception would be that military aircraft would be alerted. The target would be alerted or over radar, military radar, as well as air traffic control, FAA air traffic control radar, and military planes will go up, look at -- size up the situation and take whatever appropriate action, which can be a shoot down if they feel that national security is being jeopardized by the -- by this unidentified airplane coming towards us.

VAN SUSTEREN: Well you know what is so interesting, right now we have no idea whether the plane is even down. Rick Wester from the Coast Guard said they weren't -- lost radar contact. We have no information whether it went down, we have no information even if it did go down, why it went down.

But was this plane at least -- was this in a space that the American government would have some sort of, you know, interest in or authority?

PANGIA: Yes, it would be. It is coming towards the United States. It is in the Air Defense Identification Zone and...

VAN SUSTEREN: Who created this zone?

PANGIA: Well, we did, and it does have international recognition. And other countries have their zones as well, where they require identification before coming into the zone.

If we were making a flight, for example, from the Bahamas, a flight, let's say we have passengers on board, what we would do is we would file -- before we left the Bahamas, we would file a flight plan with the Federal Aviation Administration, activate that flight plan. In other words, once we are in the air, we call the Federal Aviation Administration and tell them where we are, who we are. They know by your flight plan the number of people on board, they know the registration number of your aircraft, and so you become a friendly airplane identified.

If you takeoff without doing that, and come into the area. you jeopardize yourself. First, they will try to identify you by radio, and then they will try to identify you by military intercept. And if you don't respond to that, well, then you are acting at your own peril.

And of course, this airplane is now coming into that area and does have military concern. So I understand they did scramble military airplanes.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right, well, we're going to take a break, we're going to continue to follow details in this breaking news story when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) VAN SUSTEREN: The U.S. Coast Guard is scouring the waters off the Florida Keys searching for possible survivors of a plane that went down or might have gone down -- we aren't even sure about that -- after being hijacked from Cuba. The plane did takeoff this morning from Western Cuban. The Coast Guard says up to 18 people were on board, and it is believed that this plane may have been low on fuel.

Mike, you've got all these organizations, we've got the FAA, the NTSB, Coast Guard, military, FBI, you got Cuba. Who takes charge of this? I mean, who really has authority over this investigation, and how does it get worked out?

PANGIA: Well, right now, from my experience, the military would be mostly concerned with this because it is now an invasion of our security interests. That plane has come through...

VAN SUSTEREN: Well, we don't even know where it is.

PANGIA: We don't, but it has come through that area where we need the identification. It's very possible, and this is total speculation, of course, that plane could have just gone down, skimmed above the surface of the water, alluded the radar, and has landed somewhere in an obscure place. So much to say for our security system.

VAN SUSTEREN: Well, there is not that much obscure, though, between Key West and Cuba, where you could land, although we have heard, we have not yet confirmed, that it's possible this could seaplane and could even land on water.

PANGIA: Could even land on water, and it may be floating somewhere. We do know that yet.

COSSACK: Michael, would be it impossible that a plane could come into this international defense zone, this air defense ID zone, and thereafter somehow drop out of sight so that the security system of the United States of America wouldn't pick it up?

PANGIA: Yes, it is possible. It can happen.

COSSACK: And how could that happen?

PANGIA: Well, all you would have to do is drop below radar and fly somewhere where -- and land in water and just wait it out. But with the military scramble and with global position systems and so forth, we should be able to locate it. But, other than that, I don't know. It has happened where aircraft have come in that were unidentified.

VAN SUSTEREN: Mike, you were with the FAA for a number of years. I mean, how much do we watch that area with radar? How much attention does the FAA pay to that region?

PANGIA: I understand that we do. Through the military and through the Federal Aviation Administration, I understand that that area is watched very, very carefully because it's such a short hop from a country that we have considered hostile for a long time to be so close to the United States.

VAN SUSTEREN: So we watch it.

Well, let's go back to Carl Rochelle who has some news -- Carl.

ROCHELLE: Greta, the Coast Guard has flown their Falcon jet over the seem of where the plane was last reported -- that's that area near Dry Tortugas, between Dry Tortugas and the U.S. -- flown over that area, and at first pass has seen no sign of the aircraft and no sign of wreckage.

Remember what we were telling earlier about the plane disappeared off the radar scopes. They were not saying that it crashed. Now, they many in fact find wreckage at some point later on. A cutter is supposed to be on the scene momentarily...



VAN SUSTEREN: Let me ask you about this wreckage. In the event the plane went down, would you see a fuel slick of some sort this soon if a plane went down? I mean, is that...

ROCHELLE: With a plane like this, it's aluminum, rather light weight, yes, you should see some sort of debris, or some sort wreckage, there should be some sort of oil slick. Even if it ran out of fuel. you have the oil that would be in the engine, and oil spreads a great deal around water. This quickly after the scene, I would think there would be some evidence of the plane going down.

That's not an absolute guarantee, a lot of it depends on the wind, the waves, the currents, but there should be some debris from the aircraft in the area if it crashed.

I remember when it disappeared off the scopes. it could have flown another 25 miles, 50 miles or more before it actually went down in the water. They could have flown down under that Air Defense Identification Zone that is out there.

Just to follow up on your question about whether they surveille it. Not only do they surveille it for military purposes, that whole area of the southern Southeastern United States is a very fertile drug-watch zone. They are looking for everything that comes through there to make sure small planes aren't flying in and carrying drugs into the area. So it is watched very, very closely.

COSSACK: All right, joining us now by telephone from the FBI is Judy Orihuela.

Judy, what would the FBI be doing and what role would they be playing if there were survivors from this crash if in fact it was a crash?

JUDY ORIHUELA, FBI: Well, first we're going to have to determine whether there was a hijacking, I mean, we are going to have to interview the passengers that were on board, of course, once we determine that their medical condition is satisfactory. And so then we are just going to have to interview them to determine what happened.

FBI does have jurisdiction over hijackings, and so we'll just have to investigate that.

VAN SUSTEREN: Judy, is there any sort of a relationship that the FBI has with Cuba in the last few hours having to do with the investigation of this plane, whether it went down or not?

ORIHUELA: At this point, I'm not aware of any. I'm sure that once they do get to U.S. soil, and they are interviewed, we will certainly be having some conversations with Cuba at a higher level as to whether we will prosecute any hijacker.

COSSACK: Judy, would it be possible, if in fact there were survivors, and in fact there was a hijacker, would these people? is it possible these people would be prosecuted here or would they be returned to Cuba?

ORIHUELA: Oh, I mean, sure, there is a definite possibility, I mean, it just depends on the situation. I mean, that would certainly -- Washington would decide whether -- whether we would prosecute here or we'd send them back. It would just depend on the circumstances.

VAN SUSTEREN: There are certainly a lot of unanswered questions that CNN will continue to follow, but that's all the time we have today. Thanks to our guests, and thank you for watching.

COSSACK: And we'll be back tomorrow with another edition of BURDEN OF PROOF. We'll see you then.



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