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PAULA ZAHN NOW

Hurricane Rita Takes Aim at Texas Coast; Interview with Mayor of Galveston; JetBlue Pilots Attempt to Land Malfunctioning Plane

Aired September 21, 2005 - 20:00   ET

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


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: We are going to stay with that picture for a moment, because I have just gotten off the phone with a pilot who has a very good understanding of A-320 Airbuses, which this is.
And he told me that he thinks that what the decision is that's being made by JetBlue right now is whether to go ahead with this front gear stuck and turned sideways and go ahead and land with the main wheels extended -- those are the two landing gears you see under the wing -- and then gently bring the nose to the runway, which would support the reports we have heard so far that these pilots have been dumping fuel.

Now, the reason they are doing this, of course, is, they don't want any excess fuel on this plane. They need just enough fuel to land. Now, the other thing that I am told is an option is that they will leave all these landing gears retracted and potentially have to make a decision to land on the belly of the plane.

Now, the danger of that, of course, is potentially rupturing the fuel tanks. But I guess the simplest way of understanding this right now is, you're sort of looking at what would be the wheels on a tricycle. And it is -- it can be safely landed with the two back gears extended and then bringing the nose gently to the runway, which is locked.

Once again, this JetBlue airliner made an emergency -- OK. This is the first closeup picture we have seen of that front landing gear turned sideways, as you can see very clearly in this picture. That's the one that we understand that these pilots are unable to retract.

The plane left Burbank Airport en route to JFK. And then, according to the FAA, a decision was made to go back and circle Long Beach Airport, which is about 30 miles south of Burbank, as they try to determine what the best solution was. So, those are the only details we know at this hour. We don't have any idea how many passengers are on board, but, clearly, the pilots at this hour have to make a critical decision whether they're going to land on two gears or keep all three retracted and potentially come in landing on the belly.

Now, as we keep an eye on that, we also have to bring you up to date on this monster storm that we have been watching all day long, Hurricane Rita, a Category 5 storm with sustained winds of 165 miles an hour, taking aim at the Texas coast.

It is projected to make landfall early Saturday between Galveston and Corpus Christi. More than a million people are under orders to get out of the way now. And, as you can see from these pictures, they are going. The entire cities of Galveston and Corpus Christi are being evacuated at this hour. So are low-lying areas of Houston.

A few hours ago, FEMA's acting director expressed confidence in these preparations.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAVID PAULISON, ACTING FEMA DIRECTOR: We are comfortable that Texas is going to be ready for this storm. It's not going to be fun. It's a big storm. But we're comfortable. We're doing all that we can do to be prepared to take care of the residents of Texas as this storm moves into the Gulf area.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ZAHN: Hurricane Katrina evacuees who had been staying along the Texas coast are on the move again. Look at this. The man in the yellow shirt is Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who came out today to welcome a planeload of double evacuees to his state.

They are also very nervous about the storm in New Orleans. But we're hearing different stories from different federal agencies. Some of you might not be too surprised by that. The Army Corps of Engineers says the levees are weak and even just three inches of rain could cause more flooding, maybe even bringing two to four extra feet of water in certain parts of New Orleans.

But then, in what seems like a contradiction, a FEMA spokesman today said they don't expect flooding from Rita in New Orleans. Go figure.

Here's a prediction that will get everyone's attention. Energy experts are saying, because there are so many oil refineries along the Texas coast, we are told 21 of them in all, gasoline could go up to $5 a gallon if Rita causes substantial damage.

So, exactly where is Rita headed tonight? Let's find out from meteorologist Jacqui Jeras.

Hi, Jacqui.

JACQUI JERAS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Hey, Paula.

Rita is headed for the Texas coast. It's an unbelievably powerful storm. The winds at the 8:00 advisory Eastern time, 7:00 Central, just came in, and they're still holding them at 165 miles per hour. You have to have at least 156 for it to be a Category 5. So, we're well within that range.

But the hurricane hunters are reporting the central pressure of the storm has dropped down to 898 millibars. What does that mean? That means it puts Rita in the history books as the third most intense hurricane on record. The location right now, about 580 miles east- southeast of Galveston. The tropical storm watches and hurricane watches have been posted almost all the way along the Texas coast, extending over towards Cameron, Louisiana. And then the tropical storm watch extends eastward to Grand Isle.

Here's the forecast track. Actually, apparently that dropped off as we got the new advisory. But what I will tell you here, Paula, is that the cone of uncertainty really brings the center in between Corpus Christi and the Galveston area. We have quite a bit of confidence that this is the area that's going to be under the gun.

Still, western parts of Louisiana can't be ruled out, and neither can southern parts of Texas. But it looks like the central Texas coast at this time is going to be the most vulnerable.

What does a Category 5 storm mean to you if it makes landfall? It means storm surge could be greater than 18 feet. If you remember, Katrina had storm surge between 20 and 25 feet. Residences and industrial buildings will all be destroyed, shrubs, trees, signs all blown down, and evacuations needed five to 10 miles inland, as that big wall of water can reach that far in -- Paula.

ZAHN: A lot of concern about everything you've just shared with us tonight, Jacqui Jeras.

And that's why, tonight, with Rita at least two days away, a million people along the Texas coast are being urged to flee, and thousands in Galveston are doing just that.

Let's turn to Deborah Feyerick, who has been in Galveston all day long.

Are people moving out?

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Oh, people have been moving since 6:00 this morning, Paula.

Let me show you something. This is the Galveston seawall. It is seven miles long, 17-feet high. So, while it's not going to keep the waves out of Galveston, it certainly will minimize the impact, minimize the damage that the waves can do.

The mayor is hopeful that, when the storm does come that, in fact, most people will be out of town, 58,000 residents altogether. About 2,000 of them this morning caught a bus out of town. They didn't have cars. And so when the mayor sent out teams of volunteers into the streets to sign people up, some 2,000 people put their names on the list.

They still have a couple of buses over at the community center, those for last-minute people. But they do believe that virtually everybody who needed a lift has now gone out of town. This has been a mandatory evacuation, but it's one that's been phased in over the course of the day. Very early this morning, 6:00, they began evacuating the nursing homes, as well as the assisted-living facilities.

Hospitals had been assessing the needs of their patients. They took non-critical care patients and they either sent them home and said, you've got to get out on your own, or what they did is, those who were in need of severe care, they put them in ambulances or put them on helicopters to get them to other area hospitals, so that they could be cared for there. And they didn't concentrate all the patients in one area.

What they did is, they divided them out. They didn't want to exhaust the resources of one particular hospital. Now, at 6:00 today Central Time -- that's Texas time -- just about an hour ago local time, the mayor did say everybody had to get out. Everybody had to be evacuated. But people were well on the roads much before that, the mayor telling them, look, if you get out before 6:00, you can go wherever you want. Get out after 6:00, and you are at the mercy of the folks on the highway, who are going to direct you to the places you need to be.

So, they are on the road right now. The city of Galveston, Paula, I can tell you, it is so quiet here. The loudest thing, as we show you here the surf, the tide, are the sound of the waves. And, obviously, this is a sound that is going to get much, much louder over the course of the next 48 hours.

The big concern, though, is that, because Galveston is an island, it is connected by a bridge. Once the winds hit, nobody's going to be able to leave that island. So, that may be as early as Friday morning. But, right now, it appears people are out and people are safe -- Paula.

ZAHN: Well, I guess I'm heartened to hear, having lived through Hurricane Alicia down there, Deborah, in 1983, that people are in fact really listening to these mandatory evacuations. Thanks so much.

At this point, it looks like Rita will miss New Orleans. But the fear is, even a slight brush with the storm's heavy rains could lead to another disaster.

Let's turn to Jeff Koinange now, who's standing by live in New Orleans tonight with the latest on all that.

Hi, Jeff.

JEFF KOINANGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hello there, Paula.

And it seemed like a mad last-minute scramble to avoid the mistakes of Hurricane Katrina more than three weeks ago. If you could sum up this day in one phrase, it would be, all hands on deck.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KOINANGE (voice-over): A last-ditch effort to fill up a large ditch. Workers scrambled to fill the 17th Street Levee that cracked and collapsed after Hurricane Katrina roared through New Orleans more than three weeks ago.

The latest threat from Hurricane Rita now has construction crews working around the clock to rebuild barriers that might have to keep impending waves from flooding a waterlogged city. Despite repeated calls from the city's elected officials to evacuate, there are some who still feel they can ride out this second storm in as many months, people like 70-year-old Alice Stevenson, who survived Katrina with her pet goat, Evangeline (ph), and three dogs and feels she can survive whatever Rita dishes out.

ALICE STEVENSON, NEW ORLEANS RESIDENT: I think this heat wave we're having now is going to keep Rita pushed and keep her going across. I don't think she's going to give us any problem.

KOINANGE: She's not alone. Deny Amato's family owns Mother's Restaurant, one of New Orleans' oldest and most famous establishments. He just came back to New Orleans a few days ago and insists he's going to get his place up and ready by the weekend, come hell or high water.

DENY AMATO, MOTHER'S RESTAURANT: We will take it as it comes. What more can it do? What more can it do? A little more water isn't going to hurt us. Nobody's God is that mean. Nobody would send us two of them like that directly.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Banister.

KOINANGE: What may hurt, though, is that the National Guard is pulling some of its troops out of New Orleans and heading several hundred miles north to be ready to help out wherever Rita makes landfall.

LT. GEN. RUSSEL HONORE, COMMANDER, FIRST U.S. ARMY: Right now, we're not looking at Rita making a direct hit on Louisiana in New Orleans area. So, that's a sign of relief. But Rita will go where she wants to go. And that would have us concerned if we had a direct hit from Rita.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: National Guard. There's another storm coming. You need to evacuate.

KOINANGE: Many here seem to agree with the general. Unlike three weeks ago, when there were a lot more people than there were buses to get them out of town, this time around, it seems there are a lot more buses, but hardly anyone who wants to evacuate.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

And, Paula, for the second time in three weeks, the city of New Orleans braces for yet another powerful storm, all the while hoping that Rita will not wreak more havoc on a city just beginning to recover from Hurricane Katrina -- Paula.

ZAHN: Jeff Koinange, thanks so much.

We go straight back to Galveston, where we have been told the storm, Rita, is expected to make landfall along that coast sometime Saturday morning. We have with us the mayor of that city.

And we really appreciate your joining us together tonight, Lyda Ann Thomas. Now we can actually see you.

First of all, I know that a lot of preparation has gone under way. You have been evacuating people since early this morning. Are you satisfied with the pace of the evacuations?

LYDA ANN THOMAS, MAYOR OF GALVESTON, TEXAS: The evacuation on the island has gone very well. We have evacuated approximately 2,400 people. There are a few more that we are taking out this evening.

The entire county is evacuating now. And so the roads are clogged at this point from Galveston to Houston and beyond. But the evacuation so far has gone well. We're in mandatory evacuation now, which means that we're insisting that anyone left on the island who wants to leave should leave. Are we going door to door and making them leave? We are not.

We're going through the neighborhoods with our loudspeakers and advising them that they must go, because, if they're not out of here certainly by Friday morning, they won't be able to get off the island.

ZAHN: Mayor Thomas, what is your sense tonight? Do you think the majority of people will listen simply by watching what happened in the aftermath of Katrina?

THOMAS: Well, thanks to CNN and other media, Galvestonians are well aware of the dangers that can be caused by any hurricane.

And our news tonight is that Rita will be packing winds of up to 190 miles an hour. It is a Category 5. The surge tides are expected to be 15 feet, 18 feet, and 28 feet in some parts of our county. And I believe that people are going -- a lot of people have already left the island. The town is very quiet right now. I think some time tomorrow, we will have a better count of how many people are left here. But there aren't very many, I don't think. I think most of them have gone.

ZAHN: Well, Mayor Thomas, we hope they heed your warning, and we wish you a tremendous amount of luck. Thank you so much for your time tonight.

Back to that story now of the JetBlue airliner trying to make an emergency landing. You see it now in the split-screen. We have been following this for the better part of 40 minutes now.

On the phone with us is John Wiley, who flew with the U.S. Air Force for 27 years, including two years flying the Airbus 320, the very plane that's now in trouble.

And, John, very quickly I should explain to people what we think we know at this hour.

If we look very closely at a picture of this plane, we will see that the front wheels, the front landing gears, are turned sideways, unable to retract. We also seem, I think from this picture, to see the back two gears extended.

And here is a closeup now.

Explain to us the kind of decision these pilots have to make. They took off from Burbank Airport. They realized they had a problem with it. And they have been burning fuel and circling Long Beach Airport. What do we need to know?

JOHN WILEY, PILOT: Well, one of the things is, is that, obviously, the guys are going to be acting pretty coolly about this. They do have a problem.

This is an unusual situation, in that the gear is down and cocked off at an angle. But I would imagine what they're going to do is, they're going to touch down normally on the main gear and then they will gently let the air speed bleed off.

Their efforts will be to keep the nose in the air as long as possible, so that, when they finally touch down on the nose gear, it will be at minimum speed. They may have some controllability problems, but they should have sufficient rudder to keep the airplane straight. They also should probably have sufficient braking to keep the airplane straight on the runway.

Needless to say, I think that we're going to be able to easily conclude that those nose tires will blow pretty quickly. So, the airplane will remain on the runway for a period of time. I would also not be surprised to see an emergency evacuation to get the passengers off the airplane as quickly as possible.

It will be a replanned evacuation. So, it should be an orderly evacuation. The main thing is to make sure that no one gets hurt as they leave the airplane.

ZAHN: Now, from -- from the picture you're looking at now -- and I don't know if you can see it as clearly as we can -- does it appear as though the main wheels are fully extended?

WILEY: The main wheels do appear -- the main gear does appear to be down and locked.

ZAHN: And those are the two that we see under the wing, right?

(CROSSTALK)

WILEY: Yes. Those are what we refer to as the main gear.

ZAHN: OK. Now, I understand another option from another pilot I just got off the phone with is that you also can leave all of these gears retracted and then perhaps have to land on the belly of the airplane.

WILEY: Well, I'm -- I would defer to the other fellow's judgment on that.

However, were I in the cockpit and were I the CEO of a company, I would really prefer that the guys land on the landing gear, because you're going to have extensive skin damage from rolling along the concrete on the belly of the airplane. And you'll minimize damage to the airplane by touching down on the main gear. And you'll also probably have greater controllability of the aircraft, keep the aircraft on the runway. Needless to say, he'll be surrounded by emergency vehicles as soon as he touches down. I certainly don't want to diminish the dilemma that they have here, but this is well within the means and well within the training of these individual pilots.

ZAHN: So, how dangerous, then, is the first option, which you think is the desirable one, landing on the main wheels in the back and then bringing the nose gently to the runway as you kill speed?

WILEY: A number of years ago, I had an aircraft back in the '90s, where the nose gear was in fact disconnected and the wheels spun around.

There will probably be some vibration. It's probably going to be exciting for the passengers. It will make for a great story. But I would probably -- I would not say that this is a dangerous situation. Obviously, it is an abnormal. It's a situation we will call a non- normal, to use the latest jargon and stuff.

But I think, basically, what's going to happen is, these guys are going to touch down. It's going to make for good video. It's going to make for good stories for the families, needless to say. Two, they're going to be a little excited about this. But I think that it's going to eventually wind up in a very safe outcome.

ZAHN: John, as you have been speaking, I have just learned that LAX Airport is confirming that this plane will make an emergency landing at 8:25.

The other thing I want to understand from you as, it has also been confirmed that this plane has been trying to burn off fuel, as it has circled Long Beach Airport over the ocean. So, how much fuel do you think will be left on board when this plane lands in I guess six minutes or so?

WILEY: Well, unfortunately, we don't go in gallons, which is the general term the public would use.

We use pounds of fuel. I would imagine they're going to be down to 3,000 or 4,000 pounds of fuel, maybe about -- I guess that's going to work out to maybe about 200, 300 gallons of fuel. But they'll certainly have enough fuel that, if they don't like the initial approach, they'll be able to come back around. They're not going to limit themselves to a single option. They're certainly going to keep their margins of safety broad, so that they can have multiple chances if they don't like the approach.

They're using LAX. I would imagine also that they're going to use the longest runway. LAX has four runways. So, the impact at LAX is going to be minimal. They'll probably reroute other aircraft onto the other three runways. But I think, basically, we're going to see just an unusual landing. There will be a lot of smoke when those tires blow. The guys will bring it to a stop. The passengers will pour out.

Really, my biggest concern, were I the captain on this flight, would be to make sure that we have a good, orderly evacuation and make sure that no one gets hurt on the evacuation.

ZAHN: Well, John, you're going to be landing this plane right with us.

We're going to take a short break right now. But, at 8:25, which is a little less than four-and-a-half minutes from now, we were told that the plane will make its first attempt at a landing, John describing maybe it won't like its initial approach and has enough fuel perhaps to circle back and attempt it again.

But we're going to take a short break here. And when we come back, we will return to this story of JetBlue Flight 292, in the process of getting ready for an emergency landing at LAX, Los Angeles International Airport.

We will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: For those of you just joining us, we are keeping an air on this jet -- or eye on this JetBlue Flight 292, which is in the process of beginning to make an emergency landing in Los Angeles.

Apparently, there has been some sort of mechanical malfunction with the landing gear that has left the front wheels turned sideways, unable to retract. The plane took off from Burbank Airport, realized it had a problem. Over the last 45 minutes, it's been circling Long Beach Airport, dumping fuel, because, of course, it had fuel on board to make the trip from Los Angeles to New York.

And on the phone with us right now, we have a man who has been up against what these pilots are up against right now, when they have to figure out how to bring this down. He happened to be involved with that famous Sioux City crash back in the '90s, when he was flying a DC-10 and had to make a similar judgment.

Al Haynes is with us right now.

Al, describe to us what these pilots are deciding to do right now.

AL HAYNES, FORMER AIRLINE PILOT: Well, their biggest problem right now is to land the aircraft and keep the nose wheel off the ground as long as possible, and yet get it down soon enough so that it doesn't fall on them and they still have control of it, but not soon enough to where they're going so fast, it could cause a real problem.

There's always that possibility, with the gear turned the way it is -- now, I don't know what made it lock up or turn sideways -- but there's a chance it could correct itself when it touches the ground. My guess is that it won't. It will probably shear off and they'll just come down on their nose.

But Continental has done it. Trump had to land with the nose wheel up and so forth. But the nose is completely retracted. This is a little different situation. ZAHN: OK. And when you say it can cause a real problem, you're talking then about not having this gear go back in the proper alignment and basically having the nose of the plane hit the runway?

HAYNES: Well, probably what would happen, if it doesn't go back where it's supposed to, it would probably shear the gear, just because the gear is designed -- one of the safety factors of the gear, as I understand it from manufacturers is, the gear to shear under -- under extreme pressure.

It would probably shear off, and then the nose would just come down on the pavement.

(CROSSTALK)

ZAHN: Which is going to create a lot of friction and potentially a fire?

HAYNES: Well, there's always the chance of friction.

But the chance of fires happening, we would have to fuel the fire. And there's no fuel up there. There's hydraulic fluid. That could burn. But it would be what I would consider a relatively small fire under those circumstances. But you never know. It also could cause the airplane to swerve off the runway.

But that's the things the pilots are having to go through and their maintenance people and their dispatch people and the fire department, is to give enough room for the aircraft to touch down. And if the gear does shear, hopefully, it will just drop straight down and go straight on down the runway.

ZAHN: And, Al, just a short while ago, we were on the phone with a pilot named John Wiley, who was saying that they probably have enough fuel on board, even after dumping a bunch of fuel in the ocean, that will allow them to make a number of approaches if they don't like their first approach.

So, what would it be that they wouldn't like as they attempt this first landing?

HAYNES: They're not lined -- what -- I would say, if they wanted to go around again, chances are, they were not lined up with the center. They were going a little too fast, just a little misjudgment and they were too far down the runway or they were going to be a little short of the runway.

It has to be exactly where the pilot and fire department and everything want the airplane to come down. And putting an airplane down at a specific spot is not that easy. It's not -- it's what you're trained to do, but not a specific -- you're given an area.

(CROSSTALK)

ZAHN: All right. Al, I hate to interrupt you. If this night couldn't get any crazier, in addition to watching this plane make an emergency landing and watching a Category 5 hurricane build strength, we now understand that a tornado is on the ground in Minneapolis at this hour.

Let's quickly go to Jacqui Jeras to find out what that's all about.

Jacqui, what do we know?

JERAS: Yes, Paula, we know the public spotted a tornado near Roseville, Minnesota, which is a suburb of St. Paul. And there is a tornado here on the ground that's heading to the south and west. So, that's moving into an even more populated area.

If you live in Roseville, if you live in Shoreview, New Brighton, Mounds View, you need to be taking cover right now. This is an extremely dangerous situation. This is an incredible signature that I have seen here on the radar and a tornado has been reported in actuality in Roseville, a suburb of the Twin Cities. And it is heading towards the downtown area -- Paula.

ZAHN: And, as I understand it, at first, this was not indicated on a radar at all, right?

HAYNES: No, it was indicated on the radar. They issued a warning for it, and then we got a report from the public.

ZAHN: All right. Well, we will come back to you as soon as you amass more information.

Now we go back to the picture on the left-hand side of your screen. And this has been the JetBlue Airbus we have been tracking for the better part of an hour now that is in the process of attempting, or eventually will attempt an emergency landing.

On the phone with me now is Al Haynes, experienced commercial pilot who actually had the experience of crash-landing a DC-10 in the early '90s. And he has just been walking us through some of the decisions these pilots have to make.

How much help are these pilots getting from the tower or perhaps even from maintenance folks who've been brought to the tower to help give these pilots as much information as they need?

HAYNES: I would say, by this stage, they've gotten all the information they can. They've compiled every bit of information they have. They know what is wrong, what the gear's doing. Why it's doing it, they don't know, of course, probably. But they know where the gear is. They know what they have to do.

And now it's just a matter of getting the cabin ready, which I'm sure the attendants have been doing ever since we started this -- or they started this. But they prepare them for the landing and for the crew to just get ready to decide, OK, now it's time to do it. Saving enough fuel, like you said, in case they have to go around... (CROSSTALK)

ZAHN: And...

(CROSSTALK)

HAYNES: When you had a gear problem like this, you would actually try to bounce the nose wheel on the ground, but I think they gave that up a long time ago.

ZAHN: Yes.

And, as I understand it, they knew pretty quickly there was a malfunction.

And, apparently, I am told that you could manually crank this gear down. And from what we have been told by pilots, they assume the pilots already tried that, and appears that hasn't worked.

So, I know you pilots are trained to deal with all kinds of emergency situations. You've been through this yourself. You know you are responsible for the safety of all these passengers on board. How do you stay cool?

HAYNES: Well, it's just -- it -- you just have to stay -- you have no choice.

If you panic, you lose it. So, through the conversation with the controllers -- the air traffic controllers have done it, always been a fantastic calming agent. They stay calm. You stay calm. The tower stays calm. Nobody panics. Because it is something you're trained for.

This particular thing you're not really trained for, because the gear is sideways. And that I don't think we practice too much. But it's just a matter of now doing what you've been taught to do, getting the airplane down on the ground as safely as you can, and literally just hope for the best.

ZAHN: Okay, Al. We'd like for you to stand by. And I think we have another pilot that will be joining us on the other side of a commercial break, Jim Mose, who's also had a tremendous amount of experience flying.

Now, at the same time we are continuing to track Hurricane Rita, which is now a Category 5 storm, which is supposed to make landfall along the Texas coast, particularly the Galveston area, sometime Saturday morning.

And now we understand there is a tornado on the ground in the greater Minneapolis, St. Paul area. A tornado now that is indicated on the radar. We have reporters on the ground there we're trying to get some information from. We have no idea what kind of damage has been caused so far, but we're working on that for you, and we will keep you up to date on all three of these breaking stories, when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: And this is one of the rare nights when we are covering three critical breaking news stories. On the right part of your screen a radar image of a tornado, a major tornado, that is on the ground moving toward the greater Minneapolis, St. Paul area. It has been detected on radar. In addition to that, the public is calling in, reporting that they have seen this tornado touch down.

Now, in addition to that weather weatherwise we are focused on Hurricane Rita, a Category 5 storm that is expected to make landfall early Saturday morning, perhaps, at Galveston, Texas.

And now, the full-screen image, of a plane that appears to be in trouble in the process of attempting an emergency landing. It is JetBlue flight 292. A plane that took off from Burbank Airport around 3:00 p.m., and it was headed to New York's JFK Airport, when the pilots realized they had a problem with one of the landing gears. The front wheels were turned sideways. We -- they're unable to retract it. They had to make a decision then, and this is what we've been watching for the better part of the hour now, to circle around Long Beach Airport, burn a lot of fuel, because it was fully loaded with fuel to make the cross-country trip. And now it is in the process of landing. We were told by the tower it was going to land ten minutes ago.

On the phone with me right now is Jim Mose, a very experienced pilot, a man who flew many combat missions in the U.S. Air Force. In addition to that he's had a tremendous amount of experience flying commercially. So, Jim, walk us through the kind of decision these pilots have to make right now. Now, once again, we can't tell the audience the altitude at which this plane is flying right now. We just don't have those details. We can just focus on the picture that's on the air right now.

JIM MOSE, AIRPLANE PILOT: Well, I think what's happening right now is they're relying on the training that they've received over years of seasoning. Now they didn't end up in this airline business, because they're not well trained people. So they're accessing a series of check lists and abnormal and emergency procedures to make sure that all of the systems are set properly, and that they've accessed every last effort -- they've made every last effort to get this gear into a safe landing condition.

Now, that said, it looks like they have three gear -- you know the picture on the TV shows three gear down. Although that nose wheel is cocked 90 degrees. So this is one of those situations where it's unscripted. It really isn't a procedure for this.

ZAHN: All right. Now can you land with that nose wheel cocked at that attitude, or at that direction?

MOSE: Well, they don't have any choice. I mean, essentially, they have a situation where the system is probably -- I'm not that familiar with the A-320, but the system is telling the landing gear not to retract because of this cocked nose wheel condition. So the airplane sensed that the wheel was 90 degrees cocked when they took off.

ZAHN: All right. So how hard is it to land it, then, on just the main gears, the two back -- is it two wheels that we see in the back, or is it more?

MOSE: Right. Those are the two main gear. Yes. Each wheel on the A-320, I believe, has -- I think there's one wheel on each main truck.

ZAHN: So how hard is it to land that way?

ZAHN: Well, that's a normal landing, Paula. They'll come in with a normal approach, and, perhaps, a little bit shallower than usual, but they'll come in on a normal approach, make a normal landing flair, and probably make every attempt to land as smoothly as possible on the main wheels, like they always do.

ZAHN: But the trick is to get the nose as down gently as they can.

MOSE: That's the problem. I mean, what happens when that nose wheel comes down, as I heard your other commentator's remark, that if you get too slow, that nose is going to come down in a hurry, and then with it cocked to one side then directional control becomes an issue. You know, you want to keep that airplane, the longitudinal axis of the airplane tracking right down the center line of the runway. And if you touch down and lower that nose when the airplane's too fast, then you also have a problem with directional control. So it's kind of finding that sweet spot, so to speak, of, you know, the exact speed where you can lower the nose wheel onto the runway, and hope that it just shears off. Or like your previous commentator mentioned, perhaps it will canter right back to the center line position. You know, it's like a caster on a --

ZAHN: Which would be the best possible solution.

MOSE: Right. The best possible hope is is that it casters just like a caster on some little cart that you've seen, and it casters right in line with the center line of the runway. It doesn't appear that that's going to happen, because it's 90 degrees askew. So I think, as your other air bus pilot commented, as your DC-10 pilot did as well --

ZAHN: Now, if you were flying this plane, Jim, what would you be telling your crew? What would you be telling the passengers on the board? You know, they thought they were headed coast to coast. They thought they were headed to New York. Clearly they know that they've been circling Long Beach Airport. What else do you think they know?

MOSE: Well, I think they're being prepared for the worst possible outcome. Unfortunately, the potential exists for the airplane to depart the prepared surface, you know, the hard tarmac of the runway. The hope is that won't happen, there's enough weight and enough momentum with an airplane of this size to track right down the center line of the runway, and shear that tricycle, that nose of that tricycle right off. ZAHN: OK. And the other fact that we learned from another pilot, they believe this plane will be brought into L.A.X., where the runway -- there are four runways in all, and the runway is longer than at Burbank and Long Beach Airport. Why is that important?

MOSE: Well, he wants -- the pilot wants the most available runway. You know, when you're considering the situation where you can't land normally and apply the brakes and the reverse thrust in a normal fashion, you need to have the maximum available runway to land on. And that's all part of the procedure. You know, there procedures have them choosing this runway on purpose.

I mean, this has all been well thought out. The only problem is, now, of course, what happens in that last, final moment when they lower the nose group to the ground.

ZAHN: Well, hopefully that will happen soon. And we'd love for you stay on the line and guide us through that process as it gets closer to the moment that it tries to land. Jim Mose, thank you so much for your expertise.

Now, we got to go back to weather news. We have our eye on Hurricane Rita, a category 5 storm that is expected to take a big whack at Galveston, Texas sometime Saturday morning. We are also now looking at a tornado that is apparently on the ground, going towards the greater Minneapolis-St. Paul area. Jacqui Jeras has been tracking that for us. What have you learned?

JERAS: We have that report near Roseville, Minnesota. We haven't seen another report of the tornado still on the ground. But the warning remains in effect as that's a very good possibility if it's not on the ground right now, it could still pop back down at any given time. So this is a very dangerous situation.

The tornado warnings have been extended now to include a few more counties. So, Hennepin County and Ramsey Counties, both of those include Minneapolis and St. Paul, are under the warning. As well as Onoka County. And then we just got a brand new tornado warning for Washington County, which is way over here. It's almost near the Wisconsin border, near Stillwater. A trained storm spotter saw that there were some funnel clouds within the area.

There you can see White Bear Lake. Stillwater is somewhere in this neighborhood and that's where those funnel clouds were.

Here's downtown Minneapolis. And this is the area of concern where we think the tornado for the downtown area could be in this area. It's moving to the south and to the east. So it could be kind of hugging towards Bloomington.

And there you can see the interstate, this is 494 which loops around the town. And this is the east side of 494 and 694 extending out there. This is Interstate 94 that heads on over toward Wisconsin.

So again, tornado warnings including downtown Minneapolis at this time, a possible tornado on the ground still. That should expire at the top of the hour. We'll let you know if it's extended and whether or not we find any more damage. We've had reports of hail, 3/4 to an inch in diameter so far.

ZAHN: and Jacqui, we're going to very quickly switch to a picture of Hurricane Rita. In 15 seconds or so tell us what we should be aware of.

JERAS: Well, that Rita is now one of the most intense hurricanes in recorded history. A category 5 with 165-mile-per-hour winds. It's just less than 600 miles now east-southeast of Galveston. And the best projected path brings the storm into the central Texas coastline.

The hurricane watches have been posted from Port Mansfield extending over to Cameron, Louisiana. And we think we'll be feeling the impacts of the storm, even some waves possibly late on Thursday. Friday, will be the day that we'll really start to feel the impact with landfall on Saturday.

ZAHN: Well Jacqui, I don't know about you. I've been doing this almost 30 years. I cannot remember a night like this when we're watching two major weather stories and the potential of a serious emergency landing out on the west coast all at the same time.

We leave with you this picture once again of a plane carrying 139 passengers. It was on its way from Burbank Airport to JFK when one of its landing gears, the front wheels, were turned sideways. The pilot's unable to retract it. And that's why this plane now is continuing to circle Long Beach Airport, apparently looking for an opportunity to make an emergency landing. This is where the information gets a little murky. Either at Long Beach Airport but more likely than that, at Los Angeles International Airport, where the runways are longer.

We will have details on all three of these breaking news stories right after this short break. Please stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: We call your attention to the center of your screen. That is JetBlue flight 292, an A310 Airbus that left Burbank's Bob Hope Airport around a little over two hours ago with 139 passengers headed to New York. But there was a problem with the plane's front wheels, which were turned sideways. They got stuck as the pilots tried to retract the gear. And now we are told that this plane is expected to land at 8:50. That is just about three minutes from now.

We have been on the phone tonight with a number of very experienced pilots, and they've explained to us that this plane over the last couple of hours has been dumping fuel, because it was fully loaded for this cross-country trip. And what it will do is try to keep enough fuel on board that as it makes its initial approach its initial landing, emergency landing, that if they don't like the way they're coming in that they have the ability to pull off and pull around.

Once again, all we have to rely upon now are the pictures that we are all looking at together here. We don't know at what altitude this plane is flying. But we have spoken with these very experienced pilots, including Al Haynes, who's back with us on the phone now, who had a horrible experience in the late '80s when he had to crash-land a DC-10, which ended up in the deaths of a number of people, but he was considered a great hero because of the remaining passengers who did survive.

Al, just very quickly for the folks who are just joining us, walk us through the decision this plane has to make if it can't use the front gear the way it normally would.

HAYNES: Well, I think Mr. Mose had it right. You make a normal landing, which is normally nose off the ground. And what you normally do is you land with your main gear, then lower the nose to the ground.

Now what they'll do is they'll hold the nose up as long as possible but still keep control so they can lower it when they want it down, as slow as they think they can possibly go. And that's a guess for the pilots because this is something you don't practice and you don't -- you know, it's not in the book. So you just have to estimate from your experience what you think is the best time to do.

Now, I heard -- I don't know whether they did this or not, but they used to foam the runway, put foam on the runway to help the gears slide. I think they've given that up, but I haven't heard anything about that, whether they foam the runway or not in L.A.

ZAHN: So what is the biggest risk of the kind of controlled landing you're talking about here? The front gear being sheared off?

HAYNES: That's not a risk. They're more or less designed to do that under stress, so they won't tear the airplane apart. They'll shear off and go flying away. You'll probably have some -- maybe some fire in the nose wheel from hydraulics and something like that.

But you've got all the fire department right there. Their main job is to get in there, get that out, so the passengers can evacuate through the doors, which I'm sure there will be an evacuation. Unless that gear happens to right itself, which I think is very unlikely.

ZAHN: Al, you have been in the cockpit for a similar kind of situation. And I know you all believe these pilots are very well trained. But on an emotional level when you realize you're responsible for all those lives of people on board, walk us through how you felt as you know you had to make some of these critical decisions.

HAYNES: Well, Paula, you may not believe this, but that doesn't come into the picture.

ZAHN: Not at all?

HAYNES: You have a job to do to get that airplane on the ground. Whether there's one person behind you or 300 people behind you, it doesn't matter. The thing is to get the thing on the ground as safely as you can to protect those on board and the airplane and everything else. But really, how many people you have behind you -- and you're concerned about them of course. I don't mean to make that light. But that's going through your mind right now.

You let the flight attendants handle the passengers and take care of them and see for their safety. And you do the best job you possibly can to get that airplane on the ground safely. And that's what's on your mind. At least, I would think -- it was on our mind in the cockpit, and I'm sure it's on theirs too.

ZAHN: Now, if this approach doesn't work that you're talking about, what would be the next option, the most desirable next option?

HAYNES: If this doesn't work, I mean, if they don't like the landing that they're going in, all they can do is go up and try it again, because they have no other options. The gear won't retract, so they can't pull the gear up and land on the belly. And that's not a -- I don't think that's a very good option anyway. I think landing on the two main gear that you know are down and locked -- now, what we haven't heard is, is the nose wheel down and locked? If it's not locked, it could just collapse when they touch down, and just -- it wouldn't shear, just collapse and just go right down the nose. If it's locked in place, then it would probably have to shear. But that we haven't heard, whether it's actually down and locked or just down.

ZAHN: And you feel at this very moment the pilot's got all the information they could possibly have. Obviously folks from the tower are watching this. We saw a close-up picture earlier that gave us a really good sense of how cockeyed that front gear was. They know all they need to know right now?

HAYNES: I think they've got all the information they could possibly have. I don't know who would come up with something -- they've got every department in with JetBlue, other airlines assisting. The airport's assisting. Everybody's feeding information to the crew, and they're having to assimilate it as best they can. And I can't think of anything else anyone can tell them, except, you know, do the best job you can. And I'm sure that's what's on their mind too.

ZAHN: And, Al, I don't know whether you can see on your screen, we're seeing now on the split screen image on the right all of the emergency vehicles that are now being deployed at L.A.X. Once again, we have been told if these pilots don't like their initial approach they'll go try again. Once again, what is the optimal thing that they are hoping for?

HAYNES: Stretch down at a good controlled speed in the center of the runway at the proper position of the runway, so they have a lot of runway ahead of them to see what the gear's going to do. If they don't like anything about it, if they're not lined up with the runway, if they happen to slip off to the side of the runway or something like that, then they'll, I'm sure, go around, but they'll have -- what they'll do is the same thing they're doing right now. They'll come back in, and try the same approach all over again.

ZAHN: And I believe we have another -- Al, if you don't mind standing by, another pilot on the air.

HAYNES: Sure.

ZAHN: You can imagine there's a lot going on, tracking two major storms, a tornado that has struck down in the greater Minneapolis area, a hurricane bearing down on Texas and now this, this emergency landing. We've got Jim Mose back on the phone. Jim, I think you've had a chance to listen to Al Haynes and his perspective on what these pilots are going through. Have anything to add?

MOSE: Nothing to add to Captain Haynes's assessment of the situation. Only to say that, you know, I'm fortunate to be on the phone with him, and, you know, one of the things he did during the Sioux City accident was access all of the resources available to him, and including especially his crew. You know, these people, these two people in this cockpit are working together as best they can to determine what the best course of action is, and then they're going to make a decision and they're going to follow through with it, just like Captain Haynes did. And I think under the circumstances it probably could be a lot worse. It's kind of maybe a bit of a crazy thing to hear right now.

But considering the glorious, you know, West Coast weather that they're experiencing, it is a beautiful, clear blue sky and a nice long runway. They've had all kinds of time to review all of the systems and talk with all of the people about what needs to be done, and it looks like they've made a decision and they're going to follow through with it. So I guess in a similar situation we should all be so lucky as aviators to have the opportunity to go through every last bit of information and every last resource available to you to determine what to do. And so that's what they've done, and they've decided it looks like they're just going to land, and I think -- my hope is it's uneventful. As Captain Haynes pointed out, I guess the biggest worry now is just to make sure everybody gets off the plane safely.

ZAHN: And, Jim, we're going to leave -- if you wouldn't mind standing by with us, and go back to Captain Haynes for a moment. I guess, Captain, there's so much information that you would love to have about how much fuel has been dumped so far. But describe to us the calculation these pilots have made where they're trying to burn off fuel for over two hours now. They obviously had a full load of fuel to get them cross-country. And, clearly, they're trying to save enough to allow themselves enough multiple attempts at landing, right?

HAYNES: Well, I would think so. You burn a tremendous amount of fuel with the gear and flaps down. They know exactly how much they burn per power. They know how much time they have left. So on that calculation they know how long it's going to take to make an approach and so forth. And I would say maybe they left enough for two approaches. That would be a wild guess. I don't know. If you asked me. We didn't have any choice. The DC-10 you can only dump so far. We couldn't burn fuel. We were committed to go in just whenever the plane wanted to go.

The pilots are fortunate, as Jim said, that they've got the nice weather, they've got everybody's prepared for them. It's not a sudden crash that everybody has to respond to. In our case the same thing. They were prepared for us. They were lined up for the runway, the fire department was. So -- we had good weather. I think the pilots and the passengers on board and JetBlue and everything else are in the best possible situation they could have to try and get this thing on the ground safely. It couldn't be any better for them.

ZAHN: And, Captain Haynes, we've been so focused on this JetBlue flight 292 that, if you could in 15 seconds or 20 seconds describe to us what happened on July 19, 1989, when you weren't able to burn fuel and you had to crash land your DC-10? What happened?

HAYNES: Well we had an explosion of our tail engine that knocked out all our hydraulics. We're not a fly by wire, we're, basically, a fly by wire, but we're flown by hydraulics and cables and so forth. But we lost all flight controls. We had no way to steer the aircraft. We could get the gear down, but we had no ailerons, no rudders, no elevators, or anything like that. The only way we could steer the airplane was by veering the thrust on the two outboard engines, the two wing engines, which is something, again, that's not practiced, it's not in the book, it's something that can happen.

And we were fortunate enough through -- the crew, like Jim said, the crew did work very closely together with our maintenance department to come up with a way to try to fly this airplane. And we just experimented. And I to this day cannot tell you how it happened that we ended up on the runway. But by all sources we should never have made it to the runway, but we were able to do it. And by luck or skill or whatever you want to call it -- it wasn't skill, because we didn't know what we were doing. We were just experimenting like everybody else. But they had the advantage of having their controls and, you know, control the airplane right down to the touchdown, which is a big advantage.

ZAHN: Yes. But the fact is, because of your actions you ended up helping more than 100 people survive. Back to Jim Mose now for a second in the remaining couple of minutes we have left in our show. You have flown in the military, A-10 Warthogs. You've flown combat missions. Just on a scale of 1 to 10, how would you measure the difficulty of what these commercial pilots are trying to do on this JetBlue flight?

MOSE: Oh, I'd say it has to be a very trying time for them. You know, the responsibility of getting the airplane on the ground and getting all these people safely on the ground is an awesome one, and I'm sure it's -- you know, although as Captain Haynes pointed out, it's not at the forefront of their mind, it has to be playing into their thought process, their emotions, you know, play a role in this too. It's a serious time.

But, you know, that said, they can feel the energy of the airplane still. They have perfectly good flight control. They have perfectly good engines and avionics and instruments. They have all of the tools available to them to continue to fly. I mean Captain Haynes needed to learn to fly the airplane in a short period of time using the engines to feel the airplane's energy. And this is a situation where all of the tools of the airplane are available to the pilots now, except the nose wheel steering and this cocked nose wheel, which is bound to just either collapse or shear off on landing.

ZAHN: And finally, Al, a thought on how -- how many pilots are on board this flight? Three, or two?

HAYNES: I believe they carry two.

ZAHN: Usually two. And just walk us through what the captain would be doing with his co-pilot or maybe the co-pilot is a woman. We have no idea who is flying this airplane tonight.

HAYNES: Well, I'm sure the captain's going to be flying the airplane. That's standard procedure. The only thing would be if the captain were brand new in the airplane, and the first officer had many, many, many hours of experience, he might be flying. But I would gather that the captain is now flying the aircraft. It's his responsibility to get the airplane on the ground. The co-pilot is doing everything he possibly can to assist him, as is everyone else. But right now it's these two gentlemen, or women, or whatever the case may be, these two pilots -- I'm sorry, I'll put it that way. It's up to them now. Everything has been done that can be done. They're going to go in and make what they hope will be a normal touchdown, and then from then on it's everybody's guess.

ZAHN: Well, Jim Mose and Captain Al Haynes, you've been a huge help to us tonight. We have been getting very limited information from JetBlue, as you imagine, they're in the middle of an emergency. But I think we've given the audience a very good understanding of what these pilots are up against as they will soon, we are told, make an attempt at landing, after its front wheels got turned sideways and stucked, and they couldn't retract these gears, which explains why this plane has been circling for over two hours, burning off fuel.

Here at CNN we'll be keeping you up to date on JetBlue flight 292, Hurricane Rita, and this tornado that has just touched down in the suburban Minneapolis area. "LARRY KING LIVE" is next.

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