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Breaking News

Gulf Air Jet Crashes off Coast of Bahrain

Aired August 23, 2000 - 2:34 p.m. ET

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

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: Our top story, the crash of Gulf Air Flight 072, out of Manama, Bahrain this afternoon on a scheduled flight to Cairo, Egypt.

We just learned the U.S. Navy is assisting in the rescue. Members of the U.S. Navy posted at Bahrain are headed to the crash site in the Persian Gulf to try to assist in any rescue, and to assess the crash this afternoon.

We haven't heard from any witnesses yet. We don't know how this airplane impacted the water and whether there is a possibility of survivors there this crash.

We do know Flight 072 had just taken off from Bahrain. And according to the Ministry of Information in Bahrain, the pilot communicated there was fire in an engine. No word on how many passengers were aboard.

The Airbus A320 can hold around 130 passengers. Some information I have here in front of me has it can be configured to hold up to 180. But we still don't know how many people might have been aboard this plane.

You're looking at file video of A320s now that we have in the CNN library, and we're going to bring in one of our aviation correspondents, Carl Rochelle, an avid pilot and someone we appreciate helping us out in horrible times like this.

And Carl, you had said earlier that you have flown in a simulator for the A320 and it's a pretty smooth flight.

CARL ROCHELLE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It is. It's a full-motion simulator. It's not the desktop thing. It's not like flying the flight programs on your computer at home. It actually replicates the motion of the aircraft in flight. And it is incredibly smooth, and one of the things that we did as a pilot and a flight instructor also, you like to test the envelope of an aircraft. You like to take it on the edges of things and see how it responds in extreme situations. And

one of the situations we took the airplane into with, of course an Airbus instructor sitting in the right seat and me sitting in the captain's seat on the left was to fail an engine in flight. And because of this computerized fly-by-wire system in it, the only effect of ailing an engine in flight was a minor yaw to one side. The airplane just sort of moved a little and it required just a minimum amount of rudder pressure on the aircraft to control the yaw.

The auto-throttles took over. The power on the good engine advanced. The power on the bad engine retarded. And the automatic system actually came up with a little -- it has a little square that goes over a crosshair, and it tells you to move the control to put the box over the crosshairs and the airplane will continue to fly, and it did. You could barely tell, once you got over the initial shock of losing an engine, you could barely tell that an engine was gone.

The airplane continued to fly quite well. Took it around, flew it through the pattern, and landed it with one engine on with absolutely no problem on. You know, you had to compensate for the engine a little bit being out and your thrust reversers on landing. But that's about all there was.

And here you can see this is a picture similar to what I was seeing from inside the cockpit, which you're seeing there. The control, or the captain, flies in the left seat. The control stick is operated with the left hand. The throttles are in the center. And they are auto-throttles, which means that they sense, based on the speed and the operation of the aircraft, where the throttles need to go.

Natalie, you were talking about the number of passengers on board. It's interesting, in conversations with some of the aircraft manufacturers, Airbus and Boeing, they talk about the complaints that they get from people who call in and say, you know, you've got too many seats on this airplane, the seats are too close together, there's not enough room on board. And the manufacturers say they always refer those calls to the airplanes that operate it, because the airlines can configure the airplane to carry as many -- well, up to a limit of course -- but they can put a maximum number of seats in the airplane depending on how they want to configure it.

So they can divvy up some first class, some business class, some tourist class, or they can make it all tourist class and cram an awful lot of people in. So Gulf Air will have to tell us exactly how many seats were available in that airplane: of course, even more importantly, how many passengers were in the seats. And perhaps they can give us some details.

There are some clues here. If the plane crashed on takeoff, you know, something may have happened in that takeoff envelope after they got off and it was critical enough that they were not able to get the airplane around and bring it back in.

I have actually flown Gulf Air, Natalie, back during Desert Storm, when I was flying in and out of Saudi Arabia. And twice I took a Gulf Air flight out of London and flew into Bahrain on the -- not on an A320 but on Gulf Air. And it was a fine airline and a very pleasant flight all the way through, Natalie.

ALLEN: Any idea how long this flight would have been from Bahrain to Cairo. ROCHELLE: I couldn't parse it out without sitting down and taking a map and doing a little arithmetic on it. The airplane cruises at 430 knots, take you up in the neighborhood of around 500 miles an hour. So it would get you there in pretty short order. That's not the longest distance in the world, but I'm not sure exactly what route they were flying to get there.

But it would be terribly long, because Bahrain is, of course, in the region. But without sitting down and figuring out the miles I couldn't tell you that. But it is -- it is a -- it's a subsonic as almost everything is. I think we all learned a few weeks ago everything except the Concorde is a subsonic airplane, and it files in the neighborhood 430, 450 knots, somewhere around that particular speed range, Natalie.

ALLEN: OK, I'm getting more information about the navy that's helping out apparently in this rescue attempt. Bahrain is the regional base for the Navy's 5th Fleet, and Navy helicopters are apparently heading to the scene and hope there's something for them to do there so far as possible survivors in this crash today -- Carl.

ROCHELLE: Natalie, I've actually quite a bit of experience with that 5th Fleet operation in the Persian Gulf, because I spent pretty close to seven months over there during Desert Storm and I know the Navy guys. And they have several helicopters that they fly up and down the Persian Gulf area and they call them desert ducks, oddly enough, and they use them for getting people around: from ships out that the area that they dock or that they anchor in shore and operations in that area.

So there are several helicopters available in the area and they are very familiar with the type of operations over water. So there is a possibility that they can provide some help to the people who are trying to rescue the, hopefully, some survivors out of that crash, Natalie.

ALLEN: That's what we hope. Until we find out any more information about the particulars of the crash, how often does a pilot go into a simulator and train for things such as a fire in an engine, if that was the case (UNINTELLIGIBLE) today?

ROCHELLE: Regularly, Natalie. When you go through the simulator, you can make it do almost anything you want. And the reason that the airlines like to use the simulators is they can replicate conditions in a simulator that could be fatal if you tried it in an aircraft. So they can actually push the airplane to the edge of the envelope and beyond. They can create a situation beyond the capabilities of the aircraft and the pilot simply as an instructional move to show them you don't ever want to take -- let the airplane get to this point.

So they can create almost all kinds of scenarios, and one that almost always comes up is an engine fire and how do you deal with an engine fire, because you can teach how to deal with an engine in a simulator without threatening anybody's life. If you don't get it right the first time, you go back and practice it until you get it right.

And it's not a matter that it's so dangerous that you can't deal with it; it's a matter of pilots tend to learn how to make things happen automatically.

The checklist, you hear a lot about checklists and looking at checklists when you're flying an aircraft. Well, there are certain items on it that are marked in red, and they're the bold items, and they're known as memory items. And before you qualify in that aircraft and get your type certificate, you need to be able to take those memory items, those emergency items through from memory.

You -- there are certain things that you do when you have an engine fire. The first thing is to identify which engine it is. The second thing is to pull the fire bottles. There's a handle that you pull for fire extinguishers. It shuts the engine off. You discharge a bottle of fire retardant, probably Halon, but a type of -- something to put the fire out, fire extinguisher, into the engine, secure the engine, and make your way back around.

All the time you're doing that, you're still flying the airplane. That is the good thing about having a pilot and a co-pilot in those air transport aircraft, because if they assign what's called CRM -- cockpit resource management -- one pilot will fly the airplane while the other pilot will deal with the emergency. And once you get through the emergency, those memory items, then you pick up the checklist, and go back through and check, and make sure you did every item that was on that emergency checklist that you committed to memory. Even though you know it, you want to go back and be sure that you've done all of the things.

And that's the mode you're in. One person should be flying the airplane. The other person should be trying to deal with that emergency, and to the level they can communicating with the tower and the air traffic controllers.

It's a situation if you know you've got an in-flight fire, you're going to pick up the radio, you're going to call the controllers and say: I've got an emergency; nature of the emergency; it's an on-flight fire, in-flight fire; I've got a fire in one of my engines, usually right or left, you tell them that; and then just say, I need to get back on the ground, get it around and see what you can do.

Sometimes you have no choice but to put it down straight ahead. That may in fact be what happened. We won't know what options they had until we learn some more details about how the plane went down.

But it is absolutely something that crews are trained to deal with on a regular basis. It is part of almost every check. And these pilots usually -- I don't know Gulf Air's standards. I suspect they probably replicate U.S. standards, in which case that pilot's going to have a check every six months or so in a simulator in addition to what he or she is flying in the aircraft itself.

So -- and the simulator will take them through a number of different items in the emergency envelope: not just fire, but running into wind shear, turbulence. If you're flying in a region where there is the potential of ice on the wings, they even put ice on the wings for you.

You can do all of that in the simulator and do it safely, Natalie.

ALLEN: Well, we certainly hope that the pilots had this plane somewhat at their control, and perhaps there are survivors today, Carl. We'll continue to talk with you, because as we talk, I've been sitting here reading just earlier this year, January 2000, an A310, similar aircraft, crashed into the Atlantic Ocean shortly after takeoff on the Ivory Coast and people survived that. And others have survived planes that have gone down in water.

As Carl said, it just depends on the particulars surrounding this crash today, whether there are any survivors of Gulf Air Flight 072.

As we just told you, we have learned that the members of the Navy's 5th Fleet -- Carl, are you still there?

ROCHELLE: Yes, I'm still here.

ALLEN: What was the nickname of the members of the...;

ROCHELLE: The Desert Ducks, they call the helicopters that work up and down the -- with that fleet in the Gulf. They call them Desert Ducks. They may have others, but there's actually a set of helicopters that they use. And I know because I've ridden them around -- they ferry you around from on shore, from Bahrain out to the ships, and they call them Desert Ducks.

ALLEN: Well, we certainly hope that these desert ducks have some people that they can save there today, and certainly they would want to do that.

The Navy has been called in to help out. They're in the Persian Gulf. The Navy's 5th Fleet is based there in Bahrain. The regional base is there, and we'll continue to bring you any developments as we learn whether there could be any survivors from Gulf Air Flight 072. No word yet on how the plane went down or the number of people aboard, but it was headed to Cairo, Egypt.

As we get information, we'll bring it to you.

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