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Cuban Civil Aviation Reports that Hijacked Plane is a Crop Duster

Aired September 19, 2000 - 11:51 a.m. ET


BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: All right, again, the facts as we know it, about two hours and 15 minutes ago, a Russian-made plane left Cuban air space, apparently hijacked, bound for Florida. It went down in the Florida Strait, about 60 miles southwest of Marquesas Key, right now the U.S. Coast Guard responding with cutters and aircraft along the way. Also out of Opalocka Airport, a short time ago, U.S. Coast Guard choppers heading down the tarmac en route to -- to those international waters and hopefully trying to locate it sometime very soon, the location for this aircraft.

DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: We understand that the Coast Guard should arrive on the scene within the hour. Once again, we don't have word on the condition of the plane or the people who are on board that plane. We understand about 18 people on board, sixteen passengers and two crew members.

Let's bring out Carl Rochelle, and who has been helping us with our coverage all morning long, since we got word of this story -- Carl.

CARL ROCHELLE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Daryn, one of the key situations that we are looking at is how the plane went down. Whether it was able to make a controlled dissent and a landing on the water. Understanding is that it is float plane, that it has floats on it.

If the pilot was able to make a successful landing, it could be just sitting there on the water waiting for help. If not, the situation could be completely different. Of course, we won't know until the Coast Guard gets on the scene and manages to take a look at it,

Now, the airplane is an An-2. It looks sort of awkward. It is a single-engine biplane, but it will carry up to 20 passengers.

It is a utility airplane, designed by the Russians, made by the Russians. They use it a lot to ferry people around in Russia, but some of them were sold to Russian customers, Russian allies, Russian -- countries that Russia had dealt with. And that is, of course, how Cuba wound up with this.

This is the float plane version of it. It has floats attached on the bottom of it. Its speed with wheels on board would be, with regular wheels on it, would be about 100 knots or 115 miles an hour. With the floats, you're probably looking at about 80 knots, probably around 100 miles an hour, with a range of around 480 miles.

So, it should have been able to make it from Cuba to the United States, if it had had full fuel tanks on board. That may be the problem. The word came about 8:45 this morning, when Havana air traffic control contacted Miami FAA controllers and advised them that they had a plane headed in a north to a northwesterly to westerly direction, generally in the direction of the United States and that the crew on board had reported that the plane had been hijacked, the Cuban air traffic controllers telling the folk in Miami they that they did not know exactly what the destination of the plane was, just that it was headed in that direction.

It never did show up on U.S. radar scopes and there was never any communication between the crew of the aircraft and U.S. controllers. There was some communication, of course, between the crew of the aircraft and Havana controllers. That is how they knew the plane had been hijacked. That is how they knew they had 16 passengers on board with a crew of two. That makes a total of 18 people that we believe are on that airplane.

Again, it should have had enough fuel to make it. The closest point from Havana to Key West, is about 90 miles an hour, which would be about an hour-long flight in that airplane, give or take a few minutes, if it had gone directly from there. So, the assumption would be that the plane probably was a little low on fuel.

All of this remains to be determined in the future. If the Coast Guard is able to successfully rescue that, I am sure that the first thing that U.S. authorities will want to do, the Coast Guard will want to do, is interview the crew of the plane, the passengers and find out exactly what was going on there.

KAGAN: Carl, we want to you stand by because we're not finished with you yet. But we do want to go back to Cuba, to Havana.

CNN producer Allison Flexner on the phone with us with the latest from Havana -- Allison.

ALLISON FLEXNER, CNN PRODUCER: Cuban civil aviation is telling us that the An-2 plane that was hijacked from Pinar del Rio was used for fumigation and not for domestic flights and they are questioning the number of people on board. The civil aviation says the plane was equipped with two large tanks and therefore it was not capable of carrying the reported number -- the reported number of 18 people on board.

KAGAN: Interesting information, we will have to double check on that,

Allison Flexner from Havana, our CNN producer based there in Cuba. Take that into account as we continue to follow the story.

HEMMER: Yes, certainly will, Daryn, I guess the other consideration as the Coast Guard, again, steams toward this location in the Florida Strait is the actual water depth in the area. It could be a lifesaver in some cases, especially this one, and Carl, again, as we know, we're not sure if the plane plunged, if it went down, or if, indeed, it had a -- a smooth, safe landing on that water surface.

ROCHELLE: And Bill, something very interesting, if this is accurate, what we heard from Allison Flexner, the producer, in Havana, if this was, they called it a fumigation airplane, that would indicate that it's what we generally refer to in this country as a crop duster. They drop liquid chemicals and sometimes solid chemicals like sulfur. They use it to spray on crops.

But, that could change the equation in a couple of ways. It could have -- they typically would put only enough fuel in that airplane to carry out the particular mission of that day. That raises a question in my mind, whether it's accurate to say that it had floats on it.

That is the information that we had been getting, but with fumigation tanks on board or tanks on board to hold chemicals for crop dusting or spraying, it probably would not have been carrying floats and that could make a couple of differences.

If the plane went down with those tanks on board, if there is nothing in them, if they were empty, they would act as flotation devices in themselves. A lot of questions out there.

KAGAN: Including, if, in terms, is it a fumigation plane, whether, indeed it is a hijacking, or if the plane was stolen. Lots of questions ahead, including their -- Roger and Greta ahead on "BURDEN OF PROOF" are going to look at question: If there are survivors on board and if the Coast Guard is able to rescue them, what happens to them legally? what's their legal status? This plane is down in international waters. They will address that on "BURDEN OF PROOF" ahead at 12:30 p.m. Eastern.

HEMMER: The other consideration, just thinking there, based on Carl's answer, what Allison was telling us at Havana, if it is used, normally, for fumigation, maybe it was the pilots who had control of this situation the entire time. A lot of questions, we'll try to get some answers for you.



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