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Supposedly Hijacked Cuban Crop Duster Still Missing after Intense Search Efforts

Aired September 19, 2000 - 1:00 p.m. ET


LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: Ships, planes and helicopters from the United States and Cuba are scouring the seas this hour for a small plane that, allegedly, tried to make an illegal flight to Florida, but never arrived.

As you know, if you've been watching CNN, officials in Cuba say a Russian-made, single-engine plane was hijacked shortly after take-off this morning from the western Cuban province of Pinar del Rio. It's believed to have gone down about 60 miles southwest of the Florida Keyes with, U.S. officials say, as many as 18 people aboard. Two of those people are believed to be children.

CNN's Carl Rochelle is closely watching this story and joins us now from Washington with the latest.

Do we know anything for sure, Carl?

CARL ROCHELLE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Lou, there are a lot of things that we don't know for sure. The only thing we know for sure, at this time, is that, at the time of departure, the U.S. authorities were advised by Havana air traffic controllers at about 8:45 Eastern time this morning, that an An-2, an Antonov plane had left their air space, was reported to have been hijacked by the crew, that there were believed to have be 16 passengers and a crew of two on board, 18 people total. It was headed in a northwesterly or westerly direction, generally in the direction of the United States.

This is a look at the airplane, it is not the one that crashed, that went down, of course, and that was hijacked, but the one that looks exactly like it. It is a single-engine biplane. You don't see many of these anymore, but it is a staple in Russia. They use them to transport people around. This airplane will carry up to 20 people. It flies at a speed, roughly, between 80 and 100 knots, depending on the particular configuration of it. It has a range of about 485 miles.

Now, having said that, it went off the radar scopes in -- the Havana radar scopes at some time during the morning, a couple of hours after word -- we received word of the departure. I'm not sure exactly the time frames in here, but it did disappear from the radar scopes and they advised U.S. controllers of that.

Now, the Coast Guard, within the last few minutes has flown over that area in their Falcon jet, the one that they use for surveillance, and at this point have seen no sign of the aircraft, nor any sign of any wreckage in the area where the airplane was last reported to have been seen. Coast Guard cutter expected on the scene momentarily, will continue to search in the area.

A lot more about it we don't know. Lou. We've been told this morning that they first thought that it was a float plane, and there was a report that came out that it was an agricultural fumigation plane, another term for crop duster, and the latest word we have is that is likely a plane that belonged to the agriculture ministry and was used for ferrying people around in Cuba. As I said, it can carry up to 20 passengers.

So, there's a lot we don't know and one of the things we don't know right now is exactly where that plane is. It could have gone below the ability of the radar scope to see it. It is straight line radio propagation, meaning that the -- the signal goes like this, and as you cross the curvature of the Earth, it would go off the edge like this and the plane could fly below the edge of what the radar could see, and could continue inbound toward the United States. Never showed up on U.S. radar scopes and still has not as of this point. Nor was there ever any communications, radio communications between the aircraft and U.S. controllers.

So, a lot we don't know, we hope to find out more about it when the Coast Guard gets on the scene and checks out that area -- Lou.

WATERS: So, anything is possible, correct? There was some suggestion earlier that because the plane dropped below the radar, it could have proceeded on and may have landed somewhere by now.

ROCHELLE: That is one of the things that the Coast Guard is considering. What they don't want to do is say that the plane crashed in the water 60 miles west of Key West and find it arriving in Marathon, Florida a half-hour from now. So, they want to, you know, make sure that everybody understands that they don't know exactly where this plane is. They have gone to the area where it was last reported electronically, on the radar scopes, and that doesn't mean that it wasn't still flying at that point. It could have gone down, it could have hit the water someplace beyond that. It just means that it went below the ability of the radar to see it anymore. And so, no one knows exactly where the plane is at this point. That's what the Coast Guard's doing -- looking.

We do understand that there were believed to be 18 people on board, 16 passengers, a crew of two, that it did signal that it was hijacked and headed in the direction, the general direction of the United States. Those are the last facts the we know, for sure, at this point, or that we believe, should I say.

WATERS: All right, so there's a lot of work to do. Carl Rochelle at his post, keeping watch in Washington -- Natalie.

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: Well, let's get the latest from the Pentagon on this developing story. CNN's Jamie McIntyre is there -- Jamie.

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Natalie, as you can imagine, any time a plane, an unauthorized plane, is heading towards the United States, it does trigger the U.S. standard operating procedure for intercepting that plane.

In this case, it started about 9:00 this morning. Let's back up a little bit. According to the Air Force, they say this Cuban plane, an An-2, Colt, took off at about 8:45 a.m. from Cuba, and that by 9:00, just 15 minutes later, Havana reported that it had lost control -- contact with the plane. It notified the Miami air traffic control center of that.

About a little less than an hour later, at 9:54 a.m., this morning, two U.S. Air Force F-15s were scrambled from Homestead Air Force Base, Florida to intercept the plane. Those F-15s are from the Air National Guard, home-based in Jacksonville, Florida.

At about the same time, a U.S. Air Force AWACS airborne early warning control plane was diverted from a routine training mission over the United States. That plane, from Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma was sent down to try to see if it could help locate the plane. Of course, an AWACS plane, highly sophisticated radar surveillance plane is used to track aircraft in the sky.

A short time later, at about 10:20 a.m., this morning, the Air Force also dispatched a KC-135 refueling jet. That was to allow the two F-15s to stay up in the air so they could continue to get fuel from that jet.

Now, the Air Force says, at this point, those two F-15s have spotted no sign of the plane, no sign of wreckage, no sign of any survivors or any crash at this point. The Air Force says it will maintain the patrol. In fact, they've sent two F-16s from Tyndall Air Force Base in the Florida panhandle at Panama City to go up and relieve the F-15s that have been up there since, as I said, about 10:00 this morning, to continue the patrol as long as it makes any sense, until the situation has resolved itself.

But, at this point, they're relying on the Coast Guard to conduct the primary search and rescue. The Coast Guard, as you've heard, has ships and rescue helicopters in the area, looking for any sign of this plane, which, so far, has not been spotted -- Natalie.

ALLEN: All right, for more, now, thank you Jamie, let's go back to Lou.

WATERS: And as Jamie mentioned, the primary search and rescue operation is in the hands of the United States Coast Guard. We have Coast Guard Petty Officer Carolyn Cihelka on the line from Miami.

Can you, Petty Officer Carolyn Cihelka, give us a helping hand here in understanding what's going on right now?

CAROLYN CIHELKA, U.S. COAST GUARD: Sir, we've -- we got a report a little bit before 11 of this plane down and the location we were given was 60 miles southwest of the Marquesas Keys. We have had a plane on scene since about noon searching, without spotting any indications of a plane down and we have now received a second location 60 miles west of Cuba and are diverting our C-130 plane to that site. So now, we are now searching two locations for the same reported plane down.

WATERS: Where are you getting this information about the second location?

CIHELKA: Everything that we're getting is from the Miami center from FAA.

WATERS: And what are you looking for?

CIHELKA: We -- the word we got was the Antonov An-2 plane with possibly 18 people on board that had been possibly hijacked.

WATERS: Have you been in touch at all with Cuban authorities or Cuban air traffic control to get a better understanding of what's going on?

CIHELKA: My understanding is that Miami center is talking to Havana center and getting their information.

WATERS: Has anybody been able to verify that a plane actually was, as we have been saying, hijacked out of Cuba? I mean, there's so much we don't know about this story. There's a lot of speculation going on right now.

CIHELKA: The information that we got was that a plane had been hijacked and that the plane was possibly down, but until we actually locate a plane we can't confirm that.

WATERS: All right, U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer Carolyn Cihelka, we have -- I'm afraid I did not get who we have on the line now.

Allison Flexner, who is Allison Flexner with? A CNN producer? where? in Cuba.

Allison Flexner, what can you tell us?

ALLISON FLEXNER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Cuban authorities here in Havana have said that the plane was hijacked. The latest we have from civil aviation authorities is that the plane took off near the city of Pinar del Rio in the western part of the island. There was a pilot and a flight technician aboard. It is used for crop fumigation. They flew a short distance, about 17 miles to a small airport where they landed and were to fill the tanks with pesticide.

After that, Civil Aviation says, the pilot told the flight technician to stay at the small airport, while he would go to another landing strip in the same area. It was not clear why. The next thing the technician saw was the plane taking off heading northeast from the western province of Pinar del Rio. WATERS: Do we have any verification from anyone how many people may have been aboard this plane? The number of people we have on- board that plane is coming out of the United States. Is Cuba saying anything differently about that?

FLETCHER: There is not an exact number of people on board from Cuba. However, civil aviation authorities have said that the plane is used exclusively for crop dusting and they are questioning the number of people on board, as reported out of the United States, because the plane was equipped with two large tanks. And they say that would make it not capable of being able to carry the 18 people reportedly on- board.

WATERS: All right, Allison Fletcher with CNN in Cuba.

Natalie, what's next?

ALLEN: Well, we're now -- we're going to go to Susan Candiotti. She is at Florida's Opa-Locka Airport.

What's going on there, Susan?


The activity here has been nonstop, ever since those reports came in just before 9:00 this morning. Here at the U.S. Coast Guard station, at the airport in Opa-Locka, Florida, the Coast Guard has been scrambling, at least three helicopters, there have been one or two cutters going out of Key West, Florida, one for sure, and two fixed-wing aircraft as you've already heard, one of them a Falcon jet out of here, one of them a C-130 out of Clearwater, Florida.

Joining us now is Lt. Prince Neal from the U.S. Coast Guard.

We've heard updated information leading up to our interview with you now, but you can better describe for us, I think, how large of an area your Falcon has been looking at, and it is over the site now?

LT. PRINCE NEAL, U.S. COAST GUARD SPOKESMAN: That's correct, it is on scene. The initial search pattern that it would conduct is called a Victor-Sierra search pattern. It is the best search pattern to effectively find someone when you know their last known position. The area is about 50 by 100, that's the next search pattern that they would assign the Falcon if it doesn't find it on the initial Victor- Sierra pattern.

CANDIOTTI: Fifty by 100, what does that mean in layman's terms?

NEAL: Fifty by 100 is about, I would say, Broward, Dade County, it's a couple of counties.

CANDIOTTI: A couple of counties. Well, if you live outside of Florida anyway, it is about a 50 mile?

NEAL: Fifty mile by 100, correct.

CANDIOTTI: Who else will be arriving next on site?

NEAL: There's going to be a Coast Guard cutter, a 110-foot cutter out of Key West. There's also a C-130 that is also en route to the search area as well, and we also have helicopters en route to the search area.

CANDIOTTI: How unusual would that be that you -- that the Cuban Coast Guard, Cuban authorities, air traffic control, as well as U.S. can't pick up this aircraft over those waters?

NEAL: It's not very unusual. If it flies low enough, under radar coverage, a lot of times we can't pick up the aircraft that are making the trip from Cuba towards the United States.

CANDIOTTI: You regularly are in contact with Cuban authorities, are you not, at Miami headquarters, as well as Opa-Locka here. Can you please explain to people what is the normal routine that you have when you communicate?

NEAL: Right, in such situations like this, the Cuban border patrol, the Cuban air traffic control, will let in this case the Miami center know, Miami air traffic control, Miami air traffic control would then let us know, our command center down in downtown Miami, and then we will launch out and prosecute the case.

CANDIOTTI: Is there any way for you to tell at this point whether indeed the aircraft was hijacked, or whether these could be migrants because you also receive information here regularly from the Cuban Coast Guard, for example, of boats leaving Cuban waters?

NEAL: Right, the report that we got, the aircraft was hijacked. We don't know whether they were migrants or whether it was a smuggling operation.

CANDIOTTI: Thank you very much for joining us, Lt. Prince Neal. We'll be updating you from here as well as the afternoon goes on about what other assets may be flying from here, and updated information about what they may be finding.

Susan Candiotti, CNN, reporting live in Opa-Locka, Florida.

ALLEN: So as the search goes on, we will continue to follow developments as we try to find out if this plane crashed or if it is somehow still in the air and headed for the U.S. We will continue to follow it closely.



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