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Plane Hijacked from Cuban Airspace Down in Florida Straight; Condition of 18 Onboard Unknown

Aired September 19, 2000 - 11:20 a.m. ET


BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: Right now, a plane with 18 people onboard hijacked out of Cuban air space has gone down in the Florida Strait.

Back to Carl Rochelle in Washington, and, Carl, Coast Guard indicating a cutter en route right now as well as a number of other assets that can reach the scene quite quickly.

Is this considered a search and rescue, or -- what's the phase at the current moment?

CARL ROCHELLE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. It's search and rescue, it's always search and rescue until there are determined that there are no survivors.

You know, quite frankly, Bill, with this airplane being a C-Plane version, as we understand it is, it could be down in the waters quite safe, a loss of engine power would not preclude a safe landing with this.

This is a picture of an airplane that looks like this. You'll note it is a single-engine aircraft. It will carry up to 20 people; 16 passengers and a crew of two onboard. We believe that's the configuration this morning. It has two wings on it, called a biplane.

And with the floats onboard, now, the clean version of that, the one with just wheels on it, without floats, cruises at roughly 100 knots or 115 miles an hour, has a range of about 485 miles. With the floats on the bottom of, the speed would be a little bit less and the range would be a little bit less.

However, a range of 485 miles -- nautical miles with full fuel tanks should have easily put it within range of the United States, so the concern that was expressed to us earlier by some officials, that the plane may not have had enough fuel onboard to make it all the way to the United States apparently is relevant.

We believe it's down in area near the Dry Tortugas.

HEMMER: Hey, Carl, hold that thought just a second. Picking up something up from the Pentagon, here, and CNN's Jamie McIntyre. He's saying, right now, that apparently two U.S. F-15 fighter jets from the Florida Air National Guard Homestead in southern Florida scrambled to intercept that plane.

Is that normal procedure when something enters airspace illegally?

Carl, you still with me?

ROCHELLE: I'm with you, I thought you were going to Jamie.

HEMMER: No, it's OK, I'm just picking up the wires right here.

ROCHELLE: OK, yes, I can tell you that, in a situation like that, it is absolutely correct that they would scramble.

There is what is called a defense-identification zone, that if you look at aviation charts you see an area that is outlined in, sort of, a gray hatch-mark area around the perimeter of the United States and it's called ADIZ for Aircraft Defense Identification Zone.

And any airplane that goes into the particular area without a flight plan already filed with the air-traffic control authorities would result in a scramble of some sort of identification aircraft. It is an area that is much more under surveillance than all the way through the Southeastern and Southern United States because of the concern over drug smugglers.

So they pay a great deal of attention to aircraft flying through that area; and any aircraft that left Cuba and came onto military radar screens headed in that direction, you bet they'd have an aircraft up.

Now, we were told that it hadn't shown up on civilian radar scopes, but that doesn't mean it didn't show up on military radar scopes somewhere. Perhaps, even, an AWACS aircraft tracking in that area saw traffic coming in the direction of the United States from Cuba without a flight plan. If it was a scheduled flight, they would have a flight plan filed and it would be all cleared all the way through.

So, not unusual at all to have a military aircraft scramble and take a look at it -- see what it is and where it's going and whether it poses a threat or not.

HEMMER: Indeed, here's another thought, here; we're getting a report that it plunged into the waters, others saying it went down, but the classification difficult to clarify right now because we just don't know.

However, getting a report that there was no voice contact from the plane; what would you tell that -- tell from that?

ROCHELLE: Well, a couple of things. There was voice contact, apparently, with Havana air traffic control all the way....

HEMMER: Initially, correct.

ROCHELLE: Initially. There are a couple of factors here. If the airplane is low to the water, they typically use VHF communication range, and I'm sure that doesn't mean a lot of things to people who don't deal in electronics.

But it means, essentially, line-of-sight communication; so, if they are below the edge of the horizon signal-wise, their range might be very short, so they may not have been within range of any communications. The way they do it in a lot of places in the United States, they have remote antennas located in a number of places so you can stay, pretty much, in constant communication.

But, out on the water like that, down very close to surface, we don't know what altitude the plane was flying at. It may just have been out of contact. They also may not have known what frequencies to tune up to talk to controllers in the Florida area on their way in.

So, I wouldn't read anything into that, and I wouldn't read anything into how it is down in the water until someone gets into and kind of takes a look at it.

HEMMER: Agreed.

ROCHELLE: You know, the question I asked the Coast Guard: Had they seen it, and did it make a safe landing? Or did it get out of control and crash into the waters?

It makes an awful lot of difference.

HEMMER: And also knowing the geography, despite the water -- for an airplane, not a great distance to travel from the north coast of Florida to the U.S. mainland.

Carl, thanks, stand by there.

Here's Daryn, now, with more.

DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: A big key, here, on how those people will do if they did, indeed, made a safe landing will be the weather. That will be a big factor in why this plane went down and how they will do in the near future.

For that, to get a look at the weather, let's bring in our Flip Spiceland -- Flip.

FLIP SPICELAND, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Daryn, we've been looking at it, and we don't really see anything down here that would indicate weather significant enough that it could knock a plane out of the air; I mean, there are certainly no thunderstorms in the area.

However, it is not typically beautiful weather either. Let me move to other graphic so, perhaps, you can see it a little bit better.

Just a few very spotty showers in that area, and you can see them moving across. Yes, there you can see them down there, now, around the Keys. You can see it scattered about in this area.

Nothing terribly significant. Miami is reporting cloudy skies. Havana is reporting partly cloudy skies, and visibility is about four miles right now. So we don't see any significant weather right now.

The water is very, very warm, obviously; but one thing we wanted to point out, is that there is a chance of some bad weather moving in, if we get into a search and rescue operation.

You can see a tropical wave right here and, perhaps, this is becoming a tropical depression; and you see it moving in that direction. So, I would imagine that they're probably -- you would wish to be rescued sooner rather than later, obviously; but with bad weather moving in, it may become more difficult the longer that it takes.

But, two things here: We don't see any significant weather that might have hindered their flight; secondly, we don't see any real problems in there right now, but we do see a deteriorating weather pattern -- Daryn.

KAGAN: Can you be more specific, Flip, in talking about the deteriorating weather -- are we talking about winds, rains?

SPICELAND: We are talking about both.

We are talking about, No. 1, cloud cover, which would hinder visibility. As I said, visibility right now, four miles, which is not great, but it's not particularly bad either. As I said, no worse than partly cloudy to cloudy skies in the area.

This tropical wave moves through, yes, you're going to get a chop in the water, you're going to get wind speeds picking up, you're going to get clouds in the area and perhaps some rainfall; and if this continues to develop, we could even see some heavy rainfall in the area.

KAGAN: All right, Flip, we'll probably be checking back with you, so you stand by. Now here's Bill.

HEMMER: All right, Daryn, Flip, thank you to both.

It was a Russian-made plane, that's the information we have. Let's go to Moscow, now, and pick things up with CNN's Steve Harrigan by telephone now and -- actually, Steve is with us live, now.

Steve, what do we know about these planes? What are they saying out of Russia regarding this type of aircraft?

STEVE HARRIGAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Bill, we keep hearing that it's a Russian-made plane. That's probably a mistake. In fact, it was, most likely, a Soviet-made plane -- that is, back in the old Soviet union, before 1991. This Antonov-2, the An-2 is a very old plane.

They began making them in the Soviet Union in mid-1950s, so we could be looking at a plane that is anywhere up to 40 years old.

Mainly in the old Soviet Union these An-2s were used as crop dusters. They were used to spray the fields with chemicals and with fertilizers. You don't see many of them around anymore. Sometimes out in the regions of Russia you can see them parked along the side. They're a very unusual-looking plane. For those who don't know what a biplane is, that is when the two wings go right across and there is a propeller in the middle.

So you can still see them, really, parked like junked cars, sometimes, in the outer regions of Russia. They are still used in the military to train paratroopers. That's because they fly so slowly. There are actually a few An-2s still in the United States, they are used in stunt shows. Once again, they are useful, in fact, because they fly so slow -- Bill.

HEMMER: Steve, I don't know if you can go into this area or not, but knowing the age of that aircraft, and knowing the current economic situation in Cuba; and spare parts are a commodity, indeed. Not only for airplanes, but for cars and appliances -- do we know about the spare parts for such a plane and whether or not the Russians would still be sending those parts to Cuba to make sure that these planes, indeed, are still capable of flying?

HARRIGAN: Well, Bill, that's a frightening question to think about, really. People have great concerns about flying within Russia; and now you're talking about a plane no longer produced here -- really junked in Russia.

And if it's being used somewhere else, one can only imagine how difficult the spare parts and maintenance issue would be if it's a plane the Russians, themselves, reject with all their problems in the air -- Bill.

HEMMER: All right, Steve Harrigan live in Moscow. Steve, thanks.

Jamie McIntyre, again, reporting now, the U.S. Coast Guard, that cutter en route, now, to the scene where that plane went down. Expected to arrive within the hour. Certainly we'll track it. More as we get it, right here.



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