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Pentagon Holds Briefing on Missing Plane Hijacked Out of Cuba

Aired September 19, 2000 - 1:35 p.m. ET


LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: We apparently now are going to hear from the Pentagon on this search going on for the missing plane, hijacked out of Cuba early this morning.


REAR ADM. CRAIG QUIGLEY, PENTAGON SPOKESMAN: The aircraft was a Cuban AN-2 Colt that took off at approximately 8:45 this morning from Pinar del Rio. At 9 Havana Center reportedly lost contact with the aircraft and called the Miami Center of the FAA and reported a hijacking was in progress. The FAA Miami Center contacted the North American Air Defense Command, NORAD, and shortly before 10 NORAD launched two Florida Air National Guard F-15s from the 125th Fighter Wing. They were launched from Homestead Air Reserve Base south of Miami.

They flew to the 24th parallel at the outer edge of what we call the Air Defense Identification Zone to assist in any way they could. An AWACS aircraft from the 964th Airborne Air Control Squadron at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma was diverted from a training mission over the U.S. to proceed to the scene as well. These aircraft did not make visual or radar contact with the aircraft before it splashed down.

At about 10:20, a KC-135 tanker from MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, was launched in support of the F-15s. Tyndall Air Force base is launching two F-16s to relieve the two F-15s at this time. The F- 16s belong to the 148th Fighter Wing of the Minnesota Air National Guard, operating this week from Tyndall.

The Coast Guard, as I'm sure you know, was also asked to respond and they immediately dispatched the cutter Monhegan, a 110- foot patrol boat, home-ported in Key West, Florida, to the scene where the aircraft was seen on FAA radars. The Coast Guard cutter Nantucket, another 110-foot patrol boat from Key West, has also been diverted to the scene. A Coast Guard C-130 from Air Station Clearwater, three HH- 65 Dolphin helicopters and one HU-25 Falcon jet from Air Station Miami are also en route or on the scene, and they are all flying out of Miami.

And again, the Cuban aircraft is an Antanoff AN-2. It's a passenger aircraft and there were reportedly at least 14 people on board, as many as 18; that's very unclear in my mind. The Coast Guard believes it went down in international waters about 60 miles southwest of Marquesas Key, at the end of the Florida Keys island chain, or about 30 miles north of the Cuban coast and they have yet to locate the aircraft. The search is continuing.

And I tried to be as current as I could be until just before I walked out.

QUESTION: Just to clarify one thing you said, Admiral. You said that the -- neither the F-15s nor the AWACS made any visual or radar contact with the plane and then you used the term "before it splashed down." Do you know for a fact that the plane went down into the water or could it have just disappeared from the radar by flying very low?

QUIGLEY: Well, I think that the -- with all of the search assets that are ongoing right now, the plane would have appeared somewhere northerly of the point where it was last detected on radar. So the working assumption is that, indeed, it went down in the water, and that's where search efforts are focused now.

QUESTION: Is the plane equipped with flotation landing gear so that it could possibly float on the water?

QUIGLEY: I don't know.

QUESTION: Do you have any idea why NORAD didn't see the plane on its radar?


QUESTION: Did NORAD see the plane at all? Did -- I mean...

QUIGLEY: Not that I...

QUESTION: ... has anybody been tracking this? Is it on anybody's radar that you know of other than Havana?

QUIGLEY: I don't know about other agencies besides DOD. But on the DOD aircraft that were sent up, we did not have it visually or on radar. Now, FAA Center in Miami, I -- the Coast Guard perhaps, I can't speak for them. I don't know.

QUESTION: Was there any radio traffic that you are aware of emanating from this plane that your agencies may have inadvertently scooped up?

QUIGLEY: Not that I'm aware of, no.

QUESTION: Is this last known location of the plane, is it inside or outside the air identification zone that you described?

QUIGLEY: It is outside. It is south of that.

QUESTION: It didn't get to the point where it would have crossed over into the zone.


QUESTION: What is the air identification zone?

QUIGLEY: It is an area that -- within which closer to the continental United States from that area we take particular interest in having a clear understanding and an identity of aircraft that are flying in air space that we consider more sensitive than others. It's still international air space, but it's something that's clearly close and we just want to make sure we know who's out there and what their intentions are.

QUESTION: Is that the limits of our more sophisticated equipment or are we able to look beyond that zone, but we don't care to pitch that (OFF-MIKE)

QUIGLEY: Well, it's kind of a combination answer, depending on what assets you'd have deployed at any given point and time, but the zone itself remains fixed. And it's simply a series of latitude and longitude points, and describing a boundary line, if you will, within which we care a little more -- I'll put it that way -- about what aircraft are flying within that area.

QUESTION: Have you heard anything about whether, you know, this is a hijacking or a defection attempt?


QUESTION: Craig, if I recall correctly, the Colt is Soviet- design aircraft system, among other things used to transport special operations troops. Do you have any information as to whether the design of the aircraft would foster a low visibility on radar?

QUIGLEY: No, I don't think so. It's an older design airplane and it's used by many nations around the world.

QUIGLEY: It is indeed a Soviet design. It's a biplane design. From what I have seen pictures of it in Jane's "All The World's Aircraft" and what have you, I don't think anyone would describe it as a very stealthy air frame. It's used for a variety of purposes by a variety of nations around the world.

QUESTION: This is kind of a strange question, I guess, but what evidence do you have that there actually is a plane? You have the communication from Havana Central, what else?

QUIGLEY: I don't know. We were responding to a call from -- that came from the FAA, Miami Center. They had enough confidence in that to go take a look and ask for assistance in locating the aircraft. Again, it was never on any of our radars. But going back to Jamie's questions, I don't know if it was on the FAA or Coast Guard or another radar. But not on any DOD ones that I'm aware of.

QUESTION: Were the F-15s that were scrambled, were they armed?

QUIGLEY: I don't know.

QUESTION: And what is the procedure

What is the procedure...

WATERS: We've heard from the Pentagon now, and not adding a whole lot to what we have already reported. You heard an answer to the question what evidence do you have that there really is a plane, and the answer from Rear Admiral Craig Quigley, "I don't know." He said the working assumption is that the plane went down of this so- called Air Defense Identification Zone.

And Carl Rochelle, he said that working assumption is based on the last detection on radar. My question is, who detected what on radar?

CARL ROCHELLE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Lou, the answer is, and I think -- the information that I have had from the FAA all morning is that the plane never showed up on U.S. radar, that it was last seen on Havana's radar -- that is Havana air traffic control, just like U.S. air traffic control, they have their own radar system -- and there is a limit to how far it can see, and that is limited by how low to the surface the airplane is flying, and how far from the last radar antenna it is.

It doesn't mean that the airplane crashed, it meant it went below the ability of the radar to see it. Now it may have crashed five miles from there, 10 miles from there, 20 miles from there, it may have turned around and gone back toward Cuba. A lot of things are unknown.

WATERS: But Admiral Quigley said, after it was last detected on radar, with all the assets that were up, including an AWACS plane, it was highly unlikely that the plane could have flown any further without being detected.

ROCHELLE: Well, by any further, I think he is meaning on to a land destination, on to the United States, or going over to Mexico, or turned around and gone back to Cuba is what he is saying.

It could have flown some distance from where it was. You are talking about a vast amount of water. This airplane is not very big. I have actually seen one of them. More than "Jane's Defence Weekly," I was over in Kazakhstan a couple of years ago, and happened to see a row of about two dozen of them lined up along.

It is smaller than perhaps a Dash-8, or something like that, one of those small turbo-prop airlines that fly in the U.S. It is about that size, but it only has one engine, and it has two wings on it. It is a biplane, so it is not a terribly large aircraft.

So it would be difficult to see it down on the water if it went somewhere else. So what I am saying is, if it went down exactly where they went to look the first time, yes, but could it have flown another mile, five miles, 10 miles, after it disappeared off the radar scopes. Could it be 20 miles from where they last saw it on radar?

Yes, it could be, and that could be part of the difficulty because the Coast Guard flew their Falcon jet over the area where it was last reported and at first glance saw no wreckage and no oil slick, and no indication that the airplane was down, and not the airplane itself.

So now what they do is they spread out, they look at an arc, and they make it bigger and larger and larger and larger, looking all through the area trying to find it, Lou.

WATERS: OK, Carl Rochelle in Washington -- Natalie.

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: And as we wait for more information about that search, let's talk with Chris Yates with "Jane's Defence Weekly."

Chris, have you ever seen one of these planes up close? anything more you can tell us about them.

CHRIS YATES, JANE'S AVIATION SECURITY EDITOR: I have, indeed, seen one of these up planes up close. As Carl Rochelle just said a moment ago, it is about the same size as a Dash-8 that is commonly used in commuter flights in the United States.

The aircraft itself is some 42 feet long, it stands about 13 feet off the ground, and has a wingspan upper of 59 feet and lower of 46 feet. It is a small aircraft by anyone's standard.

ALLEN: What do you think, Chris, about what we are hearing? There seems to be uncertainty about whether this plane could still be up in the air. The Pentagon doubting that. Questions about whether it could fly under radar detection. Can you tell us, from what you are hearing, what the chances you think this plane could still be flying?

YATES: It seems unlikely that it is still flying. The aircraft itself only has a range of -- a very limited range with maximum fuel of 488 nautical miles, that's about 562 statute miles. Flight at about 157 miles an hour.

It is unlikely that it is still flying. It could well be on the water somewhere. If there has been a controlled landing.

Also just going back to something that was said in the press conference from the Pentagon a short while ago. It seems mighty odd that nothing has been picked up on radar since this aircraft does have a metallic skin and would therefore at least project back what is known as a primary radar signal, a blip on the screen, if no other identification than that.

ALLEN: If it is or was equipped for a sea landing, and as you say possibly had a controlled landing at sea, how long could this plane stay afloat?

YATES: It depends very much on the water conditions at the time. I have seen reports from the U.S. Coast Guard, just in the last 30 minutes, that something like 4 to 6 feet swell on the ocean. It could still be there. Equally, if the weather conditions get any worse out at sea, then that would have an impact on whether it will stay afloat any length of time.

ALLEN: Chris Yates, thanks so much, with Jane's Defence, thank you.



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