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NTSB Press Conference; Flight Data Recorder Found

Aired November 12, 2001 - 13:18   ET


AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: At this point, the government, the federal government, is treating this as an accident, as an aviation accident. The NTSB is the lead investigative agency at this point. That is a very clear sign from the government. All of the statements coming out of Washington, coming out of the White House, is that there is nothing at this point to suggest that this is anything other than an accident.

Now having said that, this point is really early, and all of this can change, or not. It's going to clarify as we go on a bit this afternoon, as little pieces of information form a larger picture for us. But we are dealing with little pieces of information.

But some of them, when processed through the right eyes, can be very helpful.

Jim McKenna wrote for more than a decade for "Aviation Week" magazine, has a lot of experience in assessing these sorts of things, probably more than any of us would care to have. There's almost nothing worse in our business, I think, than these plane crashes.

Jim, anything you have heard so far give you any clues as to what might have happened? Then we'll work down a list of specific things, I think.

JIM MCKENNA, AVIATION EXPERT: It's hard to tell, based on video, and the brief comments that we've gotten from varieties of folks to figure out what happened so far. I can tell you what the investigators will be looking at once on site there. First of all, what is the -- what's the pattern of damage that the airplane did to the ground and the houses? The initial indications are, it came in at speed of perhaps more than 200 miles per hour. Did it plow through -- and I apologize, this is gruesome to think through, but this is how the investigators work.

BROWN: I understand that, and I think...

MCKENNA: Did it plow through houses or did it dig a deep hole into the ground? That's one of the first thing they'll look for.

BROWN: What would they say one way or another?

MCKENNA: Well, that would give you an indication of whether the airplane was completely out of control with its nose pointed toward the ground or whether the pilot might have had some ability to control the airplane, and therefore were trying to level out and perhaps make what would be a more gentle crash landing. They certainly will be looking at the location of the pieces of the engines, how many pieces there are, where they are, to get an early read on whether those engines left the airplane in flight, whether they left the of airplane in pieces in flight, all vital clues for them.

BROWN: And those -- perhaps this is stating the obvious. I apologize. If they -- and we have seen these large pieces of the plane, of the engine of the fuselage, we've seen them, does that in and of itself rule in or rule out anything?

MCKENNA: It doesn't rule in or rule out anything, but provides pointers for the investigators. We see the video of the engine casing at the gas station. The investigators will want to verify if in fact there are parts of the core of engine underneath that casing, which parts of the engine are there, and get an early indication from the damage to the metal of how the parts may have separated from the other parts of the engine.

BROWN: Just help me here when you talk about the core of the engine, what are you talking about?

MCKENNA: The inner workings of the engine. What you she there is the shroud is there to streamline engine. The question is are, the guts of the engine underneath the shroud?

BROWN: OK, now we know the plane was built in 1988. Given the kind of plane it is, an Airbus A300, a big plane that flies long distances, it is not an especially old airplane, correct?

MCKENNA: Not especially hold, that's true.

BROWN: About middle aged, a little bit less than middle aged.

MCKENNA: Probably just about a little bit more than middle aged based on the design life of the airplane. American Airlines gave some good basic information on the airplane and the maintenance of the airplane that the investigators will be taking a closer look at. They explained how much time each of the engines had accumulated. There was a big disparity in the number of hours. One engine had about 700 hours. One had almost 10,000 hours on it. That's not unusual in any way. The engines are swapped off of airplanes all the time, put in for maintenance, so it's not unusual to see a very low-time engine matched with a very high-time engine. What they will look at is when maintenance was done on the engines and when maintenance was done on the overall airplane.

BROWN: OK, I'm sorry, Jim, on that point, I thought I heard him saying -- you might want to look at your notes on this, too -- that maintenance on the plane, and I think this is the lowest level maintenance they were talking about, was done yesterday, November 11th.

MCKENNA: That's true. That's what American Airlines called an a-check, which would be the mechanics walking around the airplane, checking for any leaks, checking for tire pressure, basic visual inspection of the airplane and some fundamental components of the airplane.

The more interesting check was the one that American said done at the beginning of October, which was what they call b-check, which would be a more extensive examination of the airplane and possibly repair of parts they may have been not functioning properly. The investigators are going to will take a close look at what was done during that check at the beginning of October, and whether any of that involved the engines, or the flight controls or anything else that might be a possible clue to why this airplane went down.

BROWN: I want to talk about the route the plane took in a second. But just quickly here, is there anything you heard in terms of the maintenance -- all right, we're going to stop here. The National Transportation Safety Board is beginning to brief, so let's listen in there.

Jim, thank you.

MARION BLAKEY, NATIONAL TRANSPORTATION SAFETY BOARD: Currently, the NTSB already has investigators on-site looking into the various factors involved. What we know, of course, is that American Airlines Flight 587 left JFK this morning at 9:14. It crashed at 9:17. So far as we know from air traffic control, there were no unusual communications from the cockpit.

There were 255 people on board on the manifest. We are double- checking this, in terms of whether there were lap-children or anyone else, but that is the number of passengers and crew we have currently on board.

At this point, as you know, the wreckage is scattered over a wide area. We have reports from the Coast Guard, in fact, that they have had recovery of some major parts out of Jamaica Bay.

We also have been able to recover, so far, the flight data recorder. I expect that that will be coming back here to Washington on the same flight that we are taking up now with a major investigative team.

We are launching a major launch. We expect to have somewhere between 14 and 18 separate investigative groups. We will have between 60 and 100 people on-site up there for our organizational meeting tonight. And, of course, at that point, we expect we will know a great deal more about the circumstances.

So those are the facts as we have them at the moment, and I'd be happy to take a few questions.

QUESTION: Have you been through the passenger manifest yet? And if you have, have there been any hits that you think are important?

BLAKEY: We are scrutinizing the manifest, as we speak, but I do not have details on that right now.

QUESTION: Where was the flight data recorder found -- any location?

BLAKEY: The wreckage was scattered around the area there in Queens. I don't have a specific spot for it. But we were glad that we were able to recover it very quickly.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) specific information about how the plane actually crashed -- did the engine fall off, or was that an explosion of some kind?

BLAKEY: We have reports that there were, certainly, a number of pieces of the wreckage, including engine parts, that were scattered some distance from the actual crash crater, so we do know that. But we do not have information specifically on the engine themselves.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) the area doing their normal patrol of the skies above the airport at the time?

BLAKEY: My understanding is that the case -- I should mention that we have been in close touch with the White House today. I spoke immediately with both the White House, with Secretary Norman Mineta and with Director Bob Mueller about coordination. We are coordinating very closely so that we have all the information pulled together.

It is the case that the National Transportation Safety Board is the lead agency, because all information we have currently is that this is an accident, but as I say, we are definitely coordinating with the FBI as well as, from the standpoint of family assistance, with the American Red Cross, with FEMA, et cetera.

QUESTION: Can you comment on reports that there were three debris fields found? And if so, what those three fields were?

BLAKEY: We know that the wreckage was scattered over a broad field. And we do have investigators right now.

I hope I'll have more information for you on that from New York very shortly.

QUESTION: The fact that the engine separated from the plane, what clues, if any, or what would leave that to you to investigate? What does that say to you and what theories would you be following?

BLAKEY: I think it's too early for me to advance theories on this.

One of the things that we are very committed to doing is to have a full investigation from a system standpoint, mechanical standpoint, looking at the history of this flight, the crew, the human factors that may have been involved. So we will be tracing all of this down very shortly, and we should have good information for you from New York.

One more question.

QUESTION: Do you have anything on maintenance records of this particular aircraft yet?

BLAKEY: We are pulling all of the maintenance records on the aircraft. We do have some good information on that already. Nothing, however, that is indicative of a specific problem today.


QUESTION: ... flight data recorder, anything unusual at all?

BLAKEY: Not that we're aware.

Thank you very much. Thank you.

BROWN: Marian Blakey of the National Transportation Safety Board. It appears that Mrs. Blakey will be leading the investigative team that's coming up from Washington. As she said, there are already National Transportation Safety Board investigators on the scene, but a major, organized, planned kind of response that the NTSB goes through on these, launch what they call a go-team. One you will hear a good deal from Miss Blakey over the next days and weeks. The headline that we heard and the most notable piece of information out of that very brief discussion with reporters is that they have found now the flight data recorder, one of the two black boxes on the airplane.

Jim McKenna, we were talking to before. Jim, two distinct black boxes on an airplane, correct, the flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder?

MCKENNA: That's correct. One records the cockpit conversations, the other records data on what the airplane is doing in flight.

BROWN: And that second one, the one they have found so far, the flight data recorder, essentially tells investigators, assuming its intact, and they can read it in the way they must, what the various systems on the airplane were doing at various moments in time?

MCKENNA: That's exactly right. It will give a great deal of information, assuming its working properly, on what all the various flight controls that are critical to the pilots control the airplane, what they were doing, what the engines were doing, whether there was any kind of indication of a problem or an emergency anywhere on the airplane that might have demanded the pilot's attention.

BROWN : To your more expert ear, Jim, did anything than Miss Blakey said jump out as you as being helpful here, or is it, as I heard it, very early. We're trying to figure out. We need to get up there. We need information. We don't have it yet.

MCKENNA: Well, the recovery of the flight data recorder is great news. Understand, this is horrible tragedy for the folks up in Far Rockaway. For accident investigators, their goal to find out what caused this accident before another accident like it occurs, and with the data from the black box in hand, they should get a very good rundown of what might have been going wrong with the airplane, so they can step out immediately and take measures to prevent future accidents. BROWN: Just to make sure I understand what you are saying and what you are not here, just in that last sentence, you use the word "accident" two or three times. Is it your instinct, at this point, that this is in fact a flight, an aviation accident, as opposed to something more benevolent?

MCKENNA: There is absolutely no way to tell at this point. It's standard operating procedure for the FBI to work hand in hand with the NTSB in an investigation until it's clear that either it was a criminal act or an accident. They will be going over the flight data recorder for any indications of an explosion or a concern by the pilots. The same data can be extracted in part from the flight data recorder. If need be, they'll examine particular parts of the wreckage for evidence of the explosion. They'll go through that probably for a few weeks, unless the flight data recorder provides some compelling evidence that this was clearly an accident.

BROWN: All right, Jim, thank you very much. You've been most helpful today in keeping us all focused on these things that we need to be thinking about this afternoon.

MCKENNA: Thank you, Aaron.




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