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Airplane Crash: What Will Investigators Look At?

Aired November 12, 2001 - 14:41   ET


JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: I want to bring in now Jim McKenna, who is an aviation expert. He's a long-time reporter. He was with "Aviation Week." He was the executive director of the Aviation Safety Alliance.

And, Jim, you are here in a studio in Washington. What are some of the first things the investigators are going to be looking at?

JIM MCKENNA, AVIATION ANALYST: Well, Judy, very first basic question that the investigators have to answer is: Where is the airplane? And it sounds almost ridiculous to ask that question, but they need to answer the question: Is the entire fuselage of the airplane accounted for? Are the wings accounted for? Is the tail, likewise, accounted for? And then they will want to focus in on where the engines and what is condition of the engines.

WOODRUFF: Why do they need all this?

MCKENNA: Because you want to understand where everything is and then backtrack and figure out how it may have gotten there.

For instance, if they step back and find out that a key section of the tail or a key section of the wing can't be accounted for, suddenly it doesn't become a question of whether the engine's failed. It becomes a question of where is that part and how did it break.

There is no indication at this point to say that there's a key part is missing. But the first step the investigators will be doing is to take that kind of inventory, so they get that basic information in hand.

WOODRUFF: Jim McKenna, we have been looking at pictures this morning of what's presumably the engine in its casing that landed there at, I believe, it's across the street or very close to a gas station.

What can you -- what can we learn? What can one tell from looking at this picture of the condition of the engine?

MCKENNA: Well, the first question that the investigators will want to answer in looking at that engine is: Is the entire engine itself in that location? From the initial video, it appears that only a portion of the engine is present at that gas station. There have been reports of parts of the engine landing elsewhere in the debris field.

WOODRUFF: What part is not there? Can you tell? You say it only looks like part, you mean the underside or...

MCKENNA: Well, if we look at the graphic, it appears that the forward section of the engine is laying on the concrete at the Texaco station. You can see in that video of the engine, the nose cone itself of the engine and the white and gray casing that's surrounds the engine. But the engine is fairly long and it doesn't appear that there's that long a section of that engine present at that location.

WOODRUFF: All right.

We heard Mary Schiavo a moment ago talking about stresses on the engine. What could -- what are the things that could cause an engine to break up?

MCKENNA: Normally, an engine won't break up. The engine is designed and tested and proven to be able to withstand a tremendous amount of abuse.

What the investigators will want to focus on is A: Is the engine in separate parts? B: Is that something that happened before the airplane hit the ground? And if that's the case, then what may account for breaking it up. If the airplane ingested a large amount of big birds on takeoff from Kennedy Airport -- which has been a problem at that airport -- that could trigger a breakup of the engine.

The GE engines on this airplane have a track record of suffering some internal problems within the engine that lead to cracking and break-up, disintegration of big parts of the engine in flight.

The investigators will want to take a look at whether this particular engine has been targeted by any previous advisories or problem reports. And then they will go in and look at the metal itself from the engine to see if there is any evidence of an internal failure.

WOODRUFF: When you say track record, what kinds of things are you talking about? What problems?

MCKENNA: Most of...

WOODRUFF: Let me just clarify, these are General Electric -- there were two General Electric -- is it ADC -- I took notes when the spokesman for American Airlines was talking, but I may have left something out.

MCKENNA: General Electric CF6-80C2 engines, and they are a particular variation of that engine type. It's a very good, very reliable engine. It has a track record of developing problems within the core of the engine.

And if you picture a jet engine, it has a whole lot of blades sticking out of the core of the engine, which is made up of big, thick, heavy, metal disks. The engine is designed so that if one of the blades breaks off, it can continue operating without much damage to the engine or the airplane. If one of those big heavy disks breaks, then the engine has a tendency to disintegrate. This is the problem that has been the focus of the investigation with the CF-6 engines. And it's something the investigators will be looking at closely in this case.

WOODRUFF: Well, we heard Al Becker, who is the spokesman for American -- or the head of Corporate Communications for American -- saying a little while ago, talking about the inspection record, service record on these engines. And one of them, it sounded like the left engine, which apparently is the one that came out. I believe he said it had an overhaul 645 -- 695 hours ago, whereas the right engine was something like 9,800 hours ago.

First of all, correct me if I'm wrong on those timeframes and second of all, what's the significance of that?

MCKENNA: No, those are numbers that I recall from the briefing that American Airlines gave.

When we talk about engines and aviation, we talk about where they are on the wing, the No. 1 engine and No. 2 engine on this particular airplane. American Airlines has put out information that the No. 1 engine had only about 700 hours since it was last overhauled. And the No. 2 engine, which would be this one, had almost 10,000 hours since it was overhauled.

Investigators will want to be looking at what kind of work was done most recently on both of the engines. And they will want to particularly take a close look at the engine that had the least the amount of time, to figure if there was any major maintenance that was done on the engine or any major inspection that should have been done on the engine that should have involved a detailed examination of critical parts like the disks.

They will want to find out what the results of those tests were, whether there was any hint of a problem that should have been picked up earlier, or in fact whether the tests found that the engine appeared to be completely healthy, all of which will play into their assessment of what went wrong with this flight.

WOODRUFF: All right.

Jim McKenna, aviation expert, long-time aviation reporter, talking about what investigators are going to be looking at.

I know that this -- just what you've said in the last few minutes raises even more questions with me in terms of why one engine would have been inspected, overhauled so recently and the other one not and what that says. But, of course, we are just at the very beginning of this investigation.

Jim, thank you again for joining us this afternoon.

MCKENNA: Thank you.




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