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F-16 Pilot Ejected Safely; Detainees Depart for Cuba Under Fire

Aired January 10, 2002 - 11:41   ET


DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: Once again, following the story of the F-16 crash in the state of New Jersey, an Air National Guard plane on a practice -- on a routine practice mission crashing. The pilot able to eject safely before the plane crashed in the Southern part of that state.

I think we have fixed our audio problems with Miles O'Brien, who is in the Mojave Desert -- Miles, you have an F-16 expert with you.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN SPACE CORRESPONDENT: I do, I do. I have Dick Rutan, a legendary test pilot and fighter pilot who was about to become involved in another test flight, this of a rocket powered aircraft. We are going to have more on that a little bit later. They are actually working on some engine trouble.

But I wanted to bring out the mission, the current mission of the New Jersey National Guard. They are heavily involved in the combat air patrol over New York City, specifically. The Guard units in New Jersey on Otis Air National Guard Base in Massachusetts, up and down the East coast, Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, have been taxed to their limits ever since September 11th, flying 24 by 7 combat air patrols over Washington and New York, and then, sporadically, combat air patrols over other population centers.

It has taxed the pilots, it has taxed the aircraft immensely. I'm not trying to jump into the realm of speculation here, as to what caused this particular crash, but I'm just trying to provide a little bit of context to give you some understanding of what these F-16's at the Air National Guard Base here in Atlantic City have been up to.

Here with me to talk a little bit about that is Dick Rutan, who during the Cold War spent an awful lot of time on the so-called five- minute alert. Of course, the concern then was the Russian Bear bomber, as it went down the coast and sometimes flirted with the airspace of the United States.

How long can the Guard keep up that level of intensity that we have seen since September 11th, Dick?

DICK RUTAN, TEST PILOT: Well, it's a formidable thing to maintain a constant presence on a combat air patrol. Very formidable for maintenance, for parts, supplies. Another thing, when the pilot is just droning around in the sky, he is not really getting the training that he really needs to maintain his combat efficiency, either in air-to-air or air-to-ground, or some of the other things he needs to do.

So, it's a very, very demanding operation. It can cut the heart out of an organization in a fairly short amount of time, and needs a lot of assets to do that.

O'BRIEN: All right, all right. Okay, Dick Rutan talking about how stretched the Air National Guard is as they perform a mission which a lot of people could not have predicted, certainly before September 11th.

And we are happy to hear that there is -- there was an ejection, and apparently they saw a parachute fall to the ground. We'll obviously wait for details as to the fate of the pilot -- Daryn.

KAGAN: Miles, it turns out I have an update for you, so, it is actually good news. They have found the pilot. He is alive, and they are taking him to a local hospital.

Looking at the crash site in Southern New Jersey where this F-16 crashed. Once again, the pilot was able to eject before the plane crashed. The pilot has been spotted, and taken to a local hospital. We're going to learn more about this crash, we expect, at a news conference that we are hearing is going to take place at 3:00 p.m. Eastern out of Atlanta City at the airport there. Once again, 3:00 p.m. Eastern news conference with the latest information on that crash of the F-16.

Want to go back to our other breaking news story, and that is the first shipment of detainees going from Kandahar, leaving Kandahar, very recently, and then heading, of course, to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Our Bill Hemmer reporting from Kandahar. We have our Bob Franken with us on the phone. He is in Cuba at Guantanamo Bay, the ultimate destination for this group of at least the first 20 detainees that are being taken to that facility. Bob, have you received word there that this first group is on the way?

BOB FRANKEN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the best evidence of it, Daryn, is that we, the press, are being thrown off of the base. We were brought here by the Defense Department yesterday to report on the preparations for their high security prison camp that is being set up, but now they are hustling reporters off. They are saying there is significant security concerns that they have.

Of course, the media are arguing that this is an important historic event that needs to be covered by an independent media. That discussion continues, and there has been a delay about the press being asked to leave, but there is every indication that they are expecting tomorrow the arrival of this first group of detainees, and as we saw, and have been reporting, they are going to be arriving at an extremely high security facility. It is called Camp X-ray. It was known to many people during the mid-90's as the refugee detention center for Haitians and Cubans who were passing through Guantanamo Bay. But now it has turned into a camp that is just about as high security as one could expect. The detainees themselves and, of course, that's a term the Pentagon prefers, the detainees themselves will be kept in what are called outdoor cells. Others have suggested that they are really cages.

They are small cubicles, each individual will have one, that has a wooden top and then nothing more than chain link fence exposing the person to the elements, but of course also making him always available to be seen. There will be flood lights at all times. The camp itself will be surrounded by machine-gun-toting Marines and military police and other security people, and people with a variety of other weapons outside and dogs. Inside, there will be no weapons for the guards. Of course, feeling being that they would not like to allow any opportunity for an uprising to result, and those weapons getting into the wrong hands.

There is extreme security, and although the officials here estimate that they are going to follow the Geneva Convention governing prisoners of war, even though they don't consider these P.O.W.s, they will be treated humanely, there certainly is going to be no nonsense, putting it as one of the security people did.

There will be no freedom of movement. No chance to get over this barbed wire. And I should point out, Daryn, that Guantanamo Bay is, of course, up to a hostile Cuba over the decades now, is surrounded by 17.5 miles of fence, similar fence on the Cuban side and a mine field in between -- Daryn.

KAGAN: And Bob, before we let you go, you described the facilities, but what's going to actually happen to these men when they are brought there?

FRANKEN: They are going to be processed. They are going to be, in fact, in a very, very stern manner put through the process. One can expect that they are going to go through a variety of interrogations. They are going to be awaiting the arrival of others. At the moment, Guantanamo officials say they can accommodate about a hundred. Ultimately, they hope to be able to have a capacity of 2,000, and this prison camp is going to be replaced, according the plans, by a building that is under construction now, which will amount to a maximum security prison, although they don't like to call it that.

I would mention one other thing. They are saying that they will be here for an indeterminate period of time, and yet, there are no plans, we are told, no plans at this point about setting up military tribunals. A lot of unanswered questions, but some will be answered with the arrival of this first group expected tomorrow.

KAGAN: And it appears that that movement is underway. Our Bob Franken reporting to us from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. That is the ultimate destination of at least 20 of the detainees that have been held at the Kandahar airport.

Our Bill Hemmer has been reporting to us from Kandahar. He was the first to let us know that this first shipment, this first planeload of detainees were on their way, and I believe we have Bill with us on the phone once again from Kandahar -- Bill.

BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: Hey, Daryn, a few moments ago, a significant exchange of gunfire out on the runway here at the base. We're not quite sure what the threat is at this point.

They are still trying to figure this that out. Shortly thereafter, significant amounts of tracer fire, crisscrossing the runway as well. The small arms fire went on for quite sometime. I would say upwards of five minutes. It seemed like a long time, anyway. We also heard what appeared to be some mortar rounds as well, going up in the air. As I mentioned, that tracer fire, in talking to some of the Marines here, they say as soon as that C-17 started shooting down the runway, there was the report of gunfire at the north end of the runway.

They shot up a rather large white flare to illuminate the area, and they say they saw some movement that was not normal, and hence the situation we have. The lights are out, planes are down. No action on the runway. Members of the 101st Airborne Division, that have streamed in this airport now for the past week, another group just got off the plane. They are inside the terminal where we are, a bombed- out terminal, I should say. Half the windows are blown out from the U.S. bombing.

They are now taking cover and giving -- they were given ammunition at this point. Loading up their weapons, and again, taking up those defensive positions. Again, we don't understand -- don't have full clarity on the threat, but at this point, we are doing what we are told.

Daryn, the headline, though, before this was expected anyway, the removal of 20 detainees en route to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. They left airspace here almost 40 minutes ago. The first group en route to Cuba. And again, as I just look down, -- excuse me Daryn, I'm just looking down the terminal here a second.

Yeah, there is just more members of the 101st, again, taking up their positions right here. I can tell you right now, the tracer fire is still up in the air, but it has been a couple minutes since we have heard any gunfire, so we wanted to update you on that. It has been an extremely loud airport for the three weeks that we have been here. So it's quite unusual to find this place this quiet, at least for the moment, anyway, Daryn.

KAGAN: Kind of spooky, but we are going to hope things are calming down. It sounds like they just might be at Kandahar. Bill Hemmer reporting from Kandahar. Our Bob Franken reporting from Guantanamo Bay as that first group of 20 detainees makes its way from Afghanistan to Cuba. We'll take a break and be back after this.


KAGAN: Back to one of our breaking news stories, and that's the crash of the F-16 in the Southern part of New Jersey, an Air National Guard F-16 on a routine practice mission that crashed earlier today.

The good news, we are hearing the pilot was able to eject safely without running into the plane. The pilot has been discovered and taken to a hospital. We are expecting to get more information about this crash, which was close to Atlantic City. About 3:00 p.m. Eastern, about three hours from now, Air National Guard officials holding a news conference at Atlantic City airport. We will find out more then.




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