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Former NTSB Vice-Chairman Discusses Wellstone Plane Crash

Aired October 25, 2002 - 14:54   ET


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Let's bring in Bob Francis, formerly with the National Transportation Safety Board, to talk to us a little more about this.
Bob Francis, what's your first thought on this? I want to offer up the caveat -- and this is probably a good point. We get a lot of erroneous information, and so do crash investigators at this juncture. But with that caveat, give us an idea. I know that an NTSB team, including the acting chairwoman, Carol Carmody along with Bob Benzin (ph), who will be leading this particular investigation, is set to leave shortly, a team of 13 on their way. Give us a sense of what's on their agenda as they approach the scene. You've been through this so many times.

BOB FRANCIS, FORMER NATIONAL TRANSPORTATION SAFETY BOARD VICE- CHAIRMAN: Well, I think that you've mentioned a couple of the things, Miles. Let me start by saying that Bob Benson is one of the very best investigators at the NTSB. I worked with him a number of times. So it's the A team going out there.

But clearly, weather is an issue. I've just, again, from news reports, there are discussions of drizzle and fog and freezing rain. These are all things that obviously pose perils to civil aviation. And then particularly when you're landing at a small airport that doesn't have, as I understand it, a precision landing system.

O'BRIEN: No, there is no precision landing, which would mean that the minimums for an approach would be -- it would require better weather. That's the layperson's way of putting it.

FRANCIS: Absolutely.

And one of the things that you're always faced with in these kinds of conditions, you have minimums, whatever they are -- distance and height above the ground -- but pilots and human beings are always tempted to push it a little bit. And that certainly is an issue in an awful lot of accidents. So I think it's pretty early to say. I mean, you could have -- you could have icing. You could theoretically have some kind of a mechanical problem with the loss of an engine or some other mechanical problem with the airplane. Or you could have controlled flight into terrain, which is the flying of an aircraft which is otherwise capable of flying for one reason or another into the ground by the crew.

O'BRIEN: And as you point all those out, many times in these investigations what you find, and perhaps more often than not, is that it is a series of events that lead to these sorts of scenarios. In other words, absent any one of three or four possible scenarios, a crash might not have happened.

FRANCIS: Absolutely. I mean, that -- the situation when there is only one factor in an accident is very rare indeed.

O'BRIEN: Now, this particular -- go ahead. Finish your point. I'm sorry.

FRANCIS: You've almost always got, and sometimes it goes out to five or six different factors that you may have.

O'BRIEN: And it's fascinating...

FRANCIS: So that's what...

O'BRIEN: When you think about how they are linked, and if you pull any one of them out of it, generally speaking, the people live to fly another day.

Let me just point out one point which I brought out earlier, I want to make sure our viewers understand, that this aircraft does not have the so-called black box, the flight data recorder, but it would have a cockpit voice recorder. And in this case what's your guess on how much it would reveal to investigators?

FRANCIS: Well, it may have a cockpit voice recorder. And maybe you know something that I don't know.

O'BRIEN: Well, I just looked up the specs on Beechcraft. And I believe this particular model is equipped with a CVR.

FRANCIS: And it was put in at the time that this was built?


FRANCIS: It's not a requirement. But if that's the case, it will be very -- it will be good fortune for the NTSB and the investigators. If the recorder is in good shape and this kind of an accident, one would think it probably will be. It will be taken, it will be flown back, probably in an FAA airplane, to the NTSB's laboratories here in Washington. And I would think late tonight or early tomorrow morning you'd have some kind of indication of whether they have a good read on the recorder.

I would say that we obviously rely very heavily on recorders. And when they're good, they're wonderful. There are lots of times when for one reason or another you're not getting good data out of either the cockpit voice recorder or the flight data recorder. So one certainly hopes that it will be found and be in good shape, but there are lots of other ways to investigate without that. It's very helpful. And if it's not there as a tool, then let's not be too disappointed.

O'BRIEN: All right. And one other point to bring out here besides the cockpit voice recorder, because this would have been an instrument approach, they would have been in close contact with approach controllers in that area under some sort of radar coverage. So there would be some communication with the ground there, and perhaps there might be something that could be gleaned from that.

FRANCIS: Yes. Absolutely. And I don't know whether -- I've not heard of this airport. I would doubt that there's a tower there, so probably their last, their two miles out, their last contact with the FAA or with an ATC facility would have been the approach control. And then they might have been talking to somebody on the airport at the fixed-space operation through the Unicom frequency, announcing where they were, so that they wouldn't get into a problem with another airplane.

O'BRIEN: Bob Francis, formerly with the NTSB, lots of experience covering and investigating these sorts of things, thanks, as always, for being with us. We'll probably check in with you in just a little bit, if you can stay with us.


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