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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

NTSB Investigators Brief Press

Aired October 27, 2002 - 16:39   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

HEIDI COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: And we're going to go ahead and listen to Carol Carmody, NTSB -- she's doing the briefing on Paul Wellstone's crash. Let's go ahead and listen in..
CAROL CARMODY, NTSB ACTING CHAIRWOMAN: We obtained yesterday some data from the Duluth air traffic control tower. We've got some radar information as well as controller interview as well as tower tapes. So what I'm going to do is take you through a very brief reconstruction of the flight, with what we've learned from the radar and from the controllers and from the tapes. Can everybody hear me all right? I'm southern. I can't speak too much louder. We'll try.

The aircraft took off at 9:37 from Minneapolis/St. Paul City Airport. At 9:48, it was issued an instruction to climb to 3,000 feet. At 10:01, air traffic control cleared it to Eveleth. It was given pilot discretion -- well, you know what? Something is wrong with that initial climb number. Wait a second -- 13,000. Excuse me. I knew that was too low. 9:48, instructions to climb to 13,000 feet. At 10:01, air traffic control issued a clearance to Eveleth and the pilot was given discretion to descend to 4,000 feet at his discretion.

At that time, the pilot was also given a pilot advisory from -- this was a report from a pilot in the area of some icing between 9,000 and 11,000 feet. It was reported to be light and rime icing, that's r-i-m-e icing, and it's sort of an irregular, not clear ice. So light and rime icing at those altitudes.

At 10:10, the pilot began his descent. At 10:18, he was cleared for VOR-27 approach to the airport, that's straight in, east/west approach to the Eveleth Airport. And he was lined up with the runway.

Now, that was 10:18. That was the last transmission conversation with the pilot. Everything had been completely normal up until that time. There was no evidence on the controller's part or from the pilot's voice that there was any difficulty. No reported problems, no expressed concerns. That was 10:18.

At 10:19, this is again from radar, he was descending through 3,500 feet. The aircraft began to drift slightly southward. In other words, it had been headed west; it began to drift slightly southward, with decreasing ground speed. The ground speed then was about 155 knots, and again we calculated this from the radar tapes.

At 10:21:42, it was the last radar hit. This was the last appearance on the radar. And at that point, the aircraft was 1,800 feet. And the ground speed of 85 knots. It was just, this radar hit was just northeast of the accident site.

Now the accident site itself shows a heading of 180, so he had been going this way, 180 would be due south. So the plane was engaged in a turn toward the south when it went down.

I was asked yesterday about the angle of the descent. I had said it was steeper than usual. We calculated it at 25 degrees.

So that's what we know about the flight of the aircraft. We don't know why the turn was occurring. That's what we hope to find out. The aircraft, of course, had icing equipment, anti-icing equipment. Both the wings and the tail had anti-icing -- or de-icing booth (ph), I'm sorry. We're going to make every effort to determine if these were operational at the time of the accident. It's difficult because of the fragmentation and the very little bit of the aircraft that's left, but we are going to make every effort to find something to indicate if those systems were operational.

The investigation has gotten to a very difficult stage for our people. We're sifting, hand sifting of debris to try and pick out aircraft parts or instrument parts. We're using small brushes to dust pieces off. We're using sifters, and it is a very meticulous, slow- going process.

We have recovered a few pieces of the cockpit. We have part of the altimeter and possibly one other gauge, and I expect those will be taken back to Washington for analysis and to see what we can figure out from those. And we'll continue to look at that, of course.

The VOR at the airport, which is state owned and maintained, the FAA flight checked that VOR yesterday, and they found that it was -- and we believe that was the one used by the pilot Friday -- the FAA found it slightly out of tolerance. They're doing another flight check today to see if that is indeed the case and what bearing, if any, that may have on things.

The engines were removed today from the accident site. I think those of you who were out there today saw they had been taken away. They are at the airport right now. They're going to be looked at there. And then be taken to Pratt Whitney, Canada for a teardown. That will tell us what was going on with the power room and everything else about the engines.

Propellers have also been removed, and those will be taken probably back to the manufacturer, who's Hartsell (ph), for a good look at that. We may or may not take some of the pieces of the aircraft back to Washington. That's yet to be determined. They're still on site right now, but if we determine there is a need to take something back and look at it in our lab, we'll do that.

Investigation will be continuing at this site for several more days. I don't know how many. But as long as it takes to get what we need. And then, the focus, as I told you yesterday, we'll shift back to Washington where we can do some tests, some analysis, pore over the material we have, do the studies and take the time we need to come up with the cause. Oh, I might add today another data point. We requested and received the maintenance records from the charter company, and I was over there today and -- at our control center and the -- they were being looked at as we speak. I said, "is there anything there?" And they said, up to now they don't see anything normal (ph). They were not through yet. They were about maybe one-fourth or one-third through the record, so that is ongoing. But we are doing that. We've also gotten the pilot's records and we will be looking at those carefully.

The families were out at the scene today. We took them out this morning about 11:30. There were 17 family members. Again, my thanks to the county for their help with the vehicles, because it's a difficult place to get to. The family spent about 30 minutes on site and then returned, and I believe went back to their individual homes.

I must thank the Red Cross for their assistance with that. They set up a place for the families to meet. They arranged transportation and also some refreshments, so we're very grateful for that. It was helpful to all of us.

I will be leaving tomorrow for D.C. and I'm taking Bob Benson along as well. The reason for this is Tuesday morning in Washington we're convening a very large hearing on the American Airlines crash of a year ago. You may recall the Airbus that went down in New York on November the 12th. We've had a hearing scheduled for about three months, starting tomorrow. It's a five-day hearing with 28 witnesses, and Bob was the investigator in charge of that accident. I'm the chairman, so we need to be there.

We are replacing Bob with Frank Hildrup (ph), who is another experienced investigator. He's coming out tomorrow on a plane, which the FAA is providing, and then we're flying back on it. So you won't see me after today, but we will have a presence on scene and will be giving you updates as needed after tomorrow.

I wanted to mention our Web site, for those of you who may not be familiar with it, it's a way to keep track of what we're doing and what our progress is on the accident. We tend to put a lot of information on our Web site. It's www.ntsb.gov, and you might find that useful to access.

I want to thank everyone, again, all the local people who have assisted us, all of the parties who have been so helpful throughout, and will continue to be. There is one party I forgot to mention yesterday, and that is the NATCA, that's National Air Traffic Controllers Association. It is the controllers union, and they're helping us also in some of the data collection and information.

That's all I have now. I'll take some questions. And then Mr. Benson will assist me if necessary.

Yes?

QUESTION: Can you tell me what the landing speed was for that particular aircraft, how far below its landing speed was it when you had it at 8,500?

CARMODY: How far below its normal landing speed? Do we know, Bob?

BOB BENSON, NTSB: Depending on the weight of the aircraft the landing speed would be between 75 and 90 knots perhaps.

QUESTION: So it wasn't necessarily below.

BENSON: No, it never was recorded to be below.

CARMODY: Yes?

QUESTION: Are you absolutely clear at this point there was no (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?

CARMODY: There is no record of any.

QUESTION: Carol, Can you elaborate on the VOR? Is what you're seeing so far is the discrepancy being off slightly, you said you were going to test it again -- is that major, minor, the kind of thing that if the pilot were flying in tough conditions would be a significant factor potentially?

CARMODY: Well, I think we don't know. We don't know how significant it is. We -- the FAA checked it, as I said, Saturday, which was yesterday, and their word was slightly out of tolerance. They're checking it again to find out what that means, so I don't think we know yet. But possibly in the next day or so we'll have a better feel for that.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) Is that something that would incur a fine perhaps or a warning or something like that?

CARMODY: Good question. It's state-maintained. I don't know if the state would fine itself if it found it out of tolerance.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

CARMODY: Well, the FAA's flight checking it now now. I don't know...

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

BENSON: Carol?

CARMODY: Yes, Bob?

BENSON: The device...

(CROSSTALK)

CARMODY: You want to come up?

BENSON: No.

CARMODY: No? You don't want to? Well, you're here.

BENSON: The device has an automatic shutdown feature on it, so if it becomes grossly out of tolerance, dangerous, then it shuts itself down. The pilots can tell that and they go someplace else. It wasn't to that state yet.

QUESTION: For those of us not familiar with aviation (UNINTELLIGIBLE), can you tell us what a VOR is and why (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?

CARMODY: I'll let Bob answer that. It's a landing aid.

BENSON: It's an acronym for very high frequency, omni directional radio. VOR. And what it does is it puts out an omni directional signal in all directions. There is a device on board the aircraft that can dial in just one radial (ph) put out by the device and track on it either to the station or to an airport near the VOR.

QUESTION: Do you know if it was skewing south? In other words, do you know in terms of being out of tolerance if it was skewing in the direction in which the aircraft crashed?

BENSON: No. We don't know.

QUESTION: So a pilot in conditions like that, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) airport, he zeros in on that and that leads him in like a beacon or something?

BENSON: Exactly.

QUESTION: What difference would it make to the pilot if it's out of tolerance?

BENSON: Well, the VOR in this case is...

CARMODY: You'll have to get up here.

BENSON: I guess so. The VOR in this particular case isn't at the end of the runway; it's slightly offset from the end of the runway. You can't put it on the end of the runway, or you'll hit it. So if it's out of tolerance, then that would make the instrument approach, perhaps, a little less accurate.

But I think the thing you have to remember is this approach procedure is set up so that if the pilot receives bad signals, he never goes below a certain altitude -- 500 feet above the ground, perhaps, in this case. And that's not what occurred this time. So there's something else there.

QUESTION: How does the pilot know whether or not it's off?

BENSON: Well, he's got -- it either puts out an erroneous identifier and we're getting a little complicated here, but he really doesn't. But if it -- if the needle in the cockpit is wavering back and forth, for instance, he knows he doesn't have a good lock on and things like that. (CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: ... weather conditions -- would the pilot be able to see the ground at the time when he was that close to the airport, do you think?

BENSON: One would think so.

QUESTION: Do you have any other information about the weather conditions at the time? We've heard from other pilots that it was two and a half miles, ceiling of about 400 feet. Do you still believe all of that is true? And in addition to that, when the pilot (UNINTELLIGIBLE), reports it, the last contact he heard there was this clicking sound, which was apparently that a pilot use to turn on the runway lights -- to turn up the runway lights. Do you know anything more about that?

CARMODY: No, we don't. And there were a number of pilots in the area at the time and shortly after who reported icing. It was light or rime icing at different altitudes, so there clearly was icing in the area. How severe is not clear. It was certainly not reported at any time as severe icing or heavy icing. The words were always light or rime.

QUESTION: What about the ceiling? Because I know the cut-off for that airport is about 370 feet?

CARMODY: We had some ceiling information. I don't recall what it was.

QUESTION: Carol, given the weather information you have and what other pilots were out there flying in similar conditions, does that make you focus even more intently on the de-icing equipment on this plane?

CARMODY: No. We're focusing on a lot of things. I mentioned that because I think the question naturally occurs when you have icing in the area, the question I would ask next, is was there de-icing equipment on the aircraft? The answer is yes. And then the next question would be, do we know if it's working? So that's why I brought that up in particular. I wouldn't say our focus is on that anymore than anything else at this time.

QUESTION: Carol, can you say -- you mentioned the pilot's records. Have you at least been able to verify that both were current? Their licenses were current? Was there anything that you have found?

CARMODY: I don't have that information yet. If it's available, I don't have it yet. So I think we're still looking.

QUESTION: Can you talk again about the last few minutes of the airplane's flight? And kind of what was happening and what, you know, what somebody might be able to calculate from that data? What does that tell you went on in the airplane in the last few minutes? CARMODY: Well, I think I said we don't really know. All we know is what the data shows about the direction and speed of the aircraft. And we don't understand why that occurred, so we need to find that out. We don't know what was going on in the cockpit or with the pilot or with the controls, but we're going to try and find out.

QUESTION: From the engines that were recovered today and brought back to the hangar, have you been able to learn anything from that equipment?

CARMODY: No information on that yet. We're having another progress report tonight, and we'll hear more from some of our team captains at that time, see if there is anything further, and we'll certainly update you if there is. But at this point, all we know is they were removed and taken to the airport.

QUESTION: From 10:19 to 10:21, you tell us about drop first to 3,500 feet, then 1,800 feet and from 135 knots to 85 knots. Is any of that consistent with (UNINTELLIGIBLE) with kind of a normal landing?

CARMODY: Well I think normal landing would have continued the heading straight west.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) and that the descent is not inconsistent; the only thing that's consistent would be the drifting?

CARMODY: I won't make that statement at all. No. Not at all. We find the whole turn curious, and we're going to have to look carefully at the speeds we've calculated and the distances.

QUESTION: Do you find the speed and the decline curious as well?

CARMODY: No, I'm making no comment on that.

QUESTION: On the question of the light or the rime icing that another pilot reported, was that only between 9,000 and 11,000 feet?

CARMODY: We had reports lower as well. There were two or three different reports around the hibbing area. One of those reported some light icing at 5,000, another at 4,000, one 7,000 to 11,000. These were whole series, and these were hours before and after around that accident period.

QUESTION: There were several reports of icing.

CARMODY: There were a number of reports, yes. So I mean, I think it's clear there was some icing in the area.

QUESTION: Does any of the information that you've been able to gather from people who say they heard things on the ground or in the neighborhood around the crash site, have you been able to -- is that being incorporated into your investigation, things that (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?

CARMODY: Well, we're interviewing witnesses. We've talked to three or four, I believe, already, and we'll take from that what we think is useful and see how it works with the other accident data we have. We usually find witnesses, some very useful and others not so. It just depends. But it's one of many factors we consider, and it's just one other piece of information that goes into the puzzle.

QUESTION: When a pilot experiences light icing, what happens to the plane physically and what are they supposed to do? How are they supposed to react?

CARMODY: I'll let my expert respond to that.

BENSON: Well, the short answer is absolutely nothing. Light icing in and of itself is -- there is virtually no procedure you have to do to get rid of it, or anything like that. Technically, it may raise your stall speed slightly. It's when it gets worse than light is when you become concerned.

QUESTION: From the reports you've heard from any of the other aircraft before and after, was any of the icing heavy enough for them to have to use their de-icing equipment?

BENSON: We don't know. Because they didn't tell us.

QUESTION: Bob, in an investigation like this, how do you -- and I know you don't want to jump to the de-icing or to the icing more than any other conclusion at this point -- but how do you go about determining whether icing would be a factor, especially when the wreckage is in this kind of a condition? What type of things would you look for?

BENSON: Well, we actually have some very, very good meteorologists, research meteorologists, actually, and they can gather -- trap data. It's all out there. And tell us with a lot of accuracy at almost any altitude what type of ice would be forming. It's not something normal TV type meteorologists worry about, of course, but we have the capability to do that, and it's just a bit of a laborious process that we have to go through. It takes some time.

CARMODY: That's going on now.

BENSON: Yes.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

CARMODY: The engines?

QUESTION: The engines and the (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

CARMODY: Well, as I said, we'd want to know if there were any kind of engine failure or any problems with the engine at all. The only way to find that out is to tear it down and look at it very intensively.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

CARMODY: Well, as I said, we don't know yet. It's something we're looking at as we look at everything. And the FAA is going to check it. They're probably checking it as we speak, and we'll have more information. Depending on what they find out, it may or may not be something we need to spend more time on. But it's just a factor, and that's why I mentioned it.

One more.

QUESTION: What other information or data are you looking for that may help you determine what happened in those final moments?

CARMODY: Well, we're going to continue getting information on the weather. We do have meteorologists working on a lot of that. We're going to be analyzing what is left of the structure to see what that will tell us about condition and speed, and we're going to be looking at whatever instruments we can recover, whatever pieces of instruments we can recover.

We'll talk to more controllers. We talked to the accident controller, but there are others who may have handled the aircraft. We'll be talking to the flight service station that probably gave the pilot a weather briefing before he took off.

If I'm leaving anything out, Bob, chip in. All the different areas of the accident that we look at we will continue to do in this.

QUESTION: Carol, a quick question on the families. I know you have a couple of liaisons that actually work...

CARMODY: Yes, we do.

QUESTION: ... specifically with the families. And you've got obviously a lot of cases like this. Maybe you can tell us what roles those liaisons play?

CARMODY: I'll be glad to.

QUESTION: And I understand that different families actually have very different needs.

CARMODY: You know I'm very glad you asked me that, because I should have mentioned earlier that we have these people here. And they're part of our team and they are very, very important.

Several years ago, the office -- it was called then the Office of Family Affairs; it's now called Transportation Disaster Assistance -- but several years ago that office was established because a number of families of victims of airline crashes had felt they were not getting information, good treatment from the government. There were a lot of egregious cases in the past of bodies that had been misidentified, families that weren't notified, families who heard on the news some information about an accident that involved their loved ones.

So all of this led to the creation of this office. The purpose of that office is to be the help mate, if you will, of those families to provide them information, to be sure they get the access to the site if they wish it. To be sure that the remains are recovered, to be sure that identification proceeds. All of this. We act of kind of a liaison for all of that.

It's been a terrifically important function. We have found it's been much appreciated by the families, much. And I think this group is no exception. They find it very useful to have somebody helping them with the medical examiner or helping them with some of the other aspects.

I make it a point to always talk to the families any time I'm going to have a briefing, because I don't want them to hear on the news anything I could have told them first. So that's a pledge we make. We give them the information; I talked to them earlier today and told them what I know.

We have -- I think there's six people in that office. They do a terrific job. We had two out here.

They were the ones who organized the site visit today and worked with the families. They've worked with the medical examiner. It's been a very useful function. So I neglected to mention them earlier and I do apologize because they're valuable parts of our team.

QUESTION: Along that same line, because Paul Wellstone was Jewish, were there any particular things that had to be done along that line, the rabbis have to go out there and...

CARMODY: I honestly don't know. The medical examiner handled pretty much that part of it with the family, so I will defer comment on that.

QUESTION: Was there a special place (UNINTELLIGIBLE), could you describe it?

CARMODY: Yes, I understand there was a small area for reflection or offering prayers. There were some flowers that were donated, and those were taken out to the scene. And family members were allowed to do whatever they felt was appropriate while they were there.

QUESTION: Were you out there with them?

CARMODY: I was not. I met with them beforehand and then my staff went out with them.

QUESTION: If there had been a distress call, you would know about it by now. So there definitely was no distress call, correct?

CARMODY: I think we'd know by now. Yes.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)?

CARMODY: He's making a lot of progress, but we have not got any of the test results yet. He's been in touch with the families today, so we'll probably have more on that later.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

CARMODY: The last I heard was he was making progress. I expect that will be coming along soon.

Thank you all very much. You've been a good crew to work with.

COLLINS: We have just finished listening in with in Carol Carmody. She is the acting chairperson for the NTSB on the crash of Senator Paul Wellstone's plane in Eveleth, Minnesota. Perhaps the most interesting thing, at least what investigators are finding most interesting, is the turn that the plane was in upon its descent.

They're not finding anything unusual about the landing speed, it seemed to be normal of that King Air A-100. But the fact that the plane had begun drifting shortly after the last contact with the plane and ended up about 90 degrees, or perpendicular from the runway, is certainly something of interest.

We have CNN's Susan Candiotti standing by now outside where the press room was taking place.

Hi, Susan. What can tell us from what you have seen at the crash scene, or as close to it as you could get today?

SUSAN CANDIOTTI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Exactly. I thought because you just heard some of the details of what Ms. Carmody was talking about, that perhaps we would first talk about the very intense, I'm told, the very dignified memorial that was held there today at the site. As you heard described, the NTSB escorted 17 family members of the eight victims out to the site. And each of them carried a red rose, which was left behind at the scene of the wreckage.

I am also told that a chaplain was out there, so that he could pray along and offer comfort to the victims who also -- the victims' relatives -- who also, I am told, spoke with some of the investigators on site, perhaps giving them comfort and answering questions about the procedure of what was happening out there. You, I'm sure by now, have also seen the photograph left behind by one of the family members of 23-year-old Will McLaughlin (ph). He was one of the campaign staffers who worked for Senator Paul Wellstone.

Again, a very sad service. They came in by bus this day and left. We did not talk with any of the family members.

Now, other things we learned from the progress of the investigation this day, evidently they are pleased to report that they were able to move out the engines, for one thing, that you did hear described were operating at the time of impact. Now, those two engines on that King Air turboprop are manufactured by Pratt & Whitney in Canada. And that is where those engines will be headed for them to tear them apart, perhaps even put them back together again to help decide whether that had anything to do with the cause of this crash.

Also, we learned that at about 10:18 on Friday morning, that is when the aircraft was cleared for approach by the control tower in Duluth, and then, by my account, about 23 minutes later they had the final transmission when the plane was about seven miles out, when it was notifying that they were cleared. Now, at that 10:18 time, they were lined up for the approach for the runway, but, as you have heard between yesterday and today, investigators have discovered that the crash site was actually off course. That it was heading south and away from the runway, and authorities are still trying to piece together exactly what that means about what was happening.

Now, along those lines, they have also been successful in finding more parts of the cockpit, including certain records and meters that they previously thought were destroyed. They are sifting away dirt and debris from the rubble out there. And they are trying to determine, through meticulous means, exactly what other information they can learn from all of that. Again, this investigation is expected to last another several days out here -- Heidi.

COLLINS: All right, Susan. Susan Candiotti, thank you very much, from Eveleth, Minnesota today. A lot more investigation to be done indeed.

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