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Transcript : DoD News Briefing : Lt. Gen. Howell Estes, USAF(JCS/J3)

Presenters: Lt. Gen. Howell Estes, USAF (JCS/J3)
April 04, 1996 5:00 PM EDT

Wednesday, April 3, 1996 - 5 p.m. (EST)

[This is a special DOD News Briefing following the crash of the U.S. Air Forceplane carrying Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown]

 

General Estes: Well, good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. This is obviouslynot a very pleasant experience or time for any of us to be able to have to getup and talk about such a tragic accident as has happened today with SecretaryBrown's aircraft. What I want to do for you today, since there have been a lotof rumors out there and a lot of speculation about what occurred, is to try togive you the facts as we know them. Needless to day this happened at a verysuper remote area in terms of the location of U.S. people and support that canbe provided if something happened like this tragic accident. And so, the flowof information has been a little difficult, but the worst thing that I can dofor you all today is to get up and not state what we know is fact -- and so Iwill try to stick to that -- and to do that I'm going to use some notes and afew charts so that I accurately depict the information that we have availableat this time.

Secretary Brown's aircraft was scheduled to take off from Tuzla, in Bosnia, atabout 7 o'clock eastern time, this morning, and proceed on a route of flightdown to Dubrovnik in Croatia for landing. It's about a 45 minute flight sothey should have been on the ground there at about 7:45 to 8 o'clock EasternStandard Time, this morning. The weather down at Dubrovnik, this morning, wasnot very good and so as the aircraft proceeded to the south, they were requiredto make what we call an "instrument approach" into the airfield. The aircraftwas on the instrument approach, was in contact with the tower at the Dubrovnikairport, when contact was lost.

Initial reports that we received, and that were received in Europe, were thatthere was wreckage sighted in the water -- waters of the Adriatic. A searchand rescue mission was launched, initially, from the U.S., involving U.S.Special Forces, which -- the closest place we had people that could respond tothis were Italy, with the kinds of equipment necessary. They were at Brindisi,Italy, but we deployed what we call an MC-130 aircraft. It's a SpecialForces-kind of an aircraft, a four-engine propeller-driven aircraft andhelicopters, the MH-53 helicopter, a fairly large helicopter used by SpecialForces and they were conducting a search and rescue. They initiallyconcentrated -- I should also add helicopters from other nations were involvedas well, not just U.S. in this initial search. All of these aircraft initiallyconcentrated on the areas that were initially reported, which were -- was thatthere was wreckage at sea. No wreckage was found at sea by any of the searchand rescue assets. About three hours into the search -- you've got to remembernow the weather is bad, reasonably bad, requiring an instrument approach; so asI will show you in a minute, there are some facts, some hills in the areaaround the airport to the north side of the runway -- a reasonable amount ofdistance, but nevertheless there -- and the fact is that we had some reportfrom the Croatians that they had found a crash site up on the side of the hillcovered by the clouds. So, it was obviously not easy to see, not easy todetermine that there was in fact a crash site there, but they initiallyreported a crash site of an aircraft about three kilometers to the north of thewestern end of the runway.

The crash site has been reached by Croatian police and I've just received wordthat there's also a Croatian doctor on the scene. U.S. forces are striving toget to the scene, in fact at this minute may be at the scene. There arehelicopters on the ground at Dubrovnik's airport -- U.S. helicopters that holdabout 50 U.S. personnel. Initially, they made an attempt to land at the crashsite, but because of the weather were unable to do that, and so they are, asrapidly as possible, working their way up to where the crash site is. This isimportant because there have been unconfirmed -- by anybody on the U.S. side --reports that there have been some casualties on the ground, obviously, butthere are unconfirmed -- and I want to stress "unconfirmed" -- reports of asurvivor on the ground. And, so it's extremely important that every effort bemade to get help up to the scene and that's why I go through this about, "whois there now." We are being told that there is a Croatian doctor there andthese U.S. personnel -- of which we have some people with medical experience,although not doctors -- at this stage of the game also headed up there toprovide whatever assistance they can to the Croatians.

Obviously, the Croatian government has asked for assistance in the search andrescue. As I mentioned, we already have forces on the ground, the U.S. onscene commander is a Brigadier General Mike Canavan. He is physically presentat the airport now. There's a team being assembled up at Tuzla, in Bosnia, toprovide additional assistance as required and the normal things when you havean aircraft accident of this time, such as communications, security, publicaffairs and mortuary affairs people, are going to be brought down initially toSplit, in Croatia, and then drive down to the crash site. They're going toSplit, instead of Dubrovnik at least initial reports are they're going to dothat because they want to be sure they can get in with the weather situationthe way it is.

I might also point out that an accident board has been appointed by the chiefof staff of the United States Air Force. The accident board president will beBrigadier General Charlie Coolidge. He is presently here in the United States,will leave the U.S. tonight for Croatia. The National Transportation SafetyBoard has also agreed to provide assistance in this accident investigation.Initially, four members of the NTSB will be with the Air Force team and serveas advisors. I think it's important to point out, at this point, there is noevidence of any hostile fire in the area. There is no evidence of any kind ofan explosion aboard the aircraft. And, I think, at this point, because of thelocation, we would rule anything out of that type. Obviously, General Coolidgeand his team will do everything humanly possible to determine the cause of thisaccident and will make a full report.

One thing I think is also worth mentioning in terms of the manifest. I knowthere is concern for numbers of people aboard, families obviously veryconcerned, and we here in the Defense Department have made every effort to tryto confirm the people who were aboard the aircraft. The report that we had isthat there were 33 people aboard -- 27 passengers and a crew of 6. I thinkwith that as an opening, I will turn to the slides again and try to give you alittle more definition on the crash site itself, as it's being told to us bythe Croatians. I don't know if you can see that with the cameras in the back.Let me turn this just a little bit more and maybe that would be of help. Thisis a rendition of what the area around Dubrovnik looks like with the AdriaticSea out here. The city of Dubrovnik shown in this area. The airport itself islocated on this piece of land, you can see the runway, here. The crash site isup on this hillside that you see here.

Q: [inaudible] as we go along or wait until you're finished?

A: We'll get through this and then we'll take questions, okay?

General Estes: Next slide, please. I'll show you one other view of it. Thisis now looking out from the water, you can see the runway structure here, thisbeing the west end of the runway, headed east and the crash site that is nowbeing approached is up here on this hill. This hill is about 2,300 feet tall,to the west and to the north side of the airport, about three miles.

Q: Twenty-three hundred?

A: Twenty-three hundred feet.

Q: How many miles is that?

A: It's about, I said three miles, it's three kilometers, threekilometers... about 1.8 miles to the north-northwest.

One other slide to talk a little bit about the aircraft itself. The aircraftis what the Air Force calls a T-43 aircraft. Many of you will recognize thisas a Boeing 737, very similar to the commercial version. Some of thespecifics: the aircraft is located at Ramstein Air Force Base, that's where itis based. I've already told you the size of the crew and there are just someother facts about it here that talk to its range and it's speed and so forth.But this is an aircraft very familiar to all of you and to those watching ontelevision in that it's a commercial airliner used for a long period of time inthis country, with a very, very good safety record.

As I mentioned, General Coolidge will be doing the accident investigation, andwhen he determines the facts surrounding this accident, he will report them tothe proper authorities that he is to report to. I can only say that, here inthe Defense Department, in the Joint Staff, in the Air Force throughout thisbuilding, there's a great amount of concern for the individuals who were aboardthe aircraft... obviously, their families and we are doing everything we canhere to assist the Croatians as they carry out the actions that need to betaken at the crash site. We can only hope that the reports of survivors aretrue and that more are found and we will be making information available to youas it becomes available to us. If I could start here.

Q: General, do you have any reports of confirmed fatalities? You told us ofthe unconfirmed report of [inaudible].

A: We have no confirmed reports of either fatalities or survivors. I can onlyput it that way, because I have unconfirmed reports of some fatalities and onesurvivor, unconfirmed. Yes.

Q: General, there have been a lot of questions dealing with the same thing andforgive me for getting a little technical for some of my brethren here, butright through the approach for a moment, I'm interested in length of runway,was there I-L-S there? Was he on the approach and veered off as you're landingto the east or west? Was there a "black box" aboard? Was there a windsheerdetector aboard? Any evidence of windsheer in the area? Things of that --that?

A: Well, I think many of the questions you're asking really need to come outin the accident investigation, but in general terms, I do know that the airportwas serviced by a radio beacon. That was what was being used for the approach.It is a well-known system for doing instrument approaches. Runway length wasnot a problem. They've got plenty of runway there. The runway direction is ina heading of three-zero-zero to the northwest and to the southeast onone-two-zero. They were landing to the southeast -- so they were coming fromwest to east -- and from the slide I showed you earlier -- let's just put thatback up, the one with the water view -- no the other one.

Q: That's the question, was he, sort of, on the approach when he went in orafter he -- he veered off or had gone past the airfield or can you tell us?

A: Let's get this up so everybody can see what I'm going to describe here....Here is the runway structure out here.... The aircraft approach would havebeen from this direction. Okay, we're heading now into the west side, towardDubrovnik... we're heading to the southeast and landing in the direction ofone-two-zero. Okay. So, they would have approached over water here and comein on about a heading like that -- in the approach.

Q: General, there were reports that a senior general was onboard, is that thecase? And who was that?

A: Again, it's difficult for me to confirm or deny these reports at this pointin time. When we have information that confirms who was on the aircraft as weget -- as the rescue teams get to the crash site and make that determination,it will be made available to you, I'm sure. I don't have that information foryou.

Q: Are there any communications from the aircraft about distress oranything...?

A: No, and I think that's an important point, Carl. There were no calls madeindicating any kind of a problem aboard the aircraft. It appeared to be aroutine approach, from what I know at this point in time.

Q: At what point did you lose contact with the aircraft? Where were they, Imean, in the approach?

A: Again, I can't tell you that, I don't have the information. I know thatthey were in contact with the tower, making their approach, when contact waslost. I can't tell you in what phase they were in because we don't know that atthis point in time.

Q: And do you have any idea of the timetable for the Americans to get out tothe site?

A: Well, as I said, and I just was handed a note, let me, yes. This justsays that General Canavan is there. I've already told you he's there on theground. They couldn't get in by helicopter. They're proceeding up now afootand I can't give you an exact time they're going to reach the crash site. Theycould be there at this very minute, but I just don't have that kind of contactwith them since I've come down here. I can't tell you where they are rightthis minute. And, let me just make it very clear that these people understandwhat they're supposed to be doing and they're making every effort to get there,as quickly as possible, if they are not at the crash site as we speak.

Q: And, as far as you know, were the "nav-aids" at the airport, were theyworking? I understand there's two radio beacons there, were they both workingas far as you know?

A: I haven't been given any information on that, so it's improper for me tospeculate if they were working or not working. We do know that a series of twoor three aircraft landed in the half hour prior to this aircraft, indicatingthat everything was okay. At the moment this aircraft was making an approach,I can't tell you what the status of the "nav-aids" was, because I don't know.

Q: Do you know what the ceiling was, general?

A: We don't have a specific ceiling and visibility. I've asked for that, butwe know it was sufficiently cloud covered to force them to fly an instrumentapproach.

Q: [inaudible]?

A: I can't tell you that.

Q: General, are your aircraft on missions like this under any differentweather-related flight restrictions than what we would typically see fromcommercial aircraft or other routine operations?

A: No, the Air Force has set minimums for aircraft that fly. Differentaircraft have different kinds of minimums and we have approach plates, the AirForce does, that in fact all military use these approach plates and you are at-- your aircraft is given a certain category and for each category, the weatherminimums may be different depending on the kind of aircraft.

 

Q: My question was, are your Air Force minimums any different than those thatwould typically apply in commercial air service?

A: No, not for this kind of an aircraft, it wouldn't be any different. Inother words, you're asking me would they be lower and the answer would be,"no."

 

Q: Or higher?

A: It could be higher, but they wouldn't be lower than the published minimumsfor the approach used by civilian aircraft.

Q: General, there's a rumor that there was a suggestion that this flight begrounded and that the order was over-ruled and it went anyway?

A: You're dealing with a rumor again. I can't speculate. I had not heardthat. It will be looked at by the accident board as part of theirinvestigation. Yes, ma'am?

Q: You said earlier, if I understood right, that U.S. helicopters tried toland at the crash site but they couldn't?

A: That's right.

 

Q: So, essentially, now, General Canavan's team is arriving? This is thefirst time that U.S. personnel are arriving at the crash site?

A: At the crash site itself, that's right. Now, remember, What I'vedescribed is General Canavan is at the airport, okay? And, that's what we'retalking about down here -- the distance they have to travel is up to where thecrash site is; we're talking going through very rough terrain and there are noroads to where the crash site is. So, they're having to work their way upthere. The weather is still not good up here. It's cloud covered and, infact, right down on the top of the mountains. So, it will take them some timeto get there, but there are people on the scene as I described to you earlier.For all I know, they may be at the scene by now.

Q: General, the civilian aviation charts for this area indicate that the onlyinstrument approach is either straight -- basically straight from Dubrovnikinto the airport or looping even farther -- farther to the south. Is there anyindication from the controllers who were talking to these guys in the air, whythey were apparently so far off of any instrument approach course?

A: No, I can't answer that question for you. What you're describing is thatthere are two approaches. There is a straight in approach, like this; or acircling approach, that would take you out this direction away from themountains. And, those are two kinds of approaches off the same kind of aninstrument landing that would be done using the instrumentation available atthe airport. I can't tell you why they were where they were nor am I in aposition to speculate. That's exactly what General Coolidge and the accidentboard will attempt to determine.

 

Q: Just to follow-up, sir, were there any reasons why [inaudible] approach isset up that they would take a non-standard approach?

A: Absolutely not. No, I mean, it's -- I can't imagine when.... Theseaircraft... we in the Air Force would fly it like you would fly a commercialairliner. I mean, it wouldn't be any different. It would be unthinkable thatthey would be flying an approach different than what was published. What wouldthey be flying, they have to be flying the published approach, so, I don't --we don't even need to speculate on that; they wouldn't be doing somethingnon-standard to get into the airport.

Q: Are you saying, though, that you think they were off that course?

A: I haven't a clue why they ended up here.

 

Q: Were they coming in.... You think they were?

A: Well, what I'm telling you is they were on an approach to this runway.The aircraft impacted on the hill here. The accident board will determine whythis chain of events happened. That's all I can tell you.

Q: When did Secretary Brown get to Tuzla? And two -- have you gotten amanifest from Tuzla?

A: What I'm going to do on this is I'm going to stick to the operationaldetails; the specifics of when Secretary Brown arrived at Tuzla, the manifestissue will have to be dealt with by the State Department and I think they'reprepared to address that later. Let me go back here where you have anotherquestion.

Q: This essentially is a dedicated passenger jet for USAFE, do you have asense in the last month, how often it flew? They must not have much demandthere for a plane this large ferrying people around? What about crewproficiency? How come this wasn't the 89th?

A: Well, this is an airplane which is used extensively in Europe. I'm veryfamiliar with the utilization of the aircraft. There are teams that movearound. It supports not just Air Force, but other people as well, so it getsgood utilization. In fact, this particular aircraft had about 17,000 flyinghours -- that particular aircraft did. It had -- in terms of 737s of a similarage, they're up to between 30 and 50,000 hours. So it wasn't a high timeaircraft. Their plane had been through a full inspection, full maintenanceinspection in June of '95, a total maintenance inspection, it has had a seriesof them since then. But the aircraft's been used in Europe routinely and thisis not an issue of crew [proficiency], I do not believe. Okay, now, this is,again, I promised I wouldn't speculate, but knowing how these aircraft areoperated, I can't believe that lack of flying would be a problem with thisaircraft.

Q: Could you explain why it isn't the 89th, the people... you would think thathigh officials always fly with the 89th out of Andrews? How come they weren'tinvolved here and it was a USAFE asset?

A: Yes. I can't tell you why that's the case. The 89th does thelong-distance haul for dignitaries like Secretary Brown -- a cabinet member anda party like he had with him -- but in terms of making the shorter flights thatthey are making into places like Tuzla, and some of the other stops, they weremaking, it was obviously determined this was a better aircraft to do it with.Yes, sir?

Q: Any information as to whether this crew had flown into Dubrovnik prior tothis flight?

A: I'm sorry, sir, I can't give you the answer.

Q: Do we know the estimated time of impact to the estimated time of when thefirst Croatians -- whoever that might have been -- arrived?

A: Again, I don't have the specifics of that yet. We will get that. But wejust, you know, we're talking an awful long distance away. I wish I could tellyou exactly what happened and what the sequence of events were in terms ofpeople arriving on the scene, the information just is not available yet. And,right now, our primary concern is getting rescue people up there to assist anysurvivors.

Q: Was this plane carrying a flight data recorder or a cockpit voice recorderthat will help you figure out what happened?

A: It would be standard thing to have that in this type of an aircraft. Ithink you can assume that that sort of thing -- a flight data recorder, acockpit voice recorder as there are in commercial airliners -- also is in thisaircraft.

Q: The ground proximity warning system, was that on?

A: I can't tell you that for sure, whether that was [inaudible].

Q: In what direction was the plane flying? And you told us where the crashsite was, but what was its direction at the time it landed? Can you tell usthat?

A: I have no idea. I just don't know yet.

Q: The Air Force told us earlier that it did not have a C-V-R or an F-D-R onthis, it did not?

A: Then, I've got to back off and say, if the Air Force has already told youthat, it's their aircraft.

 

Q: Which begs the question, why not?

A: Well, you're asking me, unfortunately, questions I can't answer.

Q: On the report of a survivor, do you have any other details at all as towhether it was a man or woman or a passenger or crew?

A: I don't. And I don't want to speculate at this time. And, again,because it's an unconfirmed report. I wish I could confirm this were true, butI can't do it standing here, today. We just don't have that kind ofinformation.

Q: [inaudible] details that you have?

A: I have given you everything that I know of in terms of unconfirmedreports, because you have a right to know what we are hearing as unconfirmedreports. As soon as these things can be confirmed, it will be made availableto you.

Q: Looking at your command pilot wings, commercial 737s are having someproblems: a couple of crashes last year, engine failure, and/or jamming of anelevator could throw an aircraft off -- even that distance. If you say thatyou're pretty convinced that it's not pilot error that leaves two things: actof God; or mechanical error. What's your feeling?

A: Well, you're asking me to speculate. Don't misread me. I'm not sayingit wasn't pilot error. I don't know what it was, that's not my job to standhere, a very short time after the accident, and try to speculate. It's a bigmistake to do that, that's what an accident board is designed to do. Let'swait and see what they come up with.

Q: Do you expect to be able to get search and rescue personnel theretonight?

A: Absolutely. I think that's a distinct possibility and like I said, itmay have happened by now. As soon as we get confirmation, we'll give youupdates as we go through the rest of the afternoon. I'll take one more backhere.

Q: Have you had problems with the T-43 before, similar to the commercial737?

A: I don't want to speculate on that because, if we have, I'm, personally,unaware of it. I think if there were anything -- me being in the position I'min, in Operations and the Joint Staff, I would have been aware of it, but Iknow of no problems -- no reports of any problems with the T-43 aircraft.Thank you very much.