LOST AT SEA
September 3, 1998
Last night, Swissair Flight 111 plunged into the ocean off the coast of Nova Scotia, leaving no survivors. After a background report, a former Federal Aviation Administration chief discusses the investigation that will try to determine what went wrong.
DAVID SMITH: This morning as navy and coast guard scoured the Atlantic off the very picturesque Peggy's Cove, Nova Scotia, bringing back everything from personal effects to plane wreckage. The Canadian authorities were still calling it a search and rescue mission. But, in reality, they'd given up any hope of finding survivors overnight. The magnitude of the disaster of Swissair Flight 111 mirrored by the human tragedy. Two hundred and twenty-nine passengers and crew, mainly American, but also French, Swiss, British, Saudi, Russian, twelve of them staff of the United Nations going back to base in Geneva.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
March 11, 1998:
The FAA orders inspection of all 737's for faulty wiring.
December 12, 1997:
NTSB Chairman Jim Hall discusses the findings from the hearings into the crash of TWA 800.
December 8, 1997:
Hearings begin into what the airline industry and the government learned from the TWA 800 disaster.
November 18, 1997:
The FBI concludes its investigation into TWA Flight 800.
July 16, 1997:
A year later the details of what felled TWA Flight 800, killing all 230 passengers on board, remain uncertain.
November 19, 1996:
Newsmaker interview with James Kallstrom FBI Assistant Director in charge of the criminal investigation.
September 19, 1996:
Investigators have yet to determine what caused the plane to go down. Now, perhaps, the investigation is taking a new turn.
July 18, 1996:
The beginning of NewsHour coverage of the crash of TWA Flight 800 .
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of transportation.
Information on the MD-11 from the Boeing Web site.
Full coverage of the scene from the Halifax Herald in Nova Scotia.
View the homepage for the Transportation Safety Board of Canada .
U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), homepage.
JIM BUCKLEY, Search Boat Captain: Pieces of wood, pieces of foam, pieces of seat, and then you'd seea terrible smell of aviation fuel. It was very concentrated in one area. And then you'd see bodies and parts of bodies.
DAVID SMITH: Tonight it's clear that 90 minutes out of New York the pilot reported smoke in the cockpit, started dumping fuel as fast as he could, and radioed that he would make an emergency landing in Halifax. He crashed 20 miles short, nose-diving into rather stormy waters just south of Nova Scotia's provincial capital.
FRANK SKIDMORE, Canadian Investigator: Well, we'll want all the bodies recovered, and we'll want all the aircraft recovered, as much as possible, so that's we'll continue to investigate with every avenue explored as far as we can take it.
DAVID SMITH: Because of the passenger list, this is a disaster that echoes across the world. In Northern Ireland, President Clinton.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: We hope for the best, and we are deeply grieved that this has occurred.
DAVID SMITH: In Switzerland, where relatives of victims gathered at Geneva Airport.
GEORGE SCHORDERET, Swissair: Our main task in the next few hours is to keep the utmost support to the members of the families, because that's the most important for us.
An international disaster.DAVID SMITH: And, of course, in New York, where at the United Nations they ordered flags at half mast. At this stage, obviously, more questions than answers. Swissair has a fine safety record, its last major crash 19 years ago. The plane, an MD-11, the world's only modern wide cabin airliner powered by three engines, and an overhaul a year ago, the airline is saying. The cargo version of the plane did crash in New Jersey last year, but everyone board escaped safely. But significantly from Washington the Americans dispatched a team of investigators overnight, and the Clinton administration even at this early stage seems to be ruling out terrorism.
JANET RENO, Attorney General: My understanding is that all initial information indicates that it was an accident.
ROY BEARS, Canadian Investigator: My information suggests that it was smoke in the cockpit that was reported.
REPORTER: What does that tell you --
ROY BEARS: Basically nothing. There could be a large number of reasons causing smoke --
DAVID SMITH: Ahead now days, if not weeks and months of searching for clues, investigators already reporting one large piece of fuselage has been in shallow water, helpful that as they tried to rebuild the plane and a picture of what went wrong. The human cost, though, is already very clear. Among the victims, Dr. Jonathan Mann, a pioneer in the battle against AIDS, who was the first chief of the World Health Organization's special AIDS unit -- on his way to a major health conference in Geneva one name on a passenger list that now represents the worst airplane disaster in North America since the crash of TWA Flight 800 off Long Island in the summer of 1996.
Dr. Jonathan Mann
JIM LEHRER: This afternoon a Canadian transportation official was asked about reports the pilot considered landing in Boston instead of Halifax.
VIC GERDEN, Canadian Transportation Safety Board: The diversion to Halifax, instead of Boston, is, to my understanding was because Halifax was closer, so it would be normal for an air traffic controller to suggest the closest airport.
REPORTER: In the initial request for a diversion, was it not the case that the Swissair pilot asked to go to Boston and initially started to turn to Boston and then was routed to Halifax as the event progressed?
VIC GERDEN: That's my understanding. That is correct, that the pilot initially asked to be diverted to Boston, and after the diversion started, the air traffic controller indicated that Halifax was closer, and evidently the pilot must have chosen to divert to Halifax, instead of Boston.
REPORTER: What's the time here from the initial call saying smoke, to wasting time turning to go to Boston, and then turning back to Halifax? What are we talking about here, three, four minutes, six minutes?
VIC GERDEN: We haven't looked at the tapes in detail at this point, so that will be part of the investigation, to determine that the timings of the entire flight from takeoff to the crash.
REPORTER: But do we have the right order of magnitude?
VIC GERDEN: I don't know.
JIM LEHRER: Elizabeth Farnsworth in San Francisco has more.
A former FAA chief discusses the crash.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And we turn now to Michael Goldfarb, former chief of staff of the Federal Aviation Administration. He's now an aviation consultant.
Mr. Goldfarb, I want to go through this story as much as is known and get you to explain some things for us. As far as we know, the first sign of trouble was smoke in the cockpit. What could cause that smoke?
MICHAEL GOLDFARB, Former Chief of Staff, FAA: Well, first of all, Elizabeth, today is a tragedy truly of global aviation and transportation proportions. And the first priority clearly is search and rescue. We've always cautioned about speculation. Speculation not only invariably turns out to be wrong, it also can divert very precious investigative resources to the wrong kinds of issues. So with that caveat, we don't know. We have only questions and not answers. I think, as the report said, smoke can be caused from a multitude of factors, simple things from an air conditioning duct to electrical wiring, to an internal explosion or an external explosion, to cargo hold. We're all familiar with the ValuJet crash several years back where we had oxygen and generators in the cargo hold. That has since been prohibited from being transported in or out of the United States. So it is just so early that smoke in and of itself.
You know, crashes thankfully are so rare, and they're so tragic because numbers of things come together simultaneously. It's never one thing. It's a series of things. And already in this report you're hearing smoke in the cockpit, landing in Boston. What was the nature of the emergency? Was it a mayday emergency, or was it a request to land? And, in that case, Boston could have said, well, you know, perhaps given traffic flows, you may want to consider going elsewhere. So we know that it wasn't a catastrophic emergency until the end. And all these questions will have to be answered. Unfortunately, the public need to know the answers don't always coincide with the investigation, itself the timetable.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: As we just heard, the investigators seem to have ruled out terrorism. How can they rule it out, or seem to rule it out this early?
MICHAEL GOLDFARB: Well, I really couldn't comment on that, and I know that we ruled in a bomb on TWA 800 and spent a long time chasing that factor and turned out, in fact, to be mechanical failure we believe, the center fuel tank. So it's so premature to rule in or rule out anything, but I guess from the behavior of the aircraft, the fact that the crew had smoke in the cockpit. They dumped fuel, which is normal procedures. They sought an alternative airport to land, which is normal procedures. And then something at 10,000 feet happened and went wrong. And that's all we know. And we don't know why. Having victims with life preserves on kind of indicates it wasn't sudden and catastrophic, that they knew they were in an emergency situation, so we just don't know.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I understand that you can't speculate. Somebody on the ground said that the engine was "making the worst sounding deep groan I've ever heard." Does that tell you anything?
The next step: looking at multiple factors that may have caused the crash.
MICHAEL GOLDFARB: Not necessarily. I mean, it oftentimes there are sounds that, you know, sound strange in normal conditions, if you're not used to those kind of sounds -- I mean, whether the it's engine failure. What the Canadian board is going to do, the investigators, with the help of the U.S. NTSB, is going to break it into pieces, and they're going to say, okay, let's look at the weather. Well, we know Hurricane Danielle was offshore, was that a factor, probably not, but that needs to be examined. Let's look at structure. We know the aircraft had a major overhaul, literally taking it apart, putting it back together, looking at wires, looking at structure, looking at systems, only a year ago. It's a new aircraft. But they'll look at structural issues; they'll look at human factors. Was there something happening in the cockpit that might have diverted the attention of the crew? Was smoke a factor in judgment made about how to handle emergency procedure? And they'll look at air traffic control. Unlike TWA of two years ago, we may be more fortunate in two ways. One, we have tape between ground control and the cockpit, which should be very useful to finding a potential cause, and certainly the so-called "black boxes." The MD-11, a newer version, has a very modern black box. And that simply means it gets lots of information, unlike older aircraft, whether it be TWA or ValuJet. And that information is going to tell you everything going on in that aircraft, if they can find it. So we're hopeful that between those kinds of things we won't have that protracted period where we spend month dredging the ocean floor, with no real clues.
Important clues in the airplane's black box?
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Are they likely to find the black box? It's apparently between seventy-five and a hundred and fifty feet deep in the water under the water.
MICHAEL GOLDFARB: It's pretty amazing what they've been able to do. I mean, literally both ValuJet, which when you look at the picture, was under the swamp, and this crash too, most of the wreckage is down deep, the rescue capabilities and the use of sonar are pretty remarkable, and literally bringing up the plane and piecing it together, we're hopeful that they will find those boxes, and they're key to the investigation.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Goldfarb, have there been advances in the investigatory techniques and the various elements that you use to make investigations just because of the most recent crashes?
MICHAEL GOLDFARB: I can't answer that specifically. I would imagine that what we saw in TWA 800 was that the navy was using state of the art technology in the search on the ocean floor. The NTSB and, I believe, the Canadians as well have very sophisticated equipment in their labs to look at this. And remember now they're going to be calling in the manufacturer, Boeing, which now owns McDonnell-Douglas, as well as the Swiss authorities. It will truly be a global search until we find out what brought down the aircraft.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And what about the what's been learned from the recent crashes in how to deal with families, how to help families cope with this? Has there been something learned in that?
MICHAEL GOLDFARB: Difficult lessons learned, and we go back to the Lockerbie situation. It's a double -- one can only imagine the pain and grief of the accident, itself, and then running into bureaucracy, or people not knowing how to inform people about things. That has been one of the lessons learned, both from the Lockerbie crash, from TWA, and from ValuJet, that you can bet that the authorities, both of the airline industry and of the investigative bodies, their first thoughts are right now are the families and making sure that their needs are taken care of.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Swissair has had a rather good safety record, hasn't it?
MICHAEL GOLDFARB: Yes. It's puzzling. I mean, Swissair is a good air carrier, a very strong safety, maintenance. The airline the aircraft is a good aircraft. No particular government notices called air worthiness directives that would indicate these kind of problems. And the crew was experienced crew, with lots of flight time, so it's truly it is puzzling, and it really from an aviation standpoint is a huge aviation tragedy, to have this kind of thing happen.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The plane has advanced automatic system controls that significantly reduce pilot error, according to some of the information put out. Tell us about that.
Advanced technology, but still a need for piloting skills and experience.
MICHAEL GOLDFARB: Well, you know, it's interesting, with all the automation that we have in the cockpit, we're going in two directions. One is we have lots of technology that's making -- literally helping pilots see and handle aircraft in bad weather or when terrain is upon them and they don't have landing aids. That's the good news. That bad news is that there's nothing there's nothing like piloting skills. And so technology is not alone going to handle this. And what we're finding is that crews need to actually have the experience of handling an aircraft. Many of today's pilots have never had an engine out in their entire careers. And so we need to go both ways, not just on the technology but on the training of the pilots, and make sure that they expect the unexpected. And it truly is unexpected. It's exceedingly rare. It's safe to fly, and it is very rare to have something happen precisely because it is so many things coming together into a unique set of circumstances into a crash.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Michael Goldfarb, thanks very much for being with us.
MICHAEL GOLDFARB: Thank you.