Fire doomed ValuJet airliner in just minutes Recording indicates crew had little time to react

June 28, 1996|By KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- The fire aboard ValuJet Flight 592 last month apparently spread so quickly that only 1 minute and 26 seconds separated the cockpit crew's warning of "smoke in the cockpit, smoke in the cabin" and the last transmission.

Tapes of the conversations between the doomed plane and air traffic controllers, released yesterday by the Federal Aviation Administration, also suggest that conditions on the burning DC-9 deteriorated so fast that Candalyn Kubeck and First Officer Richard Hazen quickly realized the aircraft might not make it back to Miami International Airport.

The plane crashed May 11 in the Florida Everglades, killing all 110 passengers and crew aboard.

The tapes show that the flight started normally enough, as Hazen contacted Miami departure air traffic control moments after takeoff at 2: 04 p.m. (ValuJet planes are nicknamed "critter" in air traffic control, for the airline's cartoon logo of a smiling airplane.)

"Afternoon, departure," Hazen radioed. "Critter 592 is out of five hundred going to five thousand."

The controller cleared 592 up to 7,000 feet.

A minute later, the controller asked 592 to change its heading. Another heading change came a minute later, followed by a new clearance up to 17,000 feet. It was now 2: 07.

Sometime during the next three minutes, Flight 592 became a nightmare.

At 2: 10, when the local air traffic control was about to hand the ValuJet flight off to controllers that handle planes bound for Atlanta, Hazen suddenly made an urgent request.

"Uh, 592 needs an immediate return to Miami," he said. The plane was less than 100 miles from Miami.

"Critter 592, uh, roger. Turn left hearing 2-7-0. Descend and maintain 7,000," the controller replied.

"2-7-0. 7,000. 592," was the curt response.

"What kind of problem are you having?" the controller asked.

"Uh, smoke in the cockpit, smoke in the cabin," Hazen reported, his voice flat.

"Roger."

Twenty seconds later, the controller gave the burning plane a new heading and a lower altitude, working to get the aircraft back to Miami quickly.

"Critter 592, uh, when able turn left heading 2-5-0. Descend and maintain 5,000."

"2-5-0. 7,000," Hazen replied, repeating the instructions but, perhaps because he was distracted, getting the altitude wrong.

The controller then contacted the Miami air traffic center.

But Miami looked too far away to the crew in Flight 592.

"Critter 592. We need, ah, the closest airport available," Hazen called, sounding more alarmed.

The controller was still trying to get the plane to Miami.

"Critter 592. They're gonna be standin' standing by for you. You can plan Runway 1-2 when able, direct to Dolphin now."

"Need radar vectors," Hazen replied, his voice even more urgent.

"Critter 592, turn left heading 1-4-0."

"1-4-0."

Those were the last words from Flight 592. The time was 2: 11: 52.

Pub Date: 6/28/96

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