The Miami Herald
August 31, 1998

             Probe: Pilot tried to abort doomed Cubana flight

             By TIM JOHNSON
             Herald Staff Writer

             QUITO, Ecuador -- Before horrified air traffic controllers watched a Cubana
             Airlines jetliner careen off a runway and slam into a neighborhood, killing 79
             people, they had no inkling that there was trouble aboard the aircraft.
             ``The crew maintained normal dialogue with the control tower, just the strictly
             necessary conversation of a normal takeoff,'' said Civil Aviation chief Oswaldo

             But as Ecuadorean air safety officials on Sunday probed deeper, they discovered
             that something went fatally amiss before Saturday's crash.

             Cubana pilot Mario Ramos skidded the Tupolev-154 some 2,600 feet along the
             runway in an attempt to abort the takeoff. But the 148-seat, Soviet-made plane
             smashed through a retaining wall, clipped the roof off an auto repair shop and
             erupted in a fireball, killing 69 of the 90 persons aboard and 10 others on the

             Amid the charred wreckage, heavy with the odor of jet fuel, rescuers found the
             Tupolev's two voice and flight data recorders. Dominguez said Sunday night that
             he would send the two recorders to Cuba for analysis.

             When it crashed, the Cubana Airlines flight, with 76 passengers and 14 crew
             members aboard, was leaving Quito's Mariscal Sucre Airport for Guayaquil and
             was to continue on to Havana. Most of the fatalities were Cuban crew members
             or Ecuadorean tourists headed for vacation in Cuba, although the victims included
             two Italians, a Jamaican, two Chileans and a Spaniard.

             Among the victims were two great-grandchildren of Ecuador's most renowned
             artist, painter Osvaldo Guayasamin. The youngsters, 4-year-old Alejandra Sule
             and 4-month-old Martin Sule, were also the grandchildren of Anselmo Sule,
             Chile's Radical Party leader and a former legislator. The children were traveling
             with their mother, Maita Madriñan Guayasamin, who also died.

             A small sign of trouble occurred after the flight arrived in Quito from Havana at
             10:46 a.m. The flight engineer and two mechanics worked to repair a jammed air
             valve in one of the jetliner's three turbines, Dominguez said. They reported the
             problem fixed.

             Since no other airline in this hemisphere uses Soviet-made aircraft, Cubana usually
             takes along its own Soviet-trained mechanics for repairs en route.

             What prompted the crew to brake on the runway as the Tupolev took off again at
             1:03 p.m. remains unclear.

             ``There are signs that the motors were put in reverse,'' Dominguez said.

             ``What we are trying to discover is why the crew tried to abort the takeoff. It is
             not normal. . . . The plane never got off the ground.''

             Cuban officials told Dominguez the jetliner was built in December 1985 and had
             9,256 hours of flight time. Records brought from Cuba showed adherence to all
             maintenance requirements, he added.

             ``The plane was totally in compliance. There are records of all the inspections and
             obligatory maintenance procedures,'' he said.

             Cubana Airlines' fleet of aged Tupolev and other Soviet-made aircraft has suffered
             since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Spare parts are hard to come by and must
             be paid for in scarce U.S. dollars. Havana's Jose Marti International Airport has
             several Tupolevs and other Soviet-era aircraft on the tarmac being cannibalized for

             Dominguez discarded any possibility that a bomb or other terrorist act could have
             caused the crash.

             A day after the crash, huge cranes and tractors hauled parts of the charred
             fuselage to a hangar as residents stood nearby amid twisted metal and burned

             Several residents of Quito's working-class Rosario neighborhood recounted their
             shock at seeing the jetliner barrel through a retaining wall and onto a soccer field,
             crushing 36 grazing sheep.

             ``It never took off. It just came crashing through everything,'' said Jose Sarango,
             35, a psychology student. ``People didn't die from injuries. They died from the
             explosion and fire.''

             Flames leapt some 150 feet into the air after the crumpled fuselage came to a rest
             abutting a 30-foot-high tower of approach lights. Residents sought to rescue
             passengers, but many were kept away by intense heat.

             ``The passengers were shouting, `Help!' But then the final explosion came and
             everything was quiet,'' said Jorge Guzman, 27, a local resident.

             Herald staff writer Juan O. Tamayo contributed to this report.