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
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
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
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
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
Since no other airline in this hemisphere uses Soviet-made aircraft, Cubana
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
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.
not normal. . . . The plane never got off the ground.''
Cuban officials told Dominguez the jetliner was built in December 1985
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
obligatory maintenance procedures,'' he said.
Cubana Airlines' fleet of aged Tupolev and other Soviet-made aircraft has
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
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
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
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
everything was quiet,'' said Jorge Guzman, 27, a local resident.
Herald staff writer Juan O. Tamayo contributed to this report.