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THE SITUATION ROOM
New Twists in the Disappearance of Flight 370; Families: Missing Passengers Phones Still Ring; Dramatic Confrontation at Ukraine Checkpoint
Aired March 11, 2014 - 17:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Jake, thanks very much.
Happening now, the mystery of Flight 370 -- way off course. We have stunning new details on the disappearance of that Malaysia Airlines jet. Radar data indicating it veered far from its flight path and was in the air far longer than anyone thought.
Why did the plane's transponders stop sending ID codes?
If someone turned them off, does that raise the odds of terrorism?
And relatives of the missing passengers say they've called their loved one's cell phones and instead of going straight to voice mail, the phones continue to ring.
So what does that tell us?
I'm Wolf Blitzer.
You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Extraordinary new twists in the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Malaysian officials now say the plane was hundreds of miles off course and flying in the wrong direction when last tracked.
Here are the latest developments.
According to a radar data, Flight 370 inexplicably veered from its scheduled flight path, essentially reversing course. It flew for another hour after contact was lost. The airliner stopped sending the identifying transponder codes before it disappeared, which could mean a catastrophic power failure or someone turned off the devices to disguise the plane's route.
The Malaysian Air Force last tracked the plane over a tiny island in the Strait of Malacca, far from its course, and over a different body of water from the main search effort.
Our correspondents will bring you the kind of coverage that only CNN can deliver.
We begin with CNN's Andrew Stevens.
He's in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia -- Andrew, why did it take four days to find this critical information out?
ANDREW STEVENS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That is absolutely the key question here in KL, Wolf. We're going into day five now. And remember, we're getting this information about this -- the plane turning around unofficially. It's from a very senior member within the Malaysian Air Force. But the official line still is they're not really commenting on it.
They've talked about it as a theory. It has now been confirmed to us.
They're obviously acting on it and they have been acting on it. So in the last two days, there have been U.S. warships looking in the area around the Strait of Malacca. This is still a big body of water. They also haven't found anything yet.
And also, we are hearing that the Malaysian government is really starting to focus that search now. It's got a lot of assets at its disposal. It's something like 45 surface vessels, plus another 37 planes. The focus of the search now shifting to that tiny lump of rock. It's called Pulau Perak. It's about halfway between Malaysia and Indonesia, the island of Sumatra.
So that is where the focus is going to be.
But to your question, it's still very difficult to understand why they have withheld this information, given they would have seen it when it happened, in real time.
BLITZER: So tell our viewers what we've learned today, the enormity of this development.
BLITZER: I think we've lost contact with Andrew, but we will reconnect with Andrew and get back to him.
But, obviously, a very, very dramatic development today. We're going to have a full recap from Kuala Lumpur in a few moments.
But let's take a closer look right now at this perplexing track the missing airliner seems to have taken.
Tom Foreman is joining us with more on this part of the story -- Tom.
TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, hi, Wolf.
And we've been looking at this. This new information has also simultaneously made the search better in that they have a different idea where to search, and much more complicated, because it is so much bigger.
Look at the search areas and how this is typically done. They were focused over here. Now they've had to add this and add this. Searches like this are typically done, as you would know, by basically gridding it off like this and then having planes fly over every square block methodically searching, both electronically and physically, to see if they can see anything. This takes a tremendous number of aircraft and a lot of time, because they have to do it at a piece at a time, grind it all away.
The Air France plane that went down over the Atlantic, they had debris in the water that they spotted very soon in that and yet the search area was more than 124,000 square miles. And they knew where to look.
In this case, you're talking about a much, much bigger area.
It's also complicated, Wolf, because now you're talking about terrain. It went out over land out here. And you have to wonder about how dense all of this is, how hard it is to find anything in that. And bear in mind, this plane was traveling around 560 miles an hour. It had enough fuel to go for seven hours -- seven hours. We don't know that it would be at the end, where we have it marked here. The last part to look at in all of this, Wolf, that I think is important, water depth. The area where it went down here, it's not terribly, terribly deep, if, in fact, the plane was last spotted here and went down here. But it's one of the busiest shipping channels in the world. There would be a tremendous amount of traffic. And it could take a long time, with all of that noise, to hear the pinging of the flight data recorders.
It is a really an immense task, Wolf, and it just got a lot more complicated.
BLITZER: Yes, and certainly there's been absolutely no sign of any debris, at least so far. And this is day four of this tragedy.
Tom Foreman, thanks very much.
So was the airliner's transponder, designed to reveal its location, intentionally turned off?
That raises a chilling scenario, as laid out by the former NTSB managing director, Peter Goelz.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
PETER GOELZ, FORMER MANAGING DIRECTOR, NATIONAL TRANSPORTATION SAFETY BOARD: You have to have a very deliberative process to turn the transponder off. And if someone did that in the cockpit, they were doing it to disguise the route of the plane.
I mean there might still be mechanical explanations on what was going on, but those mechanical explanations are narrowing quickly.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: All right, let's dig a little bit deeper with our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, our CNN law enforcement analyst, the former FBI assistant director, Tom Fuentes, and Anthony Roman, a former commercial pilot.
Do you agree, Tom, with Peter Goelz, that mechanical issue may be a little bit more difficult to come to that conclusion, given what we now know from the Malaysian Air Force?
TOM FUENTES, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: I think so, Wolf, because what you're asking for is enough of a mechanical failure to shut off the equipment, the transponders and the radios, but not enough of a failure to have caused that plane to come right down and crash down on the spot. The other thing, as Tom Foreman just raised, that plane could be in the air for seven hours at 560 miles per hour. So that plane could travel another 3,000 miles in that direction.
So my question would be, to the technicians, did it go off the radar because it lost altitude and went down in the water at that location, the new location, or did it just exceed the distance of their coverage and keep on going?
Could it have gone into Indonesia, the next major land mass?
Could it overshoot and end up in the Indian Ocean?
So that would be my next question, are they sure it actually left the sky at that spot or did it keep on flying?
BLITZER: Well, let me ask Anthony Roman, the former commercial pilot.
Why would anyone want to shutdown a transponder?
And if you don't want to shut it down, then, obviously, there's got to be some mechanical problem.
ANTHONY ROMAN, FORMER PILOT: That's the question, Wolf. The only intentional reason to shut off a transponder is to become concealed.
However, it's always, always evident that there will be a primary radar return. So it's really very, very difficult to disappear from radar, unless you go to a very low altitude, which is what the early reports show in this case.
Now, the 777 has an impeccable record with redundant systems.
However, it is a machine. And all machines have single points of failure and a history of failure.
In the case of the 777, just one week ago, there was the smell of smoke in the cockpit in a British Airways flight that was crossing the Atlantic, near Shannon. It diverted from Shannon -- to Shannon from its flight path to New York. And that is currently under investigation.
In November of 2013, there was a similar problem. A British Airways flight approaching JFK after crossing the pond. The pilot reported the smell of smoke and actual smoke in the cockpit, but successfully landed the airplane.
Now, he --
BLITZER: Were the transponders shut down in those two cases?
ROMAN: Well, here's the caveat. If you are far enough over water and there is no place to land, a fire can develop very, very quickly. Now, there's an example of how that can happen. There was an MD-80 jet, which has similar systems to the 777, a similar complexity, similar redundancies. They were at the gate. It was an Egypt Air flight. And the pilot reported smoke in the cockpit. It quickly developed into a fire and they evacuated all of the personnel.
If that aircraft had been over the ocean, it would have likely lost all electrical power, many of the redundant systems on board and could have been lost.
There's an example of a Swiss Air flight going down with 229 souls on board, back in 1998, with a similar problem, fire in the cockpit.
BLITZER: All right. So let's put some perspective on this, because the director of the CIA, John Brennan, he had some intriguing comments earlier today.
Let me play some of what he said.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JOHN BRENNAN, DIRECTOR, CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE AGENCY: I think the memories of the tragedy of 9/11 have receded in the minds of many people. And this is not the time to relax, because we know that there are terrorist groups that are still determined to carry out attacks, including against -- especially against aircraft.
Clearly, this is still a mystery which is very disturbing. And until we actually can find out so where that aircraft is, we might have an opportunity to do some of the forensic analysis that will lead us in the right direction.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: At this point, you're not ruling out that it could be --
BRENNAN: No, we're not.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: -- (INAUDIBLE) terrorism?
BRENNAN: No, not at all.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: No, we're not ruling it out, not at all, he says -- Jim Sciutto, so the terrorism option is still very much on the table. They haven't ruled that out.
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Not at all. I'll tell you, right before this broadcast, as I do several times a day, I checked in with intelligence officials. And I asked them if their view of this incident has changed. Their view consistently the last several days has been we have nothing, so far, to indicate that this was a terrorist event, and that view, right before this broadcast, had not changed.
Now, you have the CIA director this morning, in public comments, saying, however, they have not ruled out terrorism as a possibility because there are just so many unanswered questions here.
And what they're doing every day, as these leads come in, is they're sniffing them out. They're checking them out. You'll remember, in the last 49 hours, we were talking about these stolen passports. They looked into those.
You'll remember that the Malaysian authorities shared with U.S. authorities some of the biometric data from those two gentlemen who we now know were Iranians, more likely trying to emigrate to Europe than anything tied to terrorism.
But they did check out that lead. They checked those identities in their biometrics against the U.S. terror database and found there were no links to terrorists. So that's the mode they're in. You know, they're open-minded, in effect. They can't close things out because no one has determined, at this point, what brought this plane down.
But, just as a caution, they haven't found anything, intelligence officials tell me, to indicate yet that this was terrorism.
But, you know, they've got to keep looking, because there are so many unanswered questions. And one of the key answered questions will be when they find that wreckage, because they'll want to look at that wreckage to see if there's anything to indicate terrorism.
BLITZER: Well, they flew for an hour, Anthony Roman, after they made that U-turn, according to the Malaysian Air Force.
If there were some mechanical problems, smoke in the cockpit or whatever, why no mention, why no communication, why no alert signal, mayday, SOS?
Why was there total silence coming from the cockpit?
ROMAN: Fires are insidious, Wolf. And they can spread very rapidly and knock out multiple systems very quickly.
The other question is the question of the security at the airports, particularly in Malaysia, but globally, as well.
We all know by recent history that security at major international airports is not what it should be.
A couple of very quick examples that could raise the question of terror in this particular case.
In Brussels just last year, there was a $300 million diamond burglary within the airport aircraft operations area. Three vans, the criminals drove them, right through an airport fence, crossed two active runways, held the pilots and the armored car guards at gunpoint. No security, no police response. They actually escaped and were not captured until approximately three or four months later.
Similar examples in the New York and metropolitan area at major airports. Newark International Airport had an intoxicated man breach a $100 million perimeter security system, climb over the fence onto the active runways before --
BLITZER: All right --
ROMAN: -- he was stopped.
BLITZER: So there there's potential problems on that front -- Tom, you and I were talking earlier about the possibility of a hijacking, someone getting into that cockpit.
Explain what that theory potentially could be.
FUENTES: Potentially, Wolf, the pilots flew that plane another hour, hour-and-a-half, after it changed directions.
Did they do it because they wanted to do it?
Did they do it because a mechanical reason forced them to do it, to try to return to base?
Or did somebody cause them to make that turn-around and threaten them and tell them to shut off the transponders and fly away?
You know, an act of terrorism doesn't just require an explosive device on the aircraft. The aircraft itself can be a device of terrorism, as we saw in 9/11.
So, you know, you really can't rule out anything. And nor has it been ruled out in this matter from the beginning.
I think John Brennan's answer about the possibility of terrorism is no different today than it would have been three days ago. When an airplane mysteriously falls out of the sky, the first thing you think of is mechanical or terrorism, the first two things you think of. So -- so nothing has been ruled out yet and nothing has been ruled in, really.
BLITZER: The investigation continues. The mystery continues at the same time. Tom Fuentes, Anthony Roman, Jim Sciutto, guys, thank you.
Just ahead, what they're seeing in the search area, we're going to talk live with an officer aboard one of the U.S. ships.
We'll also try to clear up a question many of the passengers' relatives have been asking, why did their loved one's cell phones seem to ring before going to voicemail hours after the plane disappeared?
BLITZER: Some relatives of the missing passengers say they've called their loved ones' cell phones and instead of going straight to voice mail, the phones continue to ring. So, what, if anything, does that tell us? Joining us now, technology industry analyst and "E-Commerce Times" columnist, Jeff Kagan. Jeff, thanks very much for coming in. So, what should these loved ones conclude if it's still ringing instead of immediately going to voicemail?
JEFF KAGAN, TECHNOLOGY INDUSTRY ANALYST: This is one of the sad parts about the technology. The way the cell phone network works, it's not connecting with a phone. You have to remember, what's happening is when you place a phone call on a wireless phone, you place the call, you press send. What happens is you start hearing ringing, but the other phone isn't ringing yet. If the network has to find the phone and then they have to send the call there.
If it doesn't find the phone after a few minutes, after a few rings, then typically, it disconnects and that's what's happening. So, they're hearing ringing and they're assuming it's connecting to their loved ones, but it's not. It's the network sending a signal to the phone letting them know it's looking for them.
Now, my wife and I have cell phones. We're on different networks. When my wife calls me on her cell phone and then I answer on the first ring, she says, I've been ringing for three or four, five times, and I said I've only heard it ring once. Those extra rings were the networks trying to talk to each other and find me. And that's just here in the United States and that's just here in Atlanta.
If you've got phones that are connected to different networks, you've got phones that are connected in other countries, one country and another country trying to communicate with each other, it adds time.
BLITZER: So, some people have tweeted me and said in order for the phones to keep on ringing, the phone has to be either on land, near some cell tower or not far off of land a few miles into the water. What do you make of that?
KAGAN: And the battery has to be able to last -- most smartphone batteries don't last more than a day or two. You know, traditional cell phones could last longer. I'm not going to say that this is not going to -- that there's no survivors. I'm not going to say I have no idea what's happening with the plane. But all I'm going to say is that just because you're getting ringing, just because the signs that we see on these cell phones, that's no proof that there's any -- that's just the way the networks work.
BLITZER: Shouldn't draw any conclusions?
KAGAN: No, unfortunately, not.
BLITZER: Jeffrey Kagan, good explanation. Thanks for clarifying that for us.
KAGAN: Thanks, Wolf.
BLITZER: A somber seen in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. Dozens are gathering to pray for the missing passengers and their relatives. The group lit candles, forming the words "pray for MH-370." One person there said it's important to have hope for the sake of the families. There you see them lighting the candles.
If you're just joining us, we're going to examine today's stunning clues about the missing Malaysian airliner. We're also going to show you how you can use your own computer to help in the search. We're also making contact with U.S. officer aboard one of the U.S. search vessels in the region. He's going to tell us what they're seeing right now. Lots coming up. Stay with us. You're in the SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: So, how is it possible for an airliner to just disappear? And why is it so difficult to find a crash site? Some extraordinary technology is being put to the test right now. Our own Brian Todd has been looking into that technology. Brian, tell our viewers what you're seeing.
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, from military aircraft with infrared capability to a website that you and I can go on to help in this search, the effort to find Malaysia Airlines flight 370 is very high tech and has global reach. That's crucial now since the plane's own technology seems to have been completely shut down.
TODD (voice-over): In the digital age when we've got GPS in our cell phones and cars, how do you lose an airplane? Malaysia Airlines flight 370 also had GPS and a transponder sending signals from the cockpit to air traffic control. The jet was tracked by radar. But now that we know the transponder signal was not operational when the plane disappeared --
BILL MCCABE, AVIATION SAFETY CONSULTANT: It's not going to do anything anymore. You know, once it's gone off, it's not going to come back on. From a GPS standpoint, all that is is mainly for the aircraft to know where it is, you know, for the pilots to know where they are. There's not something inherent in the GPS that says, here I am, over here.
TODD: This is now a high-tech search. Pentagon officials tell CNN the navy is using MH-60 helicopters, at least one P3 Orion plane in the air, along with 34 planes and 40 ships from ten other countries. The U.S. aircraft have electro-optical infrared sensors that can detect movement. The Pentagon won't say if it's using military satellites, but safety consultant, William McCabe, believes they are using those satellites, taking some very high-res photos.
MCCABE: They can be very precise right down to a size of car or less than that that they needed be (ph). So, you can see doors or wings or engines or something like that. They also have the capability of using the maritime or the navy assets using sonar.
TODD: And the public is being pulled in to a high-tech search through crowd sourcing, getting a service by enlisting large groups of people online. DigitalGlobe, a company which operates commercial imaging satellites is using satellites to take high-res pictures of the area where the Malaysia Airlines jet might have gone down. They're inviting anyone to go on to their platform called Tomnod to view the pictures. More than 25,000 people logged on the first day to help search.
SHAY HAR-NOY, SENIOR DIRECTOR, DIGITALGLOBE: They see small segments of the satellite image in an incredibly zoomed-in fashion. They are then invited to drop tags and pins where they see either a boat, an oil slick, an area with debris.
TODD: Now, on the back end when DigitalGlobe collects a certain volume of reliable tags in one area of a picture, they share that with authorities. They've gotten about a million page views per hour. The traffic has been so heavy the websites have difficulty staying up. Wolf, it seems like millions of people around the world want to help in the search and are doing it.
BLITZER: But Brian, how can they verify that the people tagging something have legitimately seen something with that many people participating, some will certainly be unreliable.
TODD: Absolutely, Wolf. You know, when you're pulling from that many people, there are going to be some unreliable sightings. DigitalGlobe people say on their end, they have these ways of identifying who's reliable and who's not, what's going on in a particular image. They have these algorithms, computer programs that can look at overlap regions of a picture where people are dropping a lot of tags and seeing what images people agree on.
They kind of -- you know, they cross reference all of it and have a matrix there and that's how they can pinpoint an area where there might be something.
BLITZER: Brian Todd reporting for us, thanks very much.
You can log on, by the way, and help the search effort by going to our Web site and clicking the link at CNN.com/SITUATIONROOM.
Two U.S. Navy destroyers are among the dozens of ships searching for the missing airliner. The USS Pinckney and the USS Kidd, they have helicopters which can extend the search range and sophisticated monitoring equipment.
Joining us by phone right now is Commander William Marks of the U.S. Navy's Seventh Fleet. He's aboard the USS Blue Ridge.
Commander, we spoke yesterday.
Quick question, when were you told to stop searching in the area where the initial search was going on and move over to the Straits of Malacca?
CMDR. WILLIAM MARKS, U.S. NAVY: Hello.
Well, it was actually two days ago we had our P-3 fly over the Strait of Malacca there. And just to give you some context, that P-3 saw in the vicinity of 6,000 to 8,000 square nautical miles of water.
We did not find anything, no debris, no sign of a wreckage. So it was about two days we flew over there. Yesterday, we shifted a little bit over the Strait of Malacca and then the rest over the Gulf of Thailand. And I don't have today's assignment yet. It's about -- it's 5:30 in the morning over here.
BLITZER: Did the Malaysian air force tell you about that U-turn and that you should maybe now take a look at the strait over there, this new area? Did they give you the explanation why you should shift the search location?
MARKS: We did get reports of that potential U-turn and that is why we did shift from the Gulf of Thailand over the west to the Strait of Malacca. We did get reports of that. We knew why we were over there. But, once again, nothing found, and that was the search two days ago.
BLITZER: Over these past several days, four days now, you have absolutely seen nothing of any debris, no pings, basically no nothing, right?
MARKS: Yes, that's correct.
And, like I say, it's not a matter of if we could see something. We certainly can. We have picked up small wooden crates on our radar. We have picked up something as small as a soccer ball or a basketball. So we can see if things are out there.
Now, this is U.S. Navy technology. Not everyone has this same technology. And I can also add the sea state is getting worse and worse. So, when we started, three days ago, it was fairly calm seas. Last night, we saw the seas spike up to four to six or even five to seven feet.
So, any helicopter, where it's down low looking visually or any of the other assets that don't have our advanced radar capabilities, they will be hindered starting today.
BLITZER: I know this is a relatively huge area that you're looking around, Commander, but could you give us a percentage of how much more of this area you have to search?
I have to tell you, the Gulf of Thailand is pretty much saturated. USS Kidd has traveled about 1,000 nautical miles since it got here, USS Pinckney about double that. The helicopters, every time they launch for a sortie, will fly about 300 to 500 miles' worth of water space. And that's not even counting our P-3, which will fly -- yesterday, it flew 12,000 nautical miles worth of searching the water space.
So, the Gulf of Thailand is pretty much saturated, the Strait of Malacca, not quite. It's harder to get things over there. So, at this point, it's a matter of just expanding the areas where we search.
BLITZER: And you're staying on this search for the time being, no plans on leaving, right?
MARKS: That's correct. We're here for as long as they need us.
BLITZER: Hey, Commander, good luck to you. Good luck to all the men and women in the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps who are with you right now.
MARKS: Thank you.
BLITZER: Thank you very much, Commander Williams Marks on board the USS Blue Ridge, the command ship in the area.
Still ahead, a CNN crew rides along on one of the planes looking for debris from the missing airliner, plus a close look at data recorders that are on every airliner. They may be able to solve this mystery if -- if they can be located.
BLITZER: If you're just joining us, there are stunning new developments in the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.
At this point, they raise more questions than they answer, and the incredible mystery is deepening.
CNN's Rene Marsh is putting it all together for us -- Rene.
RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, these new report raises one or several critical questions, one of them being, what was going on in the cockpit?
This plane reportedly went hundreds of miles off course. Its transponder was off, and pilots never communicated a word to anyone. There is no good reason for the plane's transponder to be off. It's a layer a protection that tells air traffic control the plane's location, altitude, and speed.
There's only two reasons that piece of equipment would be turned off: Someone wanted to hide that critical flight information or mechanical failure.
MARSH (voice-over): This was the last known location of Flight 370 over the South China Sea, as civilian aviation radar suggests, but now a dramatic new turn of events.
A Malaysian military source tells CNN their radar shows the plane may have still been flying an hour and 10 minutes later. Instead of being off the east coast of Malaysia, it apparently turned the opposite direction and flew to the Malacca Strait, west of the peninsula.
Why was the plane flying in the opposite direction, and why would the transponders in the plane's cockpit that civilian aviation authorities use to track it turn off?
PETER GOELZ, FORMER MANAGING DIRECTOR, NATIONAL TRANSPORTATION SAFETY BOARD: You have to have a very deliberative process to turn the transponder off. And if someone did that in the cockpit, they were doing it to disguise the route of the plane.
MARSH: Malaysian police are looking at four areas, hijacking, sabotage, psychological, or personal problems with the passengers or crew.
Here's what we know. If the plane was where the military tracked it, it was nearly 1,000 miles from where it should have been en route to Beijing.
GOELZ: Was there someone unauthorized in the cockpit, ordered the transponder turned off, ordered the plane to fly a 90-degree turn off course? Second is, did one of the pilots do it themselves?
MARSH: Malaysian officials have been asked about in-flight protocol and say cockpit doors are always kept closed during a flight.
But one woman told an Australian news magazine the co-pilot of the missing plane allowed her and a friend in the cockpit in 2011. They say they were in the cockpit for takeoff and landing and were invited to spend time with the co-pilot in Kuala Lumpur. An airline statement says they were shocked by the allegations and unable to confirm the authenticity of the photos.
Aviation authorities could be looking at many other possibilities besides a criminal act. Could the pilots have been incapacitated due to loss of oxygen? Could there have been some sort of massive mechanical failure, or could the military radar have tracked something else besides this missing plane?
MARSH: And that something else could be another plane.
Military radar doesn't provide identifying information, so it is not definitive that what showed up on their radar was actually the missing plane. Now, after speaking to several people in the industry, they all agree it appears something happened in the cockpit. The plane did undergo maintenance 10 days before it vanished, and it checked out without any issues, so they say the mechanical theory issue is hard to see -- Wolf.
BLITZER: It's hard to see. All right, thanks very much, Rene, for that.
Critical to helping determine what happened to this missing flight, the data recorders, if they are ever found.
CNN national correspondent Suzanne Malveaux got a chance to look inside some of these.
Suzanne, give us the details.
SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the typical Boeing 777, it has two recorders. You have got the cockpit data recorder and the flight data recorder. Now, both are located in the tail of the plane, and that is where it's less likely to get damaged. Getting to these devices is critical now. That is because, despite the durability, it's all about how quickly investigators can find them.
MALVEAUX (voice-over): How could Malaysia Air Flight 370's transponder fail and the aircraft veer so wildly off course? The cockpit voice and flight data recorders will tell us.
(on camera): It surprisingly looks kind of primitive. What does it do?
ROGER CONNOR, SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION: It essentially has an armored shell, and even within that, there is what you might call an armored bathtub that houses the memory chips that record all the flight data.
MALVEAUX (voice-over): The crucial last 30 minutes of conversation between the pilots is captured on one device, the aircraft's altitude, speed, direction, and hundreds of other parameters measured on the other.
CONNOR: On the front of the box, we see a radio beacon that allows the box to be located after a crash. This is housing the solid state memory chips that are recording all the flight data. So, that's the critical part of the unit that needs to be salvaged after an accident.
MALVEAUX: The so-called black box is an older, but similar version of the Malaysian plane's recorders. The newer models are about half the size and collect more than 1,000 pieces of data. What makes them so unique is their ability to survive just about anything.
CONNOR: The box is designed for impacts of over 3,400 g's. This is about 7,000 times what would be a fatal car accident for a human, so incredible impact. In terms of temperature, it's designed to withstand temperatures over 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit for short durations. So, this would cover scenarios where it's sitting in the middle of burning jet fuel for -- for an hour or so.
MALVEAUX: What is more likely critical for the Malaysian Airline is the recorder's ability to withstand the tremendous pressure from the depths of the sea.
(On camera): The technology has come a long way. Now aircraft of this like this Boeing from 1954 didn't have flight data recorders. It was shortly after the start of the jet age that they became common. Aircrafts like the Concord which had a major accident benefit from the advanced technology.
(Voice-over): But the problem is getting to the recorders fast enough to make them useful. The box emits a signal or beacon in fresh or salt water, from as deep as 20,000 feet below. But the battery often runs out in just 30 days. For the Air France flight that went down in the Atlantic in 2009, it took searchers two years to find the data recorders because they were far from the wreckage.
MALVEAUX: So the technology is improving now, Wolf. They are efforts under way to increase the battery life of these recorders' beacons from 30 days to 90 days to give those searchers more time to find them. The industry is also adding cameras that go outside of the plane so that when the recorders are found, they've got a visual or a video of what was taking place outside of the aircraft at the time of distress -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Good report. Suzanne Malveaux, working the story for us. Thank you.
Coming up at the top of the hour, we're going to have a SITUATION ROOM special report. The mystery of Flight 370. We'll update you on all of today's developments, including those surprising new details that we have learned.
Coming up here, up next, Russian forces tightening their grip on a vital part of the Ukraine only days ahead of an event that could make the crisis even worse.
BLITZER: We'll get back to the breaking news coverage. The mysterious disappearance of Flight 370 in just a moment or so. But first another major story we're following, the escalating crisis in Ukraine.
Secretary of State John Kerry warning the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, in a phone call any further escalation could make diplomacy more difficult. That's amid concerns Russian forces are tightening their hold on Crimea right now.
Also a rare public appearance from the ousted Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, claiming he's still in charge of Ukraine.
VICE News reporter Simon Ostrovsky is joining us on the phone now. He's in Crimea, he's been doing some extraordinary reporting there for us and for others.
Simon, you had a dramatic confrontation today with Russian checkpoint officers. Let me play a little clip of your report.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SIMON OSTROVSKY, REPORTER, VICE NEWS: (Speaking in Foreign Language) Are we allowed to go in to film?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Speaking in Foreign Language) Who are you?
OSTROVSKY: (Speaking in Foreign Language) Press. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Speaking in Foreign Language) What kind? Let me see your I.D.
OSTROVSKY: (Speaking in Foreign Language) My I.D.?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Speaking in Foreign Language) Yes. Yours too.
OSTROVSKY: (Speaking in Foreign Language) Just a second.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Speaking in Foreign Language) Sir, have your I.D. ready.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Speaking in Foreign Language) Hey, hey, we're leaving. We're leaving.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Speaking in Foreign Language) Stand still. I said stand still. I'll shoot to kill.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Tells you to stand still or I'll shoot to kill. What happened next, Simon?
OSTROVSKY: After that, well, we were very lucky because our cameraman, one of the cameramen, managed to run away. And the other two of us, myself and the camera B guy, we were led away back to the checkpoint with our arms twisted behind our backs. We were questioned for five minutes or about 10 minutes. They took our cameras off of us. Made us erase the card. Looked through our documents and accused us essentially of being armed because they were -- they need an excuse for using the kind of methods that they used against us.
It was pretty scary, I have to be honest. And thinking back, you know, in the video which on vicenews.com I say that I think the reason they let us go is because I'm American and the cameraman was British. But I think the real reason is because our other cameraman got away and got it all on film because other activists from Ukraine who have been coming through that same checkpoint, they have been grabbed there and held incommunicado for three days. So I think we were very lucky.
BLITZER: You were -- also got a chance to film and look at some Ukrainian Army positions, including in an armored vehicle. Let me play this clip.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
OSTROVSKY: So this is the inside of a Soviet built armored personnel carrier. A pretty heavy machine gun over here. A lot of ammunition. And all this pointed at Crimea.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Are these Ukrainian military personnel ready to go up against Russia?
OSTROVSKY: They say that they are. They say that they'll follow whatever orders they're given. They also say that they want to try to avoid a confrontation as much as possible. And they hope that diplomacy will work. I obviously can't predict what's going to happen exactly, but having been here for the last couple of days, I feel like there is the sort of resignation among a lot of people who don't want Crimea to become part of Russia that it is going to become a part Russia.
And I think there's not really a lot that the Crimean military can do about it because it's totally outclassed by the Russian army.
BLITZER: Let me play one more clip by showing both sides really digging in in Crimea.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
OSTROVSKY: So we're here at the Ukrainian checkpoint before you get into Crimea. I think the Crimean army has just come down here in the last couple of days. They're digging in because the Russian army has brought their forces in to the Ukrainian mainland. So they're actually outside of Crimea already and then on a small peninsula jutting out of the Ukrainian mainland.
And this is a sort of no man's area between this checkpoint and the checkpoint of the Russians 12 kilometers that way.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Simon Ostrovsky, doing an amazing job on the front lines. Watching the story.
Simon, we'll check back with you tomorrow, as well.
Simon Ostrovsky from vicenews.com.
Coming up here, a SITUATION ROOM special report. The mystery of Flight 370.