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THE SITUATION ROOM

The Mystery of Flight 370; U.S. Asks Malaysia For More Transparency; Families Cry Out for Information; Why a 'Smoke-in-Cabin' Theory May Explain Missing Plane; Russia Annexes Crimea; Defies the West

Aired March 18, 2014 - 18:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now: plenty of new developments in the mystery of Flight 370, including a surprise from Thailand's military. Their radar actually spotted something that may have been the plane flying the wrong way.

We will take you inside a cockpit simulator to show you how the pilots could have reprogrammed their computer to change course.

Plus, a possible explanation that involves equipment malfunction and smoke instead of foul play. We will take a closer look at why pilots say it makes a lot of sense.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Been a day of surprising revelations, and the biggest surprise adds weight to theories someone intentionally turned the jet off-course. Thailand's military revealed its radar detected an unknown signal about six minutes after Flight 370's last known communication. If this was the signal from the missing jet, it's dramatic proof the plane turned left heading back across the Malay Peninsula and west toward the Indian Ocean.

Also, a law enforcement official tells CNN the westward turn "almost certainly," in quotes, almost certainly was programmed into the plane's onboard computer by someone in the cockpit. In another important development, the search of both pilots' e-mail and computer so far have turned up nothing suspicious, that according to U.S. officials who say they have been briefed by the Malaysians.

CNN is using its global reach to cover the story like no one else. Our correspondents and analysts, they are working their sources to bring you the very, very latest.

Our in-depth look starts this hour with our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto. He's following what we know about the pilots' computers and e-mails -- Jim.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this is an important development, because we have been looking at the pilot and the co-pilot. They're not officially suspects in the investigation but they have certainly come under public suspicion, particularly as you get more information that this turn that plane took was deliberate and under control, that someone a pilot or a co- pilot's knowledge had to make the decision to make the turn.

But now police have examined their e-mails, they have examined their homes and their computers, and crucially that flight simulator that the lead pilot, the captain of this flight had in his home. They found no evidence there of contact with extremist Web sites, for instance, no evidence on that flight simulator that he had practiced this path in advance of taking this flight, so won't exonerating evidence from that search.

The other information we got today is the radar data from Thailand, because we had already known to this point that Malaysian radar had picked up a signal from this plane along the path at three different radar way stations, in effect. Now you have Thailand which has its own radar. As you can see from the map here, it dips down into the space where the plane traveled.

It corroborates this idea that the plane, after taking this turn, carried along this path out into the Indian Ocean. The trouble of course is you get out here and you know that these arcs that we have been talking about where the last satellite data picks up, this is a very large search area. We have shown the map, the size, really more than the size of the continental United States.

It makes for a real challenge going forward.

BLITZER: It certainly does. Stand by, Jim, because we're getting some other breaking news here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

At the highest levels of government, the U.S. is encouraging Malaysia to become more transparent about what it knows.

Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr. She's got details -- Barbara.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel now has had a direct conversation with the Malaysian defense minister who also right now serves as the transportation minister. The two men, we're told, had a friendly conversation, Hagel offering his support in this unprecedented global search for the plane, but Hagel also taking the opportunity to make the point to the Malaysians about transparency.

Two officials confirm the conversation details to me, saying that Hagel took the opportunity to say to the Malaysians, good idea to be transparent, tell the world what you know when you know it, because, of course, the Malaysian government coming under a lot of scrutiny especially in the early days after that for perhaps not being very forthcoming about what they knew.

We will see if that gets better in the coming days, Wolf.

BLITZER: I spoke with the spokesman for the U.S. Navy's Seventh Fleet in the Pacific, Commander William Marks, Barbara, and he said to me the U.S. was actually doubling its capacity in the search right now. Explain what that means. STARR: Well, what Commander Marks is talking about is the Navy has had a P-3 and P-8. These are long-range maritime surveillance aircraft. They can fly very long distances over open oceans looking for debris fields.

But they're moving them down south to a certain extent, into the southern Indian Ocean. They will move around as needs dictate when they get clues about where debris fields may be. But these aircraft can respond much more rapidly and cover larger areas than ships can.

If they find a debris field, they have to move in a ship very quickly to go look at it. But these aircraft can range for hundreds and hundreds of miles. Keep in mind, Wolf, this southern Indian Ocean, you have to only look at the map to see the vast size. The Indian Ocean operation now being run by Australia and the Malaysians, 25 nations joining this coalition to look for the aircraft, a 25-nation coalition, Wolf. It's the equivalent of a major military operation.

BLITZER: It certainly is. Barbara, thank you.

Even though U.S. officials say it's likely Flight 370 crashed into the Indian Ocean, there's still a nagging fear that somehow terrorists could have seized the jet for other purposes. While those theories seem farfetched, Israelis know they're always a terror target and they're taking absolutely no chances right now.

Let's go to our CNN senior international correspondent. He's working this part of the story from Jerusalem.

Nic, Nic Robertson, what are you learning?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, as we know, Israel for many, many years has been a global leader in aviation security. But the measures they're taking now, they're taking extra steps to go further to try to identify aircraft before they get closer than they used to, to Israel's territory.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ROBERTSON (voice-over): In Israel's aviation security operations center, staff are on heightened alert. From pilots' calls to airport security, multiple information streamed are mined for anomalies.

(on camera): In this room, Israel's security hangs on minute-by- minute, second-by-second decisions about approaching aircraft. In here, the possibility of a rogue passenger jet is a permanent threat.

(voice-over): Shalom Dolev, who masterminded the center, says their system would have alerted a problem had MH370 been near their airspace.

SHALOM DOLEV, ISRAELI AVIATION SECURITY OPERATIONS CENTER: Once it would be unidentified, there's a possibility for a security background for such incident, the security incident would be announced and start to be managed. ROBERTSON: Managed by alerting the airline and air defense forces informed by the data already scoured by the data matrix at the center's core. Since flight MH370 disappeared, checks here have become more rigorous, as Dolev, sees a new threat emerging, the air crew.

DOLEV: Maybe we -- the last wing of trust was broken. And I mean the air crew.

ROBERTSON: Just four weeks ago, an Ethiopian Airlines co-pilot hijacked the passenger jet he was flying, seeking asylum in Switzerland. Three months before that, a Mozambique Airlines pilot hijacked a regional jet he was flying age, intentionally crashed the plane, killing all 33 people on board, a disturbing trend, Dolev says, that can't be ignored.

DOLEV: It's not necessarily only traditional terrorist background that were used to manage, But many different additional motives.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ROBERTSON: So before we even know all of the full facts about what happened to MH370, it appears that the security around the way that we're flying, even though we don't see it, is being changed because there's a whole new realm of threat that's being perceived out there, Wolf.

BLITZER: There's a related story. I know you have been working on a it as well. Certainly what the Israelis are up to is always important. But I take it that one theory about how the plane may have been hijacked by terrorists has now been ruled out. What can you tell us about this?

ROBERTSON: Yes, the bones of this, if you will, go back to a British al Qaeda member. He was a partner of, if you remember him, Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, the man who tried to blow up an airliner flying between Paris and Miami back in December 2001, not long after the September 11 attacks.

Now this man has given evidence against the son-in-law of Osama bin Laden who is on trial in New York at the moment. This is evidence that he agreed to give with British authorities and American authorities several years ago, but it's just becoming public.

And what is central to part of his evidence is he said when he was in an al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan in 2001, he met or was aware of a number of Malaysians who were plotting an attack on an aircraft. He said one of them was a pilot and they had even given him, the leader of the group, a shoe bomb so that they could potentially blow the door open to the cabin of the aircraft.

Now, because that information is being made public in the court right now in New York, some people are perceiving this as new. But what we have now learned from U.S. investigators is that they have been are of this for a long time, that they were aware of the plot back in 2001, that the Malaysian authorities have acted against some of the people in that plot, that some of them have been arrested even.

And what we have also learned is the man who was believed to be the pilot was far from completing his pilot training. So the thought that these Malaysians named in that evidence in a court in New York last week by this British al Qaeda member, the thought they could be involved in some action on MH370, that, Wolf, is a nonstarter.

BLITZER: Nonstarter, but it's still intriguing that Malaysians have been linked to some sort of aviation hijacking plot years ago. I'm sure a lot of people are going to studying that. Nic Robertson doing excellent reporting for us from Jerusalem.

Let's dig a little bit deeper right now. Joining us, our national security analyst Peter Bergen, the former FAA Chief of Staff Michael Goldfarb, "The New York Times" correspondent Michael Schmidt, who has been reporting on this mystery, and our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, is still with us.

The Israelis are tightening up their air defense security out of precaution. Why isn't the United States doing that?

What do we have legitimately on the facts here at all?

MICHAEL GOLDFARB, FORMER FAA CHIEF OF STAFF: We have three things we know. Took off. It was missing, and three sources, Thailand, Malaysia and Inmarsat, the satellite, identified that plane on the west. That's pretty much all we know.

This investigation lack any fidelity behind it. The facts can't be vetted. We're chasing one rumor after another. We're chasing things -- I'm sure there's good sources going on here, but I kind of feel like we're way off the reservation here on some of these things.

I think that in effect we have ruled out nothing. The pilots seem clean from the flight data simulator. We don't have much on that. Could it have been mechanical? Absolutely. The key question is. Did the all right good night signal from the co-pilot proceed or follow the flight management system being programmed, or ACARS reporting of that turn? If it followed that turn, then we have something nefarious. If it preceded it, then we are back to square one.

BLITZER: Let me ask Michael Schmidt.

Because you have been doing some excellent reporting on this for "The New York Times." Do you have the answer to that question?

MICHAEL SCHMIDT, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Just to your point about the terrorism, the FBI sources I have spoken to said if it was terrorism, it's a new paradigm. We have never seen anything like this before.

There was no chatter coming up. There's been no real talk of it amongst folks. They went back. They scrubbed the entire manifest. So if this is terrorism, it's new and it's very different. Could that be the case? Yes, of course. But to your point, there's nothing really there to back it up. CAVUTO: Right. I just want to follow up because you did some excellent reporting on the reprogramming of the flight course, if you will. When was that -- do you know when that was reprogrammed?

SCHMIDT: It was shortly before they lost contact with the ground.

BLITZER: What does that mean What does that mean in terms of this investigation?

SCHMIDT: What it does mean is that whoever programmed that had to have known how to operate inside a cockpit like that.

That could have been the pilot, that could have been someone else on there. But what it doesn't tell us is that it was taken manually by someone who just sort of grabbed control of it and took it in a different direction. So whoever did this, whoever programed it in had to have some knowledge of what they're doing.

BLITZER: And this is similar to the program. You just push seven or eight buttons and instead of going to Beijing, you can go make a left turn and head out west to the Indian Ocean. It's not that complicated, but you need some sophistication to know how to do it.

GOLDFARB: Actually, Wolf, you don't even need to use the FMS. You can simply change the heading. It's on autopilot. It's not like it's a manual control of an aircraft. It's on autopilot. You can change the heading to make the turn.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Michael, do we know how -- how do you know, how do people know it was preprogrammed inside the cockpit?

SCHMIDT: I don't know how they know inside the cockpit. But what happened was is that this was sending information down to the ground where it was taken through the ACARS system.

And that's where the information...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: They got that from the ACARS system that was still functioning.

You know, this terrorism notion, Peter, you have studied this a great deal. And Gregg Easterbrook writes an article in the "The New York Times" today on these transponders and how easy it is to just flip a switch, you turn off the transponder and then there's no communication with ground control, if you will.

"The issue today," he writes, "is exactly as it was own 9/11. Pilots like their locations to be known -- for ground assistance, and because the transponder warns other nearby planes of their course and altitude. Only a hijacker at the controls of an aircraft would want the transponder silent."

Do you agree with that assessment?

PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: It seems perfectly reasonable. And I think the terrorism kind of debate moved forward a little bit today, not only with what Jim was mentioning about finding nothing derogatory on the computers of the pilot and co-pilot that are related to terrorism, but also the Chinese saying they looked at every passenger and that none of them were associated with terrorism.

That knocks out the only...

BLITZER: Two-thirds of the passengers were from China.

(CROSSTALK)

BERGEN: And people have sort of proffered the idea of Chinese Uighur separatists. I was always skeptical of that.

But I now think the Chinese have said, look -- by the way, the Chinese are pretty rigorous on this issue. If they felt there was an iota of a possibility, they would...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: But, Jim Sciutto, even there's no evidence of terrorism chatter before or after or any indications from the backgrounds, that doesn't rule out that for whatever other reason, beyond political terrorism, if you will, someone in that cockpit decided to try to bring that plane down.

SCIUTTO: That's still possible.

I would just echo a couple points. First of all, the intelligence sources I talk to say exactly the same thing they have said to you, which is that none of the normal signs they look for were, chatter, running it by terror databases, all these kinds of things, claims of responsibility have come up.

They have explored and investigated a lot of terror attacks before and they're used to seeing that kind of thing. On the China point, China has a massive and very effective police state. They follow their people very well. I imagine they're very good at doing background checks.

If they have done their background checks and not found particularly of the Uighur threat, which is China -- China is amped up about the Uighur threat right now. They just had a knife attack that killed 12 people in a train station. They had a suicide attack in Tiananmen Square. They're going to be on it when it comes to that.

Now, in terms of someone deliberately taking the plane, that does open other possibilities and you have precedent, right, Egypt Air, the SilkAir flight where pilots deliberately drove it in the ground, as well as the possibility that something incapacitated the plane.

And what I will tell you, just as a final point, intel analysts have not given up the possibility of terror. They just haven't found a sign of it yet.

BLITZER: They haven't ruled it out. They haven't ruled it in.

They're still investigating.

Richard Quest is watching what's going on.

You heard Barbara Starr, Richard, say that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel spoke with his counterpart in Malaysia today and urging greater transparency on the part of Malaysian authorities. What do you make of that?

RICHARD QUEST, CNN CORRESPONDENT: What I make of it is that they obviously are now really feeling they're not getting something that they want.

And transparency, Wolf, is at various levels. It can be public transparency, are they giving enough information to the public so that the public has confidence in that which is being done, or it can be transparency of the intelligence level or it could can transparency at the investigative level.

We know there are rumors that American investigators do not feel they have been given the necessary, for instance, reports that the simulator, they weren't given original simulator material from the pilot's own simulator. They were given an assessment of it. We know from the radar track.

Now, I think it's a nuanced approach here because the Malaysians themselves have basically now said, Wolf, we are giving information that no other nation would give. We're not doing anything on national security grounds or withholding. I think what Hagel, what the defense secretary is doing is very gently, very different to the Chinese, who are basically hitting them over the head with a stick, but the U.S. is basically saying very gently, it's time to be more cooperative and be seen to be more cooperative.

BLITZER: Yes, good point.

And, Michael Goldfarb, you have been involved in these investigations in your government service. It's one thing to get a report from Malaysian authorities on what they have concluded. It's another thing to let U.S. and other international experts take a look at that simulator, take a look at the hard drives of the computers, take a look at the audiotapes, take a look at the videotapes, get the original resource material.

And presumably that would be extremely useful. But based on what we're hearing, they're not doing that. They're just giving an assessment based on their conclusions.

GOLDFARB: That's not corroborated, but, Wolf, every crash has a unique DNA, so to speak, a unique signature.

Look at TWA 800. Everybody thought it was a bomb, because a center fuel tank had never exploded before from an internal source. It turned out it was the fuel quantity indicator system. The wire chafed on a hot day with lots of fuel, led to that. So you need to caution that everything we remains on the table. We have not ruled out any kind of mechanical failure or anything. It's baffling.

But the fear is we're not getting to the ground on this, on any of this.

BLITZER: In your reporting, your reporting for "The New York Times," are you getting a sense from your sources that they're making some progress or they're almost back to square one?

SCHMIDT: I think they're making some progress with the Malaysians. I think on Saturday when they came out and made the statements that they did, the U.S. saw that as sort of a first step toward being as transparent as possible.

They hadn't said anything up until that point. And I also think they're making some progress in convincing them to let them in. The U.S. has -- the FBI especially has a great ability with forensic computers to dig in and to find things like that.

And I don't think -- I wouldn't be very surprised if we saw the U.S. eventually getting their hands on it. It may take a few days. The Malaysians may not say it publicly. But I would be very surprised if they're still going to keep the FBI on the sidelines as we enter...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: As far as you know, have they let the FBI, other U.S. authorities actually inspect the simulator that was in the home of the pilot?

SCHMIDT: To my knowledge, that hasn't happened. The FBI agents that are on the ground there are simply listening to what is going on and maybe providing a little feedback or whatever.

But they have no investigative role.

BLITZER: Yes.

And, Richard Quest, a lot of us would like to see some of the closed- circuit video camera images that they certainly have at the airport there, the flight taking off, how long was it on the runway, how long did it take for the plane the take off, did it have the regular amount of full? Did it have extra fuel? Those kind of questions certainly would be -- it would be great to see that kind of information, if they were willing to share it.

QUEST: They're sharing it in a fashion.

For example, on the fuel point, the CEO of Malaysia Airlines has confirmed there was no extra fuel that was put on board.

The only caveat I will say is, this is an investigation both potentially criminal and certainly aeronautical. And as Michael will know very well indeed, once these investigations are under way, under the annex 13 to the ICAO treaty, you are very restricted if you're accredited party, if you're part of the agreement.

You're almost -- the only people who can release information basically are the Malaysians. Now, they have the duty to keep the investigation sterile up to a point. And they're balancing it. Arguably they're getting the balance wrong, but I suppose it's easy for us to second- guess them when we don't have the job of actually doing the investigation.

BLITZER: All right, guys, we got to leave it right there. But we're going to continue the investigation. Thanks very much.

Still ahead, standing, shouting and demanding answers after 12 days of conflicting stories. The mood is turning ugly amongst some of the passengers' families.

And we're also looking at a theory that doesn't involve terrorism. Many experts say it does make some logical sense.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: To our North American viewers, "CROSSFIRE" won't be seen tonight so we can bring you more of our special report on the mystery of Flight 370.

U.S. officials say the Malaysian government has found no suspicious content on the pilot's computers or in their e-mail, noting nothing, they say, that would indicate that the route changes were planned ahead of time. The news comes after talk between the U.S. and Malaysia defense secretaries with Chuck Hagel telling the Malaysian defense secretary to be, quote, "more transparent."

CNN's Andrew Stevens is joining us now from Kuala Lumpur with more on what's going on. Andrew, what else are you learning?

ANDREW STEVENS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the Malaysians are also asking Chuck Hagel to get access to more satellite surveillance information as well and try to get -- piece together what may have happened to that flight.

But it's interesting. It's very much the focus this morning, as we're still in the predawn hours here, is on the pilots, on that investigation, on this information that we're now getting. That the pilots effectively cleared their communications equipment and that simulator you were talking about has turned up nothing to suggest that some suspicious activities may have been taking place.

And it does tie in, to be honest, with what we have been hearing about the pilot and what we have been hearing about the copilot. The pilot, particularly, he is an aviation geek. He has a simulator in his home. And his friends continue to vigorously defend him, saying that he's the sort of guy you do want in the cockpit if something happens.

We're also hearing that the Chinese have cleared their 153 national from any links to any terrorism or any hijacking plots. The Chinese ambassador telling the Malaysians here yesterday, late yesterday that that was the case. So still moving along. The -- as far as the transparency goes, that's a key issue here, because obviously, there's an enormous amount of frustration about the level of information that is being made public. And the information that is actually being made public, sometimes it's been misleading; sometimes it has been retracted. So if there is a greater opening among the Malaysians, more information, not only the world's media or the world, but certainly, the families of the passengers would really appreciate that.

Difficult balancing act for the Malaysians. I don't want to lead people down the wrong direction. But also, this vacuum of information is very, very painful for the passengers' families.

BLITZER: We must not forget there were 239 people on that aircraft. Andrew Stevens, thanks very much.

The families of those on board, the Flight 370, they're growing increasingly desperate for information about their loved ones, and they're taking that frustration out on Malaysian officials, who are providing, at least as far as they're concerned, too few answers. Listen to one mother's cries at a news conference earlier today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): We only have one child. We are respectful Chinese people. It's hard to control your emotions when you might have lost your loved ones. We just need the truth. Don't use them as political pawns.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: CNN's David McKenzie is in Beijing, and David's been talking to the families of those on board the aircraft.

David, what else are they saying to you today?

DAVID MCKENZIE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, they're saying that they are angry and frustrated, as we've been talking about, Wolf. But also, just every bit of information that comes out, that's leaked out, they are looking at, obviously, very closely, because there are huge consequences for them on that information.

So, for example, when we talked about the plane rising to an extreme altitude and then dipping down to very low erratic flight behavior, they're asking the officials, "Well, could my loved one have remained conscious? Does this mean that they are dead, to put it bluntly? Does this mean they could still be alive?"

All these theories have really grated on these families. And as they expanded that search area to more than 2.2 million square miles, it leaves these people desperate, as you say -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And David, why is this missing plane all of a sudden so worrisome to the Communist Party in China?

MCKENZIE: Well, you've got this great group of, this large group of people with a strong moral voice stuck in a hotel here in Beijing, pointing the finger largely at the Malaysian government.

But I've also heard people complaining about the Chinese government, these families, and they're saying that they're not getting enough support from China. And China is largely impotent in this search. Obviously, it's sending its assets to look for the plane, but it doesn't have nearly the level of capabilities of the U.S. in terms of investigation and in terms of satellite reach to figure out where this plane is in the South Pacific, in the Pacific to the west of Australia.

So the Chinese government faces the issue that it needs to look like it's protecting its citizens, and if that anger shifts at all towards the Chinese government, it's a very problematic thing indeed for them.

BLITZER: Certainly would be. David McKenzie in Beijing. Thank you.

So while the passengers' families await any kind of definite word about what happened, we're hearing from pilots who say one of the most logical explanations for the plane's disappearance is being completely overlooked.

CNN's Athena Jones is here in THE SITUATION ROOM looking at this part of the story -- Athena.

ATHENA JONES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. It seems like every day we hear about a new theory to explain just what happened to this airplane.

One of the experts I spoke with today stressed that it usually takes more than one problem to bring down a jet. So what's intriguing about this particular theory is that it's so simple.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JONES (voice-over): Theories about what caused Flight 370 to vanish abound.

NAJIB RAZAK, MALAYSIAN PRIME MINISTER: The aircraft's movements were consistent with deliberate action by someone on the plane.

JONES: Could hijacking or renegade pilot or terrorism explain what Malaysian authorities say was a deliberate action to turn the plane off-course? Probably not, some pilots are saying.

LES ABEND, PILOT AND CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, "FLYING MAGAZINE": I just do not believe that this could be a nefarious event. I see a professional flight crew that tried to handle a situation.

JONES: There's a simpler explanation that could account for what happened. A fire, perhaps caused by an electrical problem, leaves the cockpit to fill up with smoke, like in this simulation. Under this theory, the flight crew does what any experienced pilots would do, putting on their oxygen masks, turning the plane toward the closest airport to try to land safely, punching the destination into the flight computer .

ABEND: The objective really is to get yourself on the ground as quickly and as safely as possible.

JONES: The plane turns west, but smoke soon fills the cockpit, overwhelms the captain and copilot, and shorts out the plane's communication systems. With the pilots incapacitated or worse and no one awake to land the plane, it keeps flying on its last programmed course, past any airports, and eventually runs out of fuel and crashes somewhere in the Indian Ocean.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Swiss Air 111 heavy is declaring Pan, Pan, Pan. We have smoke in the cockpit.

JONES: Fire has caused fatal accidents before, like the 1998 crash of Swiss Air Flight 111 off Nova Scotia.

ABEND: I think it's a very plausible idea.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

JONES: But there are still some problems with this theory. For instance, if there was such a big fire, how would the plane be able to keep flying for another seven to eight hours, as authorities believe it did? And if there was a fire or smoke, why didn't the cockpit crew sound the alarm, like the pilots of that Swiss Air flight we just heard about? So there's still a lot more questions than answers here, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, that theory. I think a lot of people are looking closer at that now, as well. We'll see where it goes. Athena, thanks very much.

Just ahead, we'll take you into a cockpit similar later to show you what it takes to change course by reprogramming the computer. And we're also exploring one of the more controversial theories about what could have caused the jet to change course. Could the plane's electronics, the computer in the cockpit, could it have been hacked?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's go back to today's new developments in the mystery of Flight 370.

A law-enforcement official telling CNN the missing jet's first turn to the wests almost certainly was programmed by somebody inside the cockpit. Our own Martin Savidge is in a cockpit simulator right now just outside Toronto to show us how this would be done.

So how would it be done if someone's actually going to make that move?

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: All right, Wolf. Let's start explaining to you the flight management system, which is this device that's located right here.

Essentially, it does a number of things that assist the pilot and copilot in flight. But it's really a GPS, a very good GPS. And it would be programmed before the plane took off with the specific navigation aides to take it from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, which was the flight plan of 370. Once in the air, though, it is possible that you could deviate from the course and change it somewhat.

Mitchell, I think you can demonstrate exactly how it's done and how simply that's done.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. Very simple. So this line here, this magenta line, is the line we're following to our destination. That's our route of flight. This white triangle here, at the apex of that triangle is the aircraft.

If you want to change the direction of the aircraft it's very simple. Obviously you have to know where you're going to go. OK? So for example, I'm going to pick a little way point here at another airport, and then I'm just going to use this keypad here to type it in. And then once I type it in, I put it into the flight plan, and it shows me a white line. And it's basically asking me do I want to -- am I sure I want to deviate? And if I am, I press "execute," and the airplane, as you can see, starts his left-hand turn and we start deviating off our flight path.

SAVIDGE: Yes. I mean, you might see the hazy horizon there, but we are definitely turning. But I should point out, Wolf, that even though that we are turning, you know, it's not dramatic. If you were a passenger, I don't think that you would be alarmed in any way at this kind of turn. It feels rather normal, even though we're now dramatically deviating away from what was the original course to Beijing.

BLITZER: All right. Stand by, Martin Savidge. I want to come back to you. But I want to bring in our panel of experts right now: CNN aviation analyst, the former NTSB managing director, Peter Goelz; our CNN aviation analyst Mark Wise. He's a former commercial pilot who's actually flown triple-7s. And AnAndnd in New York, Matt Desch is joining us. He's the CEO of Iridium Communications. All right, guys. Thanks very much.

Let me start with you, Matt, because it's pretty significant. If this system -- this -- the whole management system was readjusted before -- at some point to go west, as opposed to continuing to go towards Beijing, if that was done it was -- how do you get that information? How did investigators actually learn that somebody reprogrammed that system inside the cockpit?

MATT DESCH, CEO, IRIDIUM COMMUNICATIONS: Well, Wolf, I'm not really sure, to be honest with you. The only way you really could know that outside of the airplane is to have a data link of some sort. And so, you know, ACARS, the flight management system, communicates across the data link when you're near the ground. Unfortunately, when you go over ocean, those links fall away, and then you use satellite system.

And then we know that, in this case, the satellite system they were using, there's two brands you can use, Inmarsat or Iridium. It happened to not -- happened to be turned off, or at least the ACAR system was turned off, so there was only handshaking going across. So frankly, I don't really know...

BLITZER: Would the ACAR system have been able to transmit that information?

DESCH: It would if it was turned off -- turned on, excuse me. But if you turn the system off, then really there isn't anything to be sent through the data link. So at that point, I don't know how they might know that it was preprogrammed somehow into the ACAR system, unless they know that the data link was still active and that there was information going back and forth across it somehow.

BLITZER: A quick question and then I'll move on, Matt. Could that computer in the cockpit, which adjusts the autopilot, if you will, could that be hacked from the ground?

DESCH: It's not very likely. I -- I've certainly talked to many experts who don't think that that's likely. There's a lot of precautions against that.

And remember, if you're going to hack a system, you really need a connection into the aircraft, which comes through a satellite system if you're over the ocean. Since the satellite network didn't see anything going across, I don't know how, you know, you could speculate how it could be hacked. Because there isn't a connection to do that through.

BLITZER: Peter, I want to play a clip for you. This is a clip from a friend of the captain of the Malaysian airliner, talking about his friend. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NIK HUZLAN, RETIRED MALAYSIA AIRLINES PILOT: I know for sure, I flew this plane.

KYUNG LAH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You flew the missing airplane?

HUZLAN: Many times. Yes. How many times.

LAH: And so what do you think happened?

HUZLAN: Very, very strange because the lack of communication is the one that's really, really puzzling. The way pilots could not communicate if there was an emergency.

And I think from the second or third day, I've already come to my own private conclusion that there must be some form of unlawful human interference. It could be anyone on the airplane.

LAH: If you're convinced it's not the pilot, then does your attention turn to the copilot?

HUZLAN: Well, like I said, unlawful human interference. A human is involved. Soon, we start going down (ph). Listen to me, we start going down (ph).

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Erin Burnett is going to have more at the top of the hour. So, how significant are the interviews of the friends of those inside the cockpit, those inside the cabin?

PETER GOELZ, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: Sure, you have to take them into account. The idea, Wolf, is you've got to get a picture of who was in the cockpit. Is this someone who could have acted irrationally? We've got a great picture so far growing on the captain and a little lesser on the copilot and they look like decent reasonable people without any strikes against them. So, the mystery is deepening.

BLITZER: If cabin was depressurized and everybody is out, could that explain what happened?

MARK WEISS, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: You know, again, this is something that pilots practice, an emergency decompression and we call it a high dive in the simulators, and we do that. And the first thing you do is you put on your oxygen mask and getting, the pilots are getting 100 percent oxygen, so they would be able to now get the airplane off its intended course, get it down and turn it, if wanted, to an airport suitable for its landing.

But they also would have communicated an emergency to air traffic control either via radio or via ACARS or via the transponder.

BLITZER: It looks like this, the depressure knob, if you will.

And do you buy the notion that there could have been a fire in cabin?

GOELZ: I don't. I don't, because again, I think the pilots, a fire is a slow growing thing. They would have had the ability to communicate.

BLITZER: Do you agree?

WEISS: Absolutely.

BLITZER: So you both think there was a human being responsible for this as opposed to some malfunction?

WEISS: That's my thinking that there's human intervention.

BLITZER: Matt Desch, do you agree with that?

MATT DESCH, CEO, IRIDIUM COMMUNICATIONS: It's hard to tell. I think, frankly, Wolf, we're speculating without any information. What we really need to do is find the black box. That's what the to focus has got to be on. I think a lot of people have prized right now that aircraft going over the oceans aren't being tracked by radar or being even tracked by satellites and can be turned off. That's got to get fixed.

BLITZER: Matt, we're going to leave it there. Peter and Mark, guys, thanks very much.

Just ahead, we'll have much more in our SITUATION ROOM special report on the mystery of Flight 370. We're going to the virtual studio to map out a search area as large as the continental United States. So, how can investigators hope to find this plane? Tom Foreman, there you see him, he's standing by live.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 now encompasses 3 million square miles. That's an area almost as large as the continental United States.

CNN's Tom Foreman has a closer look at the northern arc of this search area.

Tom, what are you seeing?

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it really is a spread out pattern here if you bring in the map. It's not all in one place. That's also complicating it.

What if this led to some sort of northern path for this plane? We know about it flying up here, we know about it disappearing, and we know from these satellite readings that there's this is idea that there could be an arc to the south in the ocean which we talked about last time and this arc to the north. How could it go up this way?

Well, it would be very difficult. Look at all the places it would have to fly through with radar systems, as spotty as they may be, they are still there, people there, people taking a look.

But even if the radar were not a problem, there is this. There are a lot of people living in some of these areas that almost have to pass over on the way. Beyond that, they have to pass over the Himalayas. This is the biggest mountain range on the planet, hard to pass by day, virtually impossible by night for many aircraft out there.

And then even if it were to get out of some flat lands, and even if it were to find some remote airfield, as so many people have speculated, the question still remains, how does get on the ground? The plane of this size, 200 x 200 and had nobody spot it. That is the enduring mystery here, Wolf.

And one of the reasons why investigators are looking less seriously in many ways up the northern route than the southern route.

BLITZER: Good explanation. Tom, thank you.

Just ahead, we'll have more of our SITUATION ROOM special report, "The Mystery of Flight 370", with all the global resources of CNN, coverage you won't find anywhere else.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We'll get back to our coverage of the mystery of Flight 370 in just a moment. But, first, there's another urgent story we're monitoring right now here in the SITUATION ROOM. Russia is annexing Crimea from Ukraine. The Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Crimean officials this morning to sign the paperwork defying President Obama's stern warnings of sanctions.

Let's go to our senior international correspondent Nick Paton Walsh. He's in Crimea watching all of this unfold. Nick, what is the latest?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, troubling today. We've seen the first death of a Ukrainian soldier here in the Crimea at a base not far from where I'm standing in Simferopol, the capital here. Apparently, masked men said to be Russians stormed the base and an exchange of gunfire, one chief warrant officer on the base was shot, dead in the heart.

The other wounded shot in the neck. That's got people deeply troubled because across this peninsula, there are lots of bases where Ukrainian troops still loyal to Kiev still holding out. I was at one today, that too was pressured by Russian troops who moved in around it, the men on the base talking to local protesters perhaps about the possibility of surrendering over defecting over to Crimean authorities here.

But you heard really today in Vladimir Putin extraordinary defiant tone in an hour-long speech he gave in Moscow just ahead of signing the papers that usher Crimea into the Russian Federation, a tone not about Crimea at all, really, more discussing the last 25 years, almost trying to re-establish Russia's Soviet glory in many ways, in the ways he talked about how this country needed to have a broader vision about its role in Eastern Europe. Many deeply troubled. We may be seeing some moves perhaps in eastern Ukraine, particularly given the signals coming out of Moscow imminently right now -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Nick Paton Walsh in Crimea, watching this important story unfolds. Nick, thanks very much.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. Remember, you can always tweet me @WolfBlitzer, tweet the show @CNNSitRoom.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.