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The Search for Flight 370; Timing and Clarity of Latest Satellite Images Questioned; Black Boxes Only Have 30-Day Life; hat Happens When a Plane Hits Water?; Searching a Deep Ocean

Aired March 20, 2014 - 12:30   ET



ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: It is tough to pin down exactly how one should feel about this most recent development in the missing aircraft story because if these pieces really are from the missing airliner, on one hand, there's certainly relief because this could lead to the answer to the question of where this missing plane is.

But, on the other hand, the obvious is that it causes a lot of sadness because it would certainly confirm that pretty much all hope is lost for the 239 people who were on board that plane when it went missing.

Here's what we know. Two things are floating in a wide-open area of water southwest of Australia, they are big, they're a few miles apart and officials are cautiously saying that they could be parts of that aircraft.

The problem is it's after midnight over there right now, and Australian search crews have packed it in until the morning.

Crews from several countries are racing to put eyes on the spot where that floating debris was last seen.

And then, of course, there are the families and their agonizing grief and anger over why this has taken so long and why the information has been so sketchy.

The relatives of the missing passengers say the Malaysian government has information they don't believe is being shared with them. Don't forget. This is day 13 since that 777 simply vanished.

And several things to clear up here about the satellite images that we've all been looking at this morning, things about the timeline and how clear the images really are, because that's a very important part of this investigation.

Our Rene Marsh is here from Washington, D.C., and also Bob Baer, our national security analyst and former CIA operative, joining us live now.

First to you, Renee, the NTSB is apparently saying they have a pretty good feeling about these latest satellite images.

Do we have any clue as to why there's such confidence?

RENE MARSH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, the NTSB, based on their data, they've been able to narrow the search down to that southern part of the Indian Ocean, so they feel very confident about that search area.

And the reason why they got to that search area is because they considered the currents. They also considered how fast the plane may have been going. They considered multiple pieces of data, including radar, in order to come up with that southern area in the Indian Ocean where they should be searching.

Now, today we're talking about those satellite images, possibly the debris from the plane. Now, the images are being called more credible, so much so that they've diverted the search area to this specific place where they believe these images are from.

Why so credible? After all we remember those Chinese satellite images. They turned out to be a false alarm. But authorities in Australia say what makes these images so credible is it's right in line with where NTSB data suggests the search area should be.

So, when you have those two things together, that looks good. Add on top of that the fact that the size of these pieces of debris, one of them as large as possibly 78 feet, that's very possible that that could be the part of a 777.

I mean, we know the dynamics of a 777. It could very well be a piece of the wing. It could very well be a part of the tail also attached to another part of the fuselage.

So, for all of those reasons together, they believe that these images are credible, but they're still cautious.

BANFIELD: It just still doesn't sound right. And I get it. And, Bob Baer, maybe you can weigh-in on this.

To the layperson they look like mere blobs, but the laypeople aren't the people with the real pictures.

As I understand, national security has a lot to do with why we're seeing the pictures we're seeing. Pictures they're seeing tell a whole different story.

What do you think we don't know about these images?

BOB BAER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, I think almost definitely they've made these pictures fuzzy. You know, the resolution, in fact, is probably very good, and when you look at them in three dimension, which they can do, probably looks more like 777 parts.

And the reason they do this is they simply can't -- I don't know whose satellite took these pictures, but you simply can't put it out to the public how good the resolution is.

You don't want to tell the Chinese or the Russians or anybody exactly what you can see from the satellite.

And I spent years in the CIA. We had to hand this stuff out to foreign governments, and the photo analysts always fuzzed it up so the resolution didn't look very good. You still got the point, but they couldn't tell just how good it was.

BANFIELD: It's hard to hear that when we're talking about a race against time, 239 people that some may have survived if there was an ocean landing.

How much does national security play into a deliberate delay of information sharing that could either save lives or find an aircraft before we pass that point of no return where we might never be able to find that aircraft?

BAER: Well, there's clearly been some missteps in this investigation, particularly on the part of the Malays.

But between the United States and Australia, there's complete sharing. Everything we have on this aircraft has been given to the Australians; I'm quite sure of that.

So, they have a complete picture, and they are moving this as fast as they can. I mean, I think the initial delay was because the Malays missed this plane on radar or refused to tell us that it had crossed, for instance, Penang.

If they'd looked at this right away, who knows what would have happened, but between -- again, between Australia and the United States there is complete sharing.

BANFIELD: Well, certainly they have mobilized all of the assets that we've been hearing about today and that's a lot of assets to this search site.

Bob Baer, thank you. And, Rene Marsh, great work as always, in Washington.

The clock is ticking. We just talked about the fact that there might be a point of no return. The clock-life on the battery life, that's critical here on those flight recorders.

Just 17 days, that's when the pinger that will help the searchers to find those recorders goes silent.

So, why do they use batteries that last only 30 days? Could they use better equipment, batteries that last longer? Is there a better solution than even having these devices in the first place?

We're going to talk about that ahead.


BANFIELD: Best chance of finding the best source of answers to the mystery of Flight 370 is, sadly, slipping slowly out of our grasp, the so-called black boxes. That's the way you've heard them. They're actually the flight-data and cockpit-voice recorders. They are very possibly on the bottom of the Indian Ocean, attempting to transmit their location to anyone who can hear them.

The sad thing is they cannot do that forever. CNN analyst and former aviation investigator David Soucie joins me again.

We have heard about the 30-day window after which it's all eye contact or straight feel because they just stop.

Why is it we only have 30 days on these? Why, after all the innovations, we don't have some better system for this?

DAVID SOUCIE, CNN SAFETY ANALYST: You know, that's an excellent question because of the fact that the French government now, for 447, recommended as one of their top recommendations and lessons learned from the accident that that be extended to 90 days.

Yet -

BANFIELD: Didn't happen.

SOUCIE: -- four or five years later, nothing's happened.

BANFIELD: Anywhere.

SOUCIE: Not even a notice of proposed rule-making to the IKO or to the FAA.

BANFIELD: This is not exclusive to Malaysian Airlines. This is every airline.

SOUCIE: Every airline.

BANFIELD: Nobody has implemented a new system --

SOUCIE: Not that I'm aware of.

BANFIELD: -- for these data recorders.

If we never, ever find these so-called data recorders, black boxes, the old terminology for them, and yet we find wreckage, like if this pans out today, could the wreckage give us any indication of why the plane was where we found it or how this happened?

SOUCIE: What you can glean from the wreckage, if this is indeed wreckage, quite a bit of information about how it impacted the water, the angle at which it impacted, the speed at which it impacted, there's a lot of information about the physics of it.

What it doesn't give us a lot of clues of, and I can't imagine how it would give us any clues about why this happened or how it actually specifically happened.

BANFIELD: So when we see all those pieces being put together back in warehouses like TWA Flight 800, as remarkable as that looks, it yields scant information about what happened before the actual crash.

SOUCIES: It would give the proximate cause. Was it fire? There'd be evidence of fire. Was it an explosion of some kind? Rapid decompression, you might find evidence of that because of the fracture lines.

So, it would give you that kind of information as far as what might have happened prior to the accident, but it really wouldn't tell you who or why.


And something that you mentioned to me just before we popped up on the air after this break, the cockpit-voice recorders only record two hours.

And that's something that the union, the pilots union, negotiated. They didn't want any more than two hours of recordings for privacy.

In this scenario, what we know about this flight having possibly flown for seven hours, we'll never know what might have gone on if the voice recorder's found, other than the last two hours.

SOUCIE: That's correct. That's correct. That's all we would know about it.

But that could be valuable information. But what would have been more valuable is if the voice recorder had been going all that distance.

This issue of privacy came up when there was a big push to put cameras in the cockpit and record the video of the pilots --

BANFIELD: They didn't want that.

BANFIELD: -- throughout the whole flight.

No, and I can kind of empathize with that, because the fact it's stressful to be up there in the first place, so now you've got someone watching over you every minute of every second of that flight --

BANFIELD: Well, you would hope they're not. They're only watching if there's a crisis. I mean, nobody goes scanning those cockpit-data and voice recorders for the fun of it, do they?

SOUCIE: Yeah. No, no. But it's a matter of, is it available or not, and that's what the pilot's union argued, is that, you know, it could be used --

BANFIELD: David, with what we're going through right now, this is the longest disappearance in aviation history now.

Is this likely to change this issue of the length of recordings, the length of the battery life, the real-time download issue?

We've been talking about this a few times on this program. Why on Earth do we have to actually get the cassette recorder, I feel like it's a 1970s technology, when we can download all of this information in real-time, and those black boxes, so to speak could be actually hard drives on the ground, back at control?

SOUCIE: Yeah. Absolutely. And it's come up many times. The cost of sending things to a satellite and back down to a location is very expensive, even as you go, the data, not just buying the equipment in the first place, but actually the access to the satellites is expensive. So they're weighing this cost against safety, against what it is that you're saving in lives --

BANFIELD: I wonder how much we've spent already in 13 days of searching for this plane, the two dozen or so nations and all of their ships, their aircraft, their satellite work.

I mean, it's got to be in the I'm guessing hundreds of millions by now.

SOUCIE: Easily. Easily. So why this hasn't been done --

BANFIELD: Because the airline would have to bear the brunt of it, right?

SOUCIE: Well, the airlines, but you're also talking ground systems. Now, let's talk about NexGen for a little while, if you have time.

BANFIELD: If you can do it in ten seconds.

SOUCIE: NexGen is a next generation air system and it's being held up in Congress and by delays with the FAA, but with that we have very good potential and have the technology in place to do exactly what you're talking about.

BANFIELD: Are you telling me politics might play into this in Congress?

SOUCIE: Imagine such a thing.

BANFIELD: David Soucie, stay right where you are. Obviously more questions to follow on that. If the satellite image does in fact turn out to be a piece of the plane, if it did actually end up in the water, how long does it take for a plane to sink? How long does it take for parts of a Boeing 777 to sink? Is it possible anything is still floating? Going to look at that in just a moment.


BANFIELD: We've been talking about these 13 days in the disappearance of the Malaysian aircraft Flight 370. So many questions even after a huge lead today, a that's debris being spotted by satellites --o pieces, albeit miles apart, but they are big pieces, 79 feet long is the biggest one. And that, according to many, is enough to mobilize a lot of assets to the area to continue the search.

But what exactly happens to a plane when it hits the water? There are so many different ways it can. The flight that went into the Hudson River landed safely and the passengers all got out. Sully Sullenberger was a hero because of it. Is that possibly what could have happened here?

Martin Savidge and our pilot Mitchell Casado join me inside the Boeing 777 simulator. Martin, a lot of conversation has been going today towards how to ditch an aircraft in water. If you're in crisis and have no communications, can you bring a plane down if you're low on fuel and save the people on board? Can you walk me through that with Mitch?

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We can. You know, I'll warn you, Ashleigh, we're not experts, either one of us, on that particular. But we can give you an idea of what it would feel like in the aircraft, what the aircraft might be doing. We can't take you all the way down to the water because this won't simulate it and even if we did, out of respect of families who might be watching, we won't show you.

But give you an idea of the feel. First of all, we're actually over the southern Indian Ocean, that's all programmed in. Remember, we're trying to emulate 370 as much as we know. We're about currently 906 nautical miles southwest of Perth. So we're in the rough area of that debris.

If you would just take us down lower. We're going to go from -- where are we at? We're about 7500 feet. This is going to be a sharp turn and then Mitch is also, at the same time, let's descend pretty rapidly. Rapidly than would be normal in a commercial airliner by intermeans.

You're going to hear alarms going off. This is the alarm that warns you we're going down too fast. But the plane could be descending quickly. Remember, for this scenario, we're still under power. The engines are still going. Got an overspeed, means the aircraft is moving faster than it should. And we level off at about 3500 feet because we can't take it down on the deck. It would crash the whole system.

But Mitchell, you know, as a pilot looking for what you would not want to do but if you had to land on water, what are the -- how do you set up the airplane?

MITCHELL CASADO, PILOT TRAINER, 777 COCKPIT SIMULATOR: You know, it's a very difficult procedure, but essentially what you're trying to do is stay level with the water. Obviously you want to be as slow as possible, the minimum controlled speed. And as for the textbook, what they teach you is to try to land the airplane, have the tail of the airplane touch down right at the crest of the wave, not the trough but the crest, the top of the wave, and so the wave carries you down.

That's theory. In real life, especially at night, dusk, dawn, that's very difficult to do.

SAVIDGE: Clearly, you know, you want the waves -- you want the water as calm as possible, but you don't control that. So you'll be coming down and you don't put the wheels down as you would on land.

CASADO: Of course not, yes. BANFIELD: Can I ask Mitch --

SAVIDGE: So it can be done. Go ahead.

BANFIELD: Something David Soucie, Marty, said on the earlier block was that there is this possibility of a fire, an incapacitation of the pilots and of the passengers, and that this plane just flew as a ghost flight until it ran out of gas.

Mitchell, what happens when a plane runs out of gas? How would it end up in the water? Would it land nose down? Would it come down in any particular way? Take me through it.

CASADO: It's profile. Once you run out of gas the profile of the airplane is going to be very gentle. It's not going to be any dramatic nose down or turning or anything like that. It's just going to be a very gentle, gradual decent. Very similar, actually, to what you would experience in a regular flight. Just a very gradual decent but constant until you hit the ground.

SAVIDGE: And the engines of course they're off, they're not running, but the glide ratio - I mean, this plane could go a long way as a glider even though it's jumbo jet.

CASADO: Depending on the altitude you're looking at, quite a distance it could glide, yes.

SAVIDGE: I mean, how -- 20 miles, 50 miles?

CASADO: It could go up to - it could be past 100 miles if you had enough altitude, yes.

BANFIELD: And so obviously that is -- you know, it's critical -- I mean, if that were the scenario, would certainly answer the mystery of why the plane would be so far off course into such a remote area. But the landing of that plane, whether it ended up in a scatter point or whether it ended up ditched whole, there are pluses and minuses to both of that in terms of the finding.

Martin Savidge, great work. Thank you, Mitchell Casado, again; you've been invaluable to us.

There is a unique circumstance to where the searchers have now convened. It is sadly one of the deepest areas of the ocean, up to three miles deep. And there's the topographical pattern to the bottom of the ocean as well. If in fact that plane is down on the bottom, how hard will it be to find? And, by the way, how quickly might it actually sink, in pieces or whole? Our oceanographer's going to join us next.


BANFIELD: I want to take you to the bottom of the Indian Ocean off of the coast of Australia for a moent where the depths go down to three miles. You can see the relative comparison of just how deep that is. Oceanographer David Gallo is back on the phone with me. David, I've been told some parts of a broken up plane could float. They're like pieces of honeycomb with air pockets and some parts clearly would sink. But when you see that graphic and you see how deep it is, what do you even begin to use? Is it submersibles, is it something more? How do you find the pieces on a floor like that?

DAVID GALLO, WOODS HOLE OCEANOGRAPHIC INSTITUTION (via telephone): Hi, Ashleigh. I've got a fairly weak connection suddenly here. But I think I've got your question. You would start out looking with sonar, which uses sound to map the sea floor. And knowing what the background is on the sea floor, rocks or sediments, a good sonar operator can pick out what's different, what's manmade against that background.

So that's how you begin, but then once the object is located that you're looking for, then you want to switch over to, instead of using sound, very high definition cameras to really document what's on the bottom.

BANFIELD: And then if debris is found, then what comes next? How do you gather it? What kind of equipment is used to find it and recover it?

GALLO: Well, the first I think is to treat area -- in my opinion, is to treat the area like a crime scene and really document everything, where it is in place, record that, but also record the condition of it. And, you know, normally, the operational team that's running the robots will be responding to a scientist that's asking questions. In this case, they'd be responding to an investigative team that wants to know certain things. So they would decide what you take photos of, what to concentrate on, and what to pick up or sample if need be.

BANFIELD: OK. David Gallo, thank you for your time and your expertise. Obviously so many questions still left as the search continues in this area. It is dark, but the light will return and the assets are en route.

I handoff now to my colleague Wolf Blitzer, who continues the story.