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THE SITUATION ROOM

Air Search to Resume for Debris

Aired March 20, 2014 - 17:00   ET

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


BLITZER: All right, Jake, thank you. Happening now, breaking news. The mystery of Flight 370.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN YOUNG, AUSTRALIAN MARITIME SAFETY AUTHORITY: This is a lead. It is probably the best lead we have right now.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: The air search about to resume as a new day begins in the southern Indian Ocean, where satellite images show possible debris from the missing airliner some 1,500 miles off the coast of Australia.

Investigators soon may have new leads to follow. A U.S. official says that FBI team is confident it can recover some of the data erased from the pilot's simulator hard drive.

And it's called the zombie scenario. A chilling new theory in which deadly fumes or smoke overcome everyone on board, leaving the plane to fly itself.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

A search official calls it, and I'm quoting now, "the best lead we have," and it's adding fresh urgency to the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Here are the latest developments.

It will soon be daylight in one of the most remote places on earth, the southern Indian Ocean, some 1,500 miles west of Australia. That's where satellite images show large pieces of debris.

An aircraft will soon head over once again to try to locate the objects. A Norwegian cargo ship is already in the area, and it's all hands on deck as sailors have been working throughout the night with lights and binoculars, trying to spot the debris.

And a U.S. officials says an FBI forensic team is confident it will be able to recover at least some of the files deleted from the pilot's flight simulator. Investigators will also analyze the Web sites that the pilot and the co-pilot may have visited.

Our reporters and our analysts are standing by with the kind of coverage that only CNN could deliver. Let's begin once again with our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto -- Jim. JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, within hours search planes will be back on site of this possible debris field as daybreaks in the southern Indian Ocean. They're using the most powerful surveillance technology in the world to peer down at the surface and determine conclusively if this is debris from Flight 370.

We also learned today that President Obama is getting regular updates on the search, including news of these new satellite images, which Australian officials are calling their best lead so far in the hunt for Flight 370.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCIUTTO (voice-over): From miles up in space, a possible breakthrough in the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Australia says these satellite images of two objects floating in the southern Indian Ocean 1,500 miles off the Australian coast could be part of the missing jet. One object is 18 feet across. The other is 79 feet and surrounded by smaller pieces of debris.

They were located 14 miles apart, and just southeast of the main search area as now defined by U.S. and Australian analysis.

AIR COMMODORE JOHN MCGARRY, AUSTRALIA: It is credible enough to divert the research to this area on the basis it provides a promising lead to what might be wreckage from the debris field.

YOUNG: It is probably the best lead that we have right now, but we need to get there, find them, see them, assess them to know whether it's really meaningful or not.

SCIUTTO: Officials caution the debris could just be ocean garbage or containers that fallen off ships. Still, the U.S. and Australia immediately sent advanced surveillance aircraft. So far the debris still has not been located.

YOUNG: Poor visibility has been reported, and this will hamper both air and satellite efforts. And so it continues to hold great concerns for the passengers and crew on board.

SCIUTTO: These new clues are leading to a redirection of resources from the Northern Corridor to the southern one. China announced it is sending nine navy ships to the southern Indian Ocean. In total, four out of five aircraft involved in the search effort are now in the south or heading south.

The search for clues from the flight crew could also soon turn up new leads. FBI investigators tell CNN they are confident they can retrieve deleted information from the pilot's flight simulator and his and his co-pilot's computers.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCIUTTO: An unprecedented international force is now converging on the southern Indian Ocean. The bulk of some 18 ships, 29 aircraft and six helicopters now involved in the search focused on this new search area southwest of Australia. Among them now, the Australian navy warship the HMS Success, which has the ability to recover objects if they are determined to be part of the plane.

And Wolf, the Australians say they are also receiving and studying more satellite images from that area to help determine if this debris field is, in fact, from Flight 370.

BLITZER: It's a critical moment right now, and the sun is about ready to come up over there, around daylight. It will help in this search. Jim Sciutto, thanks very much.

U.S. officials have thought for some time there was a strong likelihood was the plane went down in the southern Indian Ocean. Let's bring in our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr. She's been all over this story.

So why are they so confident this is the right place to look, Barbara?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the path, the evidence, the investigation about what happened, all is taking them there. Essentially, the most likely scenario for days, they say, has been the southern Indian Ocean.

Let's start with a new fact here. Why not the north? Well, we've now learned that the U.S., when that northern path emerged, very quickly looked one more time at Chinese radar capabilities and came to the conclusion if the plane went anywhere near China, the Chinese would have seen it. They are that good. Nothing goes into their air space they don't see.

That turned their attention back to the south. They started moving, based on the radar and the signals that the plane emitted, towards the southern Indian Ocean. And then it was a couple of days ago when it even worked its way further south, because the Australians, once they took over, began to calculate, along with the U.S., the number of days elapsed, the drift of the ocean, the current, the wind, all the factors. A lot of high-level classified analysis has been applied to this, and this path keeps working its way south. U.S. officials have told me for days this is really the most likely scenario where they believe will find debris, Wolf.

BLITZER: The coming hours could be critical, indeed. Barbara Starr, thanks very much.

Let's dig a little bit deeper right now with CNN aviation analyst Mark Wise, security consultant, former 777 pilot. Also Peter Goelz, former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board, along with CNN national security analyst Fran Townsend. She's a member of the homeland security and CIA external advisory board. Jim Sciutto is with us, as well.

Mark, based on what the pictures we've seen, what you're hearing, does this look, does this feel like this could be wreckage from the plane? MARK WISE, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: It certainly does, based upon what we found in the Air France search off the coast of Brazil a few years ago. And certainly, everybody is hoping that this is a real, confirmed lead.

BLITZER: Peter, do you agree with that?

PETER GOELZ, FORMER MANAGING DIRECTOR, NATIONAL TRANSPORTATION SAFETY BOARD: I agree. I mean, the NTSB believes that this is the most likely scenario. Their best people have identified this geographic area. Let's hope that they're -- that the satellite has picked it up.

BLITZER: Fran, let me play for you what the Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, said in making this dramatic announcement.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TONY ABBOTT, AUSTRALIAN PRIME MINISTER: New and credible information has come to light in relation to the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight MH-370 in the southern Indian Ocean. The Australian Maritime Safety Authority has received information based on satellite imagery of objects possibly related to the search. The task of locating these objects will being extremely difficult, and it may turn out that they are not related to the search for Flight MH-370.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: But Fran, you know the Australians. You know what's going on over there. There's no doubt -- there's no doubt that the prime minister thought long and hard before making such a dramatic announcement before the parliament of Australia. And I'm sure he consulted with allies, including the United States. So what does it say to you, even though he tempered it a little bit at the end there? But he made it clear this is the most likely lead, the most probable lead that we've had so far.

FRAN TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: That's right, Wolf. And, you know, the intelligence sharing, the classified sharing relationship with Australia, there are only -- we call it the five eyes. Right? These are English-speaking countries. They're our closest allies.

And we have a particularly close relationship with Australia in terms of our willingness to share and be very transparent with them in terms of our satellite coverage. We would have shared with them sort of the -- our analysis. They would have asked us our opinion. And it's likely that the prime minister would, in making the judgment he did about the likelihood that this was going to lead to a positive result in terms of the search, would have coordinated his statement with the United States.

And so, interestingly enough, just last night I was with a senior administration official who works in the classified area and was familiar with the satellite information. I mean, everyone is sounding equally optimistic with the Australian P.M. They clearly spent a lot of time with the classified material and feel like this is a very, very positive lead and development.

BLITZER: And I just want Jim Sciutto to weigh in. Jim, you cover all these areas for us. The U.S. and Australia do have an incredibly close intelligence cooperation relationship?

SCIUTTO: No question. And it spans everything. Certainly on counterterror investigations like this, and also in light of a new U.S. investment in the Asia region, we talked about this, the rebalancing and balancing of resources to Asia with China in mind, of course. And this sets up an interesting -- not a confrontation but interaction, at least.

You now have nine U.S. Navy ships down there, all on the same team, in effect, but warily by each other and certainly watching each other's capabilities. It's a motley crew of nations that are participating in this search.

BLITZER: Peter, you've been involved in these kinds of searches over the years. Let's say this is wreckage from the airliner, and they confirm that over the next few hours, now that the sun is coming up over the Indian Ocean, and we get an announcement like that. Presumably, they would then be able to focus in on those -- this -- it's orange, but it's really the black box -- the flight data recorder, the voice recorder. But that could take a while to find it. And there's a time -- there's a clock ticking because there's only about 15 days or so left before that battery-powered ping ends.

GOELZ: That's exactly right. And this -- the wreckage has been floating for close to two weeks now. It's going to be some distance from the main wreckage field at the bottom of the ocean. We're still weeks and months away from finding the main field.

But if we can find this, it might show us something. There might be soot deposits. There might be something telling us exactly how the airplane came apart and then maybe victims' remains, as well.

BLITZER: So you've been -- even if you've seen something that might be helpful, even if you don't have these black boxes, if you will?

GOELZ: That's right. You start to put the pieces together.

BLITZER: Here's what's sort of depressing. And you'll know this, Mark, because the Air France plane that crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Brazil, they found debris within five days. But it took them another two years to find this, this flight data recorder.

WISE: Yes. And that really brings up the issue about the way this has to be changed. The regulations really need to be altered so that these will now have 30 -- another 30 days or 90 days or longer life to them. So that the countries don't have to go through the agony, certainly the families don't have to any longer.

BLITZER: Fran, as you look at this situation, do you, in all your years of government service and watching this, do you remember anything along the lines of this kind of mystery?

TOWNSEND: No. I mean, look, Wolf, you know, until you have the -- sort of the pieces, as the other panelists have said, that you can begin to put together, because you need to understand not only what caused it but what was motivating, what were people thinking and trying to do inside the cockpit, inside the plane at the time it went down. And we really have no clues of that yet.

This may be the start of it, but it's going to be a long road, as others have said, to get to that black box. We didn't really understand, for example, Egypt Air 990 where the pilot ditched the plane until we had it, and that was a very chilling recording for government officials to listen to, because we then perfectly -- we had perfect knowledge about the last minutes of Flight Egypt Air 990.

It's a long way to finding that black box here, but that's what you really need to understand what happened.

BLITZER: Peter, let's not forget, even if they find this flight data recorder, the voice recorder, the voice recorder may be empty. There may be nothing on that voice recorder.

GOELZ: That's right.

BLITZER: For a crazy reason that they only record, what, the last half hour or so of a conversation in the cockpit?

GOELZ: In this case, the last two hours. But in any case, it should be the last 24 hours. There is no reason in the world now not to have data recorders digitally recording in 24-hour time.

BLITZER: Let me ask the pilot. Is there any reason why there shouldn't even be a video camera in that cockpit, watching what's going on, just as there's a video camera watching the school bus driver all the time, watching what's going on? Why not have a video camera, a voice recorder to make sure that we know exactly what's going on in the cockpit, given the life-and-death responsibility that these pilots have and the fact that there have been pilots who have committed suicide by flying the plane into the water or the ground.

WISE: Well, they have, Wolf. And you can't get away from the reality of fact. But having a camera in the cockpit has a plus and also has a minus. Years ago there was an American Airlines flight that took off out of Chicago and an engine came off the wing, and that airplane went right into the ground. They had a camera on that airplane, and people were able to see inside the airplane exactly what was happening to them. So there is a downside to some of that, but the upside certainly would be to help investigations.

BLITZER: And there's a huge upside in a situation like this. And if you're a pilot, I know the pilots, they don't like to have the notion of somebody's recording everything they're saying or watching everything they're doing, but you know what? It's a huge responsibility to have.

GOELZ: You could create the protections for them and their privacy. We've got to go in that direction. I think the pilot's union has to be a little bit more proactive to get that accomplished.

BLITZER: You're all right. OK, guys, stand by. Up next, two large objects, one of them 79 feet along, floating miles apart. Could those satellite images really show debris from Flight 370? We're going to show you how analysts are reaching their conclusions.

And debris from the airliner may have been drifting in swift ocean currents for several days now. You're going to see how that makes the search even more difficult.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) Not only is the weather in the search area a serious problem, even if the debris can be located and it turns out to be from the missing plane, it's important to remember that it's been floating in the ocean currents now for nearly two weeks. Let's bring in our meteorologist Chad Myers. There are enormous problems here.

Chad, walk us through some of the problems. First and foremost right now, planes are flying over, ships in the area, the weather is pretty awful.

CHAD MYERS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It sure was last night. It's getting better today, for sure. They're in the middle now of a high pressure. I know this is going to be hard to think about, but everything is backward. Everything is backward in Australia. So fronts move, in our mind, the wrong way. This is the Southern Hemisphere. Everything spins the wrong way.

So the cold front is moving up towards our Kyung Lah right there. She's going to get bad weather today, but the searchers are going to have great weather today. It won't get better from here. Tomorrow will be good, but if we don't find this in 48 hours, a big weather front is coming in again for Saturday and Sunday.

And this is our exclusive high-res model, Wolf. That red right there where the debris is, that's 40 to 50 mile-per-hour winds, and that will certainly hamper any efforts. That will make the waves so large. That will also make any...

BLITZER: Chad, hold on for one moment. Chad, hold on for one moment, because I want to go to Kyung Lah. She's in Perth, Australia, right now. You say the weather is bad. I know you can hear me. I know it's getting pretty bad over there. So set the scene for us what's going on in Perth. Because this is where all those reconnaissance and surveillance aircraft are based, flying over the area where the debris supposedly is located.

Go ahead, Kyung.

KYUNG LAH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, in about 30 minutes they are actually scheduled to take off, the very first P-3 Orion plane, but I have to tell you, Wolf, the weather in just the last hour or so has gotten very, very bad here. It's almost hurricane-type conditions. Rain coming sideways, very, very windy.

But the Australian air force here telling us that they feel pretty confident they're going to be able to take off. There are two scheduled right now, at 6 a.m. and at 8 a.m. And we've been talking about how difficult this is -- part of the world to get to, 4-1/2-hour flight down there then only two hours to circle before they have to return. So the weather down there considerably better, but here it's going to be tough as far as them taking off on time, Wolf.

BLITZER: And do you think those P-3s that the U.S., the Australians, others have, those surveillance planes, the P-8 Poseidon, that's a newer version, a bigger version of those surveillance, that they'll actually be able to take off? Because you're absolutely right, the weather looks pretty awful where you are.

LAH: Yes, pretty awful might be a bit of an understatement right now. The storm that has come in. It is very, very bad. When I spoke to the PIO, it was right before all of this weather started, and he seemed very, very confident. The officers were here; they had been briefed. They've been here for several hours, and they were ready to take off. They felt pretty confident back then, but this weather -- this weather is pretty bad. So we'll have to check in with them again.

BLITZER: All right. Kyung, I'm going to come back to you, but let me go to Chad right now. Chad Myers, assuming they can take off, they're going to have to fly for a while in pretty horrendous situations, right?

MYERS: You bet. Very bumpy flying over that cold front that you see right through here. Ironically, Wolf, the storm that Kyung is in is that. It's big as a pinhead on my map, but it is certainly a big storm right there. It will go away rather, rather quickly. But now they're going to start worrying about these currents out here. Where did the stuff, even 4 1/2 days ago that they saw, with the satellite, where did it go?

Part of the South Pacific gyre here, we're talking about the Indian gyre here. It's a big current that goes around and around and around. You know about the currents. We know about the Atlantic current. It runs up the East Coast. Well, the current we're worried about here now also has these eddies in it, these tiny little swirls.

So where did this current go? Where did the pieces go? Why are they 17 miles apart? Because if you're over here, you're going this way. A piece over here is going this way. It's the swirling of the current there in the southern Indian Ocean, and it's not going to get easier. This is going to be a very difficult recovery if they don't get it done in 48 hours. The weather coming in in 48 hours is much worse than what we're seeing right now for sure, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. And they've got to really move over the next few hours.

MYERS: You bet.

BLITZER: And try to -- and try to get this done. Explain what a gyre is. MYERS: OK. I'll get back to that. Sure. It is a swirling mass of water. That's the big -- talk about the one that we know about the most, right there. This is the one we know about the most. It's in the Pacific. It's the same reason why we're -- we had the tsunami debris coming off Japan. We actually got that back toward the United States.

Well, eventually, that water goes all the way around in a very big circle. Now this could take years for that circle to go around, and what we have here is a different one. This is the one here in Indian Ocean. Let me see if I can open that up on this side so I can see it. It's a gyre that goes this way around.

And there may even be some Bandai Aceh debris in this gyre going all the way around, but probably not -- this has been how long since the Banda Aceh earthquake? Now ten years. So it's really probably broken up. But it would be in this big circle, where our debris here is in this.

But the middle of the junk is here. Where everything kind of spins around in the whirlpool and nothing ever leaves. This here, we're kind of on this northward or northeastward track of that part of the gyre, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. We're learning a lot here in THE SITUATION ROOM. Chad, thanks very much.

Up next, a closer look at those two large objects. One of them 79 feet long, floating miles apart in the Indian Ocean. So how do analysts reach their conclusions?

Also, we're exploring why the jet may have flown for so long -- potentially there's one theory out there -- without anyone sounding an alarm? The chilling so-called zombie plane theory. That and a lot more coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Momentarily, search planes will go out once again and pursue what one official calls the best lead that we have so far. But so far, they haven't found the apparent debris picked up on satellite images, and no one is sure what those images really show. Brian Todd is taking a closer look at what we're all seeing.

Brian, what's going on?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this is the latest mystery within the broader mystery. These satellite photos taken four days ago, but the burning question: what do they show? To start off, we look at how they're analyzed.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): Credible sightings, Australian officials call them, two large objects, captured on satellite photos, one about 79 feet long, the other about 16 feet. JOHN YOUNG, AUSTRALIAN MARITIME SAFETY AUTHORITY: We need to get there, find them, see them, assess them to know whether it's really meaningful or not.

TODD: What gave the Australians confidence to say these two blurry objects may be parts of the plane? These images come from a Colorado based company called Digital Globe. Imagery analyst Tim Brown says Digital Globe satellites fly at four miles a second in a polar orbit, snapping huge swaths of pictures at a time.

(On camera): How would the searchers have taken these satellite images and determined that this was debris?

TIM BROWN, IMAGERY ANALYST, GLOBALSECURITY.ORG: What they're looking for are bright objects against the dark sea and sometimes you use a change detection software to do that, other times, they have the human eyeballs and in the case of the Australians they have lots and lots of eyeballs.

TODD (voice-over): Google Earth satellites can zoom down and capture very detailed pictures, like these of planes at Reagan National Airport with publicly available technology. But these satellite pictures of the objects in question are fuzzy. Brown says Australian intelligence officials likely saw higher-resolution versions than the ones released to the public.

BROWN: And that's because they just don't want to share that information with potential adversaries, for example.

TODD: Why did it take four days for the pictures to go public? Brown says Digital Globe would have had to first download them to ground stations then send them by a satellite to their Colorado labs, process them in different formats, then send them to the Australians who would examine them frame by frame, pixel by pixel.

(On camera): If the currents are strong, and the ocean is choppy, how do you distinguish between white caps and a crucial piece of debris?

BROWN: If you have a white cap like that it's much more difficult to identify a piece of degree. And so it would require just more attention and a lot more eyeballs to make those distinctions.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: And now what's making the search more difficult is what Kyung Lah and Chad Myers have just reported. The water in that area really choppy with these storms. After the pictures were released the search was hindered by low visibility and rough seas in that same area down here, Wolf, and you just saw from that region, it's getting worse.

BLITZER: Yes. At least in Perth, with those planes, those surveillance plane, they have to take off from -- if they get to see these objects, so they finally find these objects, it's still challenging. Could take some time to get a final answer whether or not it's wreckage from the plane.

TODD: That's right, Wolf. Australian officials say they have to locate that debris. They have to confirm that it may belong to the aircraft, recover it, then bring it back to Australia for analysis. Could be several days or weeks. And analysts say these pictures are really just a moderate step forward.

BLITZER: Brian Todd, thanks very much.

We're joined now by Van Gurley, a former Navy oceanographer, and back with us, our CNN aviation analyst Peter Goelz and our national security analyst Fran Townsend.

Van, you spent 26 years in the Navy. So describe a little bit the challenge that awaits those who are searching for this debris.

VAN GURLEY, FORMER NAVY OCEANOGRAPHER: Well, as you -- as you've already talked about. The weather in this part of the world is pretty much the worst there is. The southern oceans are distant. It's an isolated place and it's very hard to get to. You know, the discussion is already --

BLITZER: For both planes and boats?

GURLEY: For everybody. You know, if you wanted to find the end of the earth, this is probably where you would start.

BLITZER: Really?

GURLEY: So one, it's a very remote area. It's very hard to get assets in there. And then once you get in there, you have to deal with the weather. Now the good part is the even worse weather is farther from south typically than what they're looking at now, but that certainly isn't helping today's search and tomorrow's search and the things with the Australian P-3s and the U.S. P-8s are going to have to deal with.

BLITZER: Chad Myers, our meteorologist, said out in this area where the debris -- if this is debris from the aircraft where the satellite images showed this debris, there's a 48-hour window now where the weather is relatively OK?

GURLEY: That's exactly true. I mean, there will be a series of storms that move to that area that will continue to be an issue that they will have to deal with in the search. The other thing that complicates this is, assuming this is really the wreckage and we, you know, hope that they are at least on a lead now, it's not a straight line to figure out where it came from. The currents are always changing, as some of your previous reporters have mentioned.

So the fact that you've storms moving through the area, you've got currents that continue to shift around will make it very difficult to sort of backtrack that wreckage to the possible impact point. Even in the case of Air France 447, the company I'm with, Metron, had a leading hand in sort of figuring out where to look. We had a very contained area, only about 20-mile circle that we wanted to look at based on the information we had. It still took six days to find the first wreckage and over two years to find the aircraft at the bottom.

BLITZER: This is a lot more challenging. And it's 1500 miles off the coast of Australia, Perth, Australia. That's where those U.S. Navy and Australia and another plane, the surveillance plane, have to -- it could take four hours just to get to this area and then you can spend a couple of hours, but then you've got to get back given the amount of fuel you have. So it's a real challenge for those who are looking.

PETER GOELZ, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: It's hard to have -- there's no ground base that they can work from that isn't a real reach. So this is going to be a challenge. But these guys can do it.

BLITZER: Let me bring Fran in for a second, because, Fran, there's -- a lot of people are worried that the Malaysians aren't doing everything that they can, that the Indonesians are not letting U.S. planes fly through their air space, that there could be other issues with the Chinese or Singapore. You really need full cooperation in an international search and rescue operation like this.

FRANCES FRAGOS TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CONTRIBUTOR: Look, Wolf, the best news that we have is that the Australians, frankly, by proximity alone are basically now leading this effort in this remote area of the south Indian Ocean. We know that the Australians are confident. We know that our information sharing with them both at a classified, non-classified level is unsurpassed, frankly.

And so we've got kind of a real experience, really capable partner now looking over this. But I will tell you, you know, we have to understand, the Malaysians, there's no question. Their ability to coordinate the investigation and the release of information has not been very good. But they have been overwhelmed. This is -- this is a period now that we're in in the -- the search and rescue operation where the Australians will provide the backbone and the support, the leading edge, if you will.

The problem is going to be going forward. The crux of the investigation have been handled by the Malaysians. The good news is, for example, on the flight simulator they've asked for the FBI expertise. Expertise that we don't believe that they had. And so again, to the extent that the Malaysians are willing to accept the help of a more capable and experienced partners, we're more likely to yield the sort of information and results we need.

BLITZER: I want to bring Van into this.

Van, there's a video. I'm going to show the video and I want you to explain what's going on. Because this potentially could be very critical. It's a sonobuoy, as it's called. You see this plane and you see something come out. That's the sonobuoy. Now watch what happened. Explain what happens as it enters the water and you see a series of steps that unfold.

GURLEY: All right. So this is a standard piece of equipment employed by our and the Australian's P-3s and P-8s. So what you've got here is you've got one tether going to the surface to have a radio antenna, and now you've got hydro foams, the listening devices, that are coming out of the -- of the buoy casings themselves. And they will deploy and this becomes a short-term listening device at that point in the ocean. It's got a radio antenna so it's talking to the aircraft the entire time and they can hear what it hears.

BLITZER: And presumably could hear the pings from these flight data recorders, the so-called black boxes?

GURLEY: Correct.

BLITZER: And that -- so that would be pretty significant. Do we know yet if they actually dropped any of those sonobuoys into the waters where this debris may be located?

GURLEY: Not based on anything I've heard. I did hear about some buoy deployments yesterday mainly to look at what the currents are doing because we'll need to have that information to sort of backtrack to the possible impact point. So I'm not sure what has been deployed in the area. I think more importantly, though, is getting to -- is it the right wreckage before we start listening for the pingers because that -- the range to hear the pingers is very short.

BLITZER: All right. We're going to get back to you but it's a good explanation for those sonobuoy. We're learning a whole lot of important information here in the SITUATION ROOM.

Up next, could the disappearance of Flight 370 be a case of pilot suicide? It's happened before. We'll take a closer look at lessons learned from the crash of an Egyptian airliner.

And time is running out to find the missing plane's flight and data recorders. So why is that adding to the urgency of the search?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: As investigators dig into every conceivable reason for the disappearance of Flight 370, one possibility they can't rule out yet is pilot suicide, a deliberate move to bring down the plane by the pilot. It wouldn't be the first time.

CNN's Athena Jones is looking into this story for us.

Athena, give us some background.

ATHENA JONES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, this is just one of many scenarios investigators have to look into.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JONES (voice-over): Could one or both of the pilots of Flight 370 have decided to crash the plane? That's what U.S. officials say happened when EgyptAir Flight 990 plunged into the Atlantic in 1999. Investigators say the EgyptAir co-pilot who learned he was probably going to lose his job took control of the plane when the captain stepped out of the cockpit. He pushed the yoke forward sending it into a nose-dive, saying, "I rely on God," 11 times according to the cockpit voice recorder.

The captain returns 15 seconds later saying, what's happening? He struggles to right the plane but the co-pilot turns off the engine sending the aircraft into the sea, killing all 217 people onboard. The last words heard in the cockpit, the captain saying, "Pull with me."

So could that have happened here?

GOELZ: The only thing the evidence points to is that somebody in the cockpit was directing this aircraft off its normal course. We don't know who. We don't know why.

JONES: But there are some similarities.

GOELZ: If you've got a perfectly good airplane with absolutely nothing wrong that ends up tragically in the water, you've got to look at every explanation.

JONES: The EgyptAir pilots never sent a mayday call. The Malaysian Airlines pilots didn't send a distress call either. That's unusual but not unheard of. And there are differences. Investigators say that EgyptAir co-pilot didn't turn off the transponder. Flight 370's transponder was shut off.

As in all investigations, authorities immediately began looking into the background of the EgyptAir pilots. Investigators are doing the same in the Malaysian Airlines' case, searching both pilots' homes and looking closely at the flight simulator they took from the captain's home. So far no evidence either pilot was involved.

THOMAS ANTHONY, FORMER FAA CIVIL AVIATION INVESTIGATOR: It's something that most of us should never consider because it is so extremely rare, it is beyond -- almost beyond imagination.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

JONES: Now it could be a very long time before they get to the bottom of what happened in this case. And even when they do, it doesn't mean everyone's going to agree. Egypt disputes the NTSB's finding that the co-pilot was responsible in this EgyptAir crash. They blamed mechanical error -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Athena, thanks very much.

Our aviation analyst, Peter Goelz, you see him in Athena's piece, is still with us here.

A former managing director of the NTSB, you were involved in every step of the EgyptAir disaster. Do you have any doubt that this was pilot suicide? GOELZ: There was simply no doubt. We were able to match up both the data recorder and the voice recorder and we know that the co-pilot flew the plane into the ocean.

BLITZER: And simply because he was about to lose his job? Was that the reason?

GOELZ: He had had a very trough trip to New York. His chief pilot had told him the day before, you're done with the airline, you're not going to make it to your 60th birthday, you're out when you get back.

BLITZER: And you concluded that, the Egyptian government said they disputed that?

GOELZ: They disputed it once they saw the evidence but while the evidence was being developed, we know that they agreed.

BLITZER: All right. Peter, thanks very much. That's one of the theories in this flight as well but no evidence to back that up.

At the top of the hour, a SITUATION ROOM special report on the mystery of Flight 370. We're taking a closer look at what's being called another theory, the so-called zombie plane theory. It could explain why the jet flew the wrong way for so long and nobody aboard sounded any alarm.

And as every second passes, batteries are running down and equipment that may explain what went wrong but can it be found before the batteries go dead?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: A SITUATION ROOM special report on the mystery of Flight 370 only minutes away but we're also watching ominous new developments right now in the crisis with Russia. A U.S. official with access to the latest intelligence says in recent days an estimated 20,000 Russian troops have assembled in what are called motorized units right near the Ukraine border. Today only hours after Russia's parliament took another step towards formally annexing Ukraine's breakaway province of Crimea, President Obama announced a new round of targeted economic sanctions against the Russians.

And the Russians, they quickly hit back by banning visits by some U.S. lawmakers including Senator John McCain.

More drastic sanctions may just be around the corner.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I signed a new executive order today that gives us the authority to impose sanctions not just on individuals but on key sectors of the Russian economy. This is not our preferred outcome. And these sanctions would not only have a significant impact on the Russian economy but could also be disruptive to the global economy. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Our senior international correspondent Nick Paton Walsh, he's right in the middle of all of this in Crimea, that disputed area right now. The Russians say that is part of Russia. Ukraine says it's part of Ukraine.

So how's all of this playing? These sanctions, the U.S. imposing the countersanctions, the Russians are leveling against U.S. officials. How is it playing out where you are -- Nick.

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's still really a done deal here in Crimea, Wolf. We're seeing increased pressure against those remaining Ukrainian military bases here causing them one by one, it seems, to fall. Some ships, in fact, in Sevastopol harbor apparently stormed today as these pro-Russian protesters and troops move in clearing out the remnants of the Ukrainian army here.

But fears, as you said, still really focused on whether or not Crimea is the extent of Vladimir Putin's ambitions. We've heard from western officials including the NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen that actually they believe the annexation of Crimea was simply the start.

But what was remarkable today, Wolf, was to see, in fact, the fierceness and how well targeted the sanctions announced by the White House actually were. For the first time the U.S. Treasury officials laying out who they say they believe are Vladimir Putin's cashiers, his personal bankers, so to speak, intimating perhaps that a larger wealth you might expect someone to have accumulated on simply a presidential salary.

Targeting his chief of staff, targeting key banks where top Russian officials are supposed to hold money, the Rossiya Bank, in particular. Very personal, very direct and actually I think more effective than many people had anticipated given the initial trounce of sanctions announced on Monday and, of course, this executive order which says that perhaps parts of the Russian economy in general could be targeted if this continues.

That's the real fear, I think, here. What we heard today from the White House was punishment for Crimea and prohibiting many important people from having access to the global economy in many ways because if you can't interact with the U.S., you can really do that, the question is, are they really trying to sound enough of a warning shot to prevent any intervention in eastern Ukraine? That's the real concern now -- Wolf.

BLITZER: A very, very jittery situation right now especially with 20,000 Russian troops poised on the border once again with Ukraine right now potentially to move in. The president warning against that, President Obama warning against that today.

Nick Paton Walsh, we'll check back with you, of course. Thank you. Coming up, time is quickly running out to find the missing airliner's flight and data recorders. You're going to see why this is adding to the urgency of the search.

And the so-called zombie scenario, a chilling new theory in which deadly fumes overcome everyone on board leaving the plane to fly itself.

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