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Changing Aviation; Washington Landslide; Satellites Pick Up Hundreds of Floating Objects; Source Says Problems With Pinger Batteries

Aired March 27, 2014 - 12:30   ET



ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: So a very big headline in the search for Flight 370 today was a lot of debris in one particular area, and I want to show you how we know about it and what it actually looks like when you're looking at it via satellite.

This is one of the newest pictures from the general area where satellites are now searching for that plane wreckage and snapping photos as fast as they can. Perhaps to the layperson, this just looks like a lot of clouds and blob, but this is what a trained analyst will see instead. And let me point out that these pieces of something, one, two, three, four and five, are floating in the water. And it's just five of about 300 objects that have been picked up by a Thai satellite.

Chad Myers is here to sort of navigate how on earth they see that for starters, and do they have something better to work with than you and I do? Is that why it's hard for us to figure it out.

CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: I'm so glad you said a layperson sees clouds and blobs. I see only clouds and blobs, and I've been doing this for 27 years.

They have other filters they're looking at. This is the visual spectrum, but there are so many other spectrums to focus on. They also know the exact color that plane was painted. They can look for and focus only on that color.

Think about this, turn on the lights in your room and everything looks normal. Then you turn on the black light you can get from Spencer's back in the day, and everything looks different. They're putting different filters on these lenses to see things you and I can't see.

BANFIELD: I'm not optimistic about that. There are other people who are plenty optimistic about that, right?

MYERS: Right. Oh, absolutely. We'll talk about this polar orbiting satellite and how it focuses and how it works in a second.

BANFIELD: OK. And I want to bring in Bob Baer for a moment, too, because, you know, Bob, with your background, ex-CIA, you're doing great analysis for us just in the foreign policies and the secrecy of what they have and the gear that they're using.

Help me to feel better about what Chad just showed me. Are there better images because the cameras are actually far better and the resolution is far better. And why is it do I need to get my hands on a piece of Flight 370 instead of just a very good camera picture?

BOB BAER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Ashleigh, the problem is the resolution on these cameras from satellites is a tightly held secret. We will never see it.

And I spent many, many years looking at these images, for instance, looking at tank filters and the top of tanks and you can tell them apart it's so good. You can read license plate on a clear day from space. And it's something we can't show the Chinese or the Russians. This is a defense secret. There's a good reason.

So what the analysts are looking at is a lot better than we're seeing. Now, whether they've actually identified plane parts or not, I can't tell you. But trust me, it's a lot better, and I don't blame them for not showing us.

BANFIELD: And I'll be honest with you, when you said that, the license plate, I think we all in the back of our minds really know that, that we can photograph a license plate from space and we probably know what bin Laden was eating before we caught him, which frustrates the rest of us because we keep sending all of these human assets out into horrible conditions in order to just prove one simple question, is it the plane? Can't we do better than this?

BAER: No, unfortunately because of that plane broke up, there's nothing easily identifiable.

We'll know, for instance, the shape of a tank or of an airplane, and an analyst will immediately be able to focus on that. He'll recognize it, be able to turn on other satellite equipment like infrared and get a really, really good picture. And, you know, they've got these 3D devices they can look at the stuff.

But a broken up plane, that's something entirely different. They're not used to looking at this stuff, and it's going to take them a while, and it's going to take a lot of comparison. And they're also going to have to look at pictures before the plane went down and after to make sure it wasn't just another debris field unrelated. So, it doesn't surprise me it takes some time. It's not like Hollywood --


BAER: -- when you see the whole world in front of you from a satellite.

BANFIELD: Just as you were saying that, Chad, you were nodding as well. Quick comment.

MYERS: Just think about a 12-megapixel camera. No matter how great that image looks to you, if you keep blowing it up, it starts to break up. And, so, when you start to use that telephoto lens and you get these stripes that these polar-orbiting satellites are making, if you get them only down to only a couple hundred feet wide, which you need to be able to see a license plate, then all of a sudden you could go right through the debris and never see a piece of debris because you're looking through a soda straw, not through the wide-angle lens.

BANFIELD: It's a great point. You're looking through a soda straw here, not the wide-angle lens.

Chad Myers, Bob Baer, thank you both, excellent insight.

And the clock is certainly ticking. You've been hearing about the battery life on those black boxes, right? Everybody says 30 days and then they go quiet, roughly.

But today, we're actually finding out that the way Malaysia Airlines has been storing those batteries might really tinker with the numbers and make it even harder to find those critical black boxes. Details of why, how this happened, is it going to change, will we lose them before we find them? That's next.


BANFIELD: A little bit of breaking news I want to tell you about.

The Pentagon has told CNN that we are replacing one of the search aircraft that we supply to the efforts in Australia, taking away one of those P-3s -- they're remarkable search-and-rescue aircraft -- and we're replacing it with something even better, a second P-8.

The P-8 seen here on your screen is the "Cadillac." It is so new it didn't even take part in some of the plane crashes and search-and- rescue efforts we've had in the last five years. So, another P-8 headed to the scene.

And by the way, the rear admiral, John Kirby, press secretary for the Pentagon, he told us that he has not got any plans, the Pentagon at least, to send any warships, U.S. warships, to the search efforts, saying that we've got better assets in place, that the search planes are really the way to go and that that's what we are focused on and that's what we're giving to the international fight to find Flight 370.

And since it disappeared, count it, 20 days ago now, the searchers have pinned a lot of their hopes on finding the black boxes to solve this mystery. And it means honing in on the pings. That's what will lead us to the black boxes. And of course, they are powered by batteries. If the batteries don't last, the pings don't ping. And the countdown is on. We've about 10 more days by an international count.

But here's the problem. A source close to CNN has said that there is something very disturbing about this.

Our David Soucie has found that the pingers may have already stopped, and he joins me now, live. You have talked to one of your sources who is directly involved with Malaysian Airlines. Tell me the story and what you heard and why that is so critical, David.

DAVID SOUCIE, CNN SAFETY ANALYST: Well, thanks for having me on, Ashleigh, because this is a really important point.

When he contacted me -- this is a mechanic now that did an audit, not only just did work for Malaysian Airline, he did an audit, so he went in there to check the maintenance procedures on how they store these parts, what they do with them.

When he was there, he discovered that these pingers, which are replaced every thousand hours on this aircraft, were stored improperly. They were stored in an area where it was well over 120 degrees, high humidity, and that's not right.

When it's that way, he says that these pingers will lose life. They're going to only be worth about 15 hours if they're in that storage condition. So he told them about it. They took those old pingers out and replaced with new ones and put them into a refrigerated area, which was great. If that was the case if that's where the story stopped, we'd be done.

However, he did a subsequent inspection. He went back and looked again and they were not following the procedures, loosely followed. Some were in the refrigerator. Some were not, back in the place they were before.

So his concern is that these pingers, which are replaced every thousand hours were indeed put onto this particular aircraft.

BANFIELD: Do we have any way of tracking that? Are they that careful with what was stored where? And I'm only guessing that Malaysia Airlines has everybody on working backward to find out if they've got a warm-storage pinger or a cold-storage pinger on Flight 370.

SOUCIE: Yeah. Now, remember, after he did this audit they came back and revised the procedures. So the procedure would be to say I put this particular serial number in the refrigerator, I took it out and I put it on this serial number aircraft.

But as he said, they're loosely following the actual place that they put them. I'm confident that they're doing the rest of the procedure right because they have what we call the R-double-I, the required double inspection.

So at that point, they're going to make sure it was done right. However, where it was stored at that time, I'm not sure that that's very well documented, considering what he'd said.

BANFIELD: That's very distressing, to say the least. You find a problem. You think you fix the problem, especially when human lives are at stake.

David Soucie, great reporting. I thank you for making that call and letting us know that might be the new obstacle we're up against.

The search for the missing plane has certainly revealed a lot of shortcomings. David just pointed out one, but how about this? The technology that we have to track you when you are flying, it is not as good as perhaps we thought, but will this disaster change the future of the planes that you fly in? Will it perhaps allow us not to go through this mystery again? The answer, ahead.


BANFIELD: Will lessons learned from the disappearance of Flight 370 lead to big changes in aviation technology? Things like adding perhaps GPS tracking to airplanes? Because that's something that most of us have on our cell phones right now. Certainly would have helped us find the Malaysia Airlines jet anywhere on the globe.

The U.S. Navy is using its most sophisticated high-tech search plane, the P-8, the Poseidon, to search for the missing airliner. And we just learned from the Pentagon, they're sending another one, a second P-8 en route, taking back a P-3 and putting in a better model.

And satellites were able to figure out Flight 370's route by analyzing the pattern of blips that it created as it flew. And we certainly have the technology to hone in on the pinging of the black boxes once we actually locate them. But 20 days in, the exact location is certainly a big mystery. And all of this just begs the question, when are we going to upgrade this technology where real people are flying on planes? Here's Stephanie Elam.


BARRY SCHIFF, RETIRED COMMERCIAL AIRLINE CAPT.: Every accident affects the future of aviation because we learn so much from it.

STEPHANIE ELAM, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Jetliner catastrophes don't happen often, but when they do, the impact on air travel can be global. In light of the mystery of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, the decades old radar technology is being called into question.

ELAM (on camera): It seems pretty crazy to me that in 2014 a plane could just disappear.

SCHIFF: I agree with you. You know, anybody can buy a little spot locator that transmits to satellites all the time. And we would always know where this person was. Why such things are not on board every jetliner, I don't know.

ELAM (voice-over): In fact, the Federal Aviation Administration has mandated that by 2020 all commercial aircraft have GPS on board. But the FAA doesn't call the shots for international skies.

ANDREW THOMAS, EDITOR, JOURNAL OF TRANSPIRATION SECURITY: The way that aviation happens in so many ways is still very local. It's dependent upon government regulations, history, traditions, idiosyncrasies and governments at the local level. ELAM: After 9/11, changes were made. Cockpit doors, for example, were reinforced. But Thomas says long before 2001, calls for that very improvement from some groups in the industry fell on deaf ears.

THOMAS: The industry is always hard pressed to spend money on anything above and beyond what it's mandated to do by government. There will be talk about this, but I think in the end you won't see a - you won't see a lot of action on it.

ELAM (on camera): Any changes will take years. The major reason for that is cost. So while there are many suggestions out there from cameras in the cockpit and cabin, into streaming flight data in real time, these upgrades would cost millions of dollars and would have to be implemented without disrupting a system that moves millions of passengers a day.

ELAM (voice-over): And who will pay for those upgrades? In the U.S., the airlines, the taxpayers and ultimately passengers.

ELAM (on camera): Do you think maybe now the world will change how we fly?

SCHIFF: We've learned that we need to keep track of airplanes flying across the world's oceans. We need to know where they are at all times. More today perhaps than any other time in the past.

ELAM (voice-over): Stephanie Elam, CNN, Los Angeles.


BANFIELD: And we're following another very big story today, that horrific mudslide in Washington state. It effectively obliterated a whole community. And the heartbreaking search for people still unaccounted for is continuing. Coming up after the break, some very good news and some bad news.


BANFIELD: In Washington state, another grueling day of digging through the mud to find victims from Saturday's awful landslide. The biggest update so far, the number of those confirmed missing or unaccounted for has dropped. And it's dropped significantly from 176 to 90. Now, that's the good news.

But another 35 people are in a whole other category. County officials saying their status is, quote, "still unknown." And the worst news, up to 24 people are dead, 16 of the bodies have been recovered, but the crews are still working to recover the additional eight.

And that is a very difficult task. The rescuers have been working for five days now and the response in this extraordinarily small series of communities has been nothing less than overwhelming, but also extremely emotional. Not just for the families of the dead and the missing, but also for the people who are trying to find them.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) JOHN PENNINGTON, SNOHOMISH COUNTY EMA DIRECTOR: A brief pause to thank all of the local community support and volunteers. We are humbled beyond belief in this county. We have received -- it is -- it is very humbling. It is very humbling and we're respectfully very grateful.

ERIC (INAUDIBLE), NEIGHBOR (ph): We can't lose hope for anybody in this community. That's not what we're here for. We're here to find those people.

PETER SELVIG, RETIRED FOREST SERVICE WORKER: This fellow was saved, but his wife passed away. This guy was saved and his wife passed away. This guy who lived and his wife died, which we were on the school board together for about 30 years.

ROBYN YOUNGBLOOD, LANDSLIDE SURVIVOR: My house is match sticks. There's nothing left. It ripped the roof off. And that's - I thank God for that because if the roof had still been on, the house filled up with mud and water, we would have drowned.

SELVIG: And I always told my kids, you know, after you call them, it's kind of hard for me, but say I love you because that might be the end, the last time you're going to see them.


BANFIELD: I want to get us straight to George Howell. He is live in Arlington, Washington, right now.

George, it's so hard to see that, but the search and rescue efforts continue. What's the latest you've got today?

GEORGE HOWELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Ashleigh, we just came out of a news conference just a few minutes ago and we learned today that they have pulled more victims from the mud. However, they are not adding to, they are not updating that latest number. As you mentioned, up to 24 dead. We know that 16 are confirmed dead and the eight that you mentioned that they have not recovered from the mud. Well, this adds to that. We're waiting, though, for the medical examiner's office to identify those victims and clear them. There's a process. So that's when we expect to get updated numbers on a death toll that even the governor says he expects to rise.

I do want to tell you about a story that I heard inside. It was with Chief Travis Hauts (ph). Yesterday was his first time to go to the site. He's been here, you've seen him on television plenty of times giving the information. Yesterday was the first time that he had an opportunity to go there, to see these volunteers working. And he described one situation where he saw volunteers, they approached a car that was in the mud, they saw a body in the car. And he says the dignity, the care that they applied to pull the body out, that's what they're doing case by case by case. And he watched it happen. It's something that really stood out to him.

He said that when you get there on the site, for him it just defies imagination. For instance, one ball of mud, he described as big as an ambulance. That ball came rolling down -- sliding down this mountain at a speed that, you know, who could imagine. Again, this happened within a matter of seconds. Three or four seconds, people were at home on a Saturday doing what you do on a Saturday morning and then all of a sudden they're covered in mud. It's a situation that Travis Hauts said is just unbelievable and something they're trying to sort out day by day.

BANFIELD: It's hard to see the pictures and it really does help to tell that story, just how harrowing that job is and how difficult. And, you know, I thank you for telling that story about the care and the dignity that the searchers are employing. I think that will be small consolation to people who are in the worst time of their lives right now.

George Howell, thank you for that. George joining us live.

HOWELL: Thank you.

BANFIELD: And we'll continue to update, as George is able to update the numbers of those victims, a, that they're able to get to, the ones they know are there, and then, b, the numbers they're looking for when they do find them.

And if you want to help, you can log onto Some great work going on there if you want to help those people who are struggling in that community. In fact, we are all Americans and we can certainly be a part of that.

Thanks, everyone, for watching. It's been great to have you with us this hour. I'm going to turn the helm over to my colleague, Wolf Blitzer. His program starts right now.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer, reporting from Washington.