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Urgent Search Continues for Missing Airliner

Aired December 28, 2014 - 09:00   ET


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.


Breaking news this Sunday morning.

It's hard to believe we're saying this again, but an urgent search is under way for a Malaysia-based airliner that vanished without a trace. This time, it's an AirAsia jet carrying 162 people. The plane is an Airbus A-320.

It lost contact with ground controllers less than an hour after taking off from the Indonesian city of Surabaya, bound for Singapore. In his last message from the cockpit, the pilot asked to deviate from the flight plan due to bad weather.

We have correspondents and analysts standing by around the world to bring us the very latest on the search, CNN law enforcement analyst Tom Fuentes, who is a former assistant director of the FBI, Steven Wallace, a former director of the Federal Aviation authority's Office of Accident Investigation. Also with us, Peter Goelz, who is a managing -- a former managing director for the National Transportation Safety Board, and CNN aviation correspondent Rene Marsh.

But I want to begin in Beijing with CNN's Will Ripley, who has been following the ins and outs of what we know so far -- Will.

WILL RIPLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, what we know is that the families right now in Indonesia, Dana, are going through a similar agony that the families right here in Beijing went through in the initial hours after MH370 disappeared, where they are waiting at the airport for any information, information that for the Flight 370 families really still hasn't come. They still don't have closure.

The situation right now in Indonesia far different. We know that the air and sea search has suspended for the night because it is now dark here, but, at first light, the search will resume. One thing that we know is also happening is, the larger ships in the Java Sea will be turning on their large search lights to keep an eye on the water overnight in the overnight hours here for any debris that may turn up.

Obviously, if a plane came down from a high altitude, even if there are survivors, which, of course, families are holding on to any bit of hope at this point, there would certainly be debris, certainly be something to see on the water. And there will be a lot of people looking certainly overnight and much more in the coming hours in the morning -- Dana.

BASH: And, Will, let's just take it back a notch, and if you can explain for our viewers what we know about what happened in the final moments of the communication between the pilot and ground control.

RIPLEY: Well, it's monsoon season in this part of the world, Dana. And so planes in this particular area on this particular route from Surabaya to Singapore, it's almost expected that they are going to fly through turbulent weather.

But this was a particularly bad cell because there were actually three different storms that converged into one. So, we know that the pilot radioed in, wanted to get to a higher altitude to try to avoid this. That was shortly before air traffic control lost contact. That's what makes this situation much different.

They have the radar images. They have much more data to go on as they resume this search by air and by sea, whereas with Flight 370, there was no distress call, no bad weather, no reports of any technical problems, and the transponders on the planes -- plane were switched off, which is why that search still continues. So many families here still don't have answers. We can only hope that the families in Indonesia will get answers much more quickly.

BASH: Will, thank you very much. We will get back to you later in the hour.

I want to bring in our Rene Marsh.

Rene, you have been talking to your sources at the NTSB. What are they telling you about what they think happened?

RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Well, we reached out to the NTSB yesterday, and still no official word as to what their role would be.

We have seen in past incidents where they have played a role. However, we don't know what the situation will be here. We know that they are -- have lots of experience when it comes to this sort of thing, whether it -- whether it be analyzing the flight data recorders. But, again, at this point, we do not know what role the NTSB will play.

I have been in touch also with the manufacturer of the aircraft, Airbus. And they tell us that this is a relatively young aircraft. We're talking 6 years old. It was delivered in 2008, has 23 flight hours, so, again, a young aircraft. As far as the maintenance goes, we know that it went in for its last maintenance check in November.

And everything checked out just fine. So it seems that, as far as November goes or as late as November, everything was OK with this aircraft, Airbus saying, though, that they will be cooperating with investigators, French investigators, which is essentially the equivalent of the NTSB here in the U.S. They have provided us with a statement. I will read to you just

in part. It says: "Airbus regrets to confirm that an A-320-200 operated by AirAsia Indonesia lost contact with air traffic control this morning,, December 28, 2014."

They go on to say: "Airbus will provide full assistance to the French safety investigation authority, the BEA" -- again, that's the equivalent of the NTSB here in the United States -- "and to authorities in charge of the investigation." They go on to say that their thoughts are with the families affected by this.

But the key is really going to be locating that wreckage, because, in order for us to get to the next part of this, we need to find that wreckage, helps piece together this picture of what happened, along with the flight data recorder.

BASH: Of course.

And on that, we're going to actually bring in U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Ken Christensen, who specializes in just what Rene was talking about, search and rescue.

Ken, you were talking to our folks before going on the air about the fact that you are concerned that there was a lag time, once again, a lag time in beginning the search-and-rescue service, the search-and- rescue operation. Tell us about that.

LT. COL. KEN CHRISTENSEN (RET.), AVIATION CONSULTANT: Yes, Rene -- I mean -- I'm sorry -- Dana.

I think there's a vital time that was missed, just like when the missing Malaysian aircraft, it -- it was delays on where the radar data was and just when the first-responders got in the air and got out and did the debris search.

This is a very different flight, because it's -- they were in radar contact for the entire flight. It was only a two-and-a-half- hour flight. So, they knew exactly when that plane went off the radar. And at that point, when that would go missing, they should have alerted rescue forces. It was daylight and they could have gone on a route search.

And that starts from the origin of the aircraft to -- and they concentrate the search where the aircraft went off the radar or went missing.

BASH: I mean, obviously, we're just sort of theorizing here, but based on your information, your knowledge or experience, why do you think there could have been a delay here? Because, from what I have been reading, when it comes to the region, Indonesia has one of the best, if not the best, operations like this, search-and-rescue operations, and their experience.

CHRISTENSEN: I just think we have seen this twice now within a year that, when airplanes are lost in this region or go missing, that there's not a sense of urgency, or at least we're not seeing a sense of urgency with the search-and-rescue forces getting out there.

It is summer on the Southern Hemisphere. So water temperatures and things like that could sustain life if they were able to ditch safely. But it looks like this is more pointing towards weather- related. Of course, this is all speculative until you find any wreckage.

BASH: Take us to the scene.

If you were there, given your expertise in search and rescue, it is nightfall now. They have stopped the major search and rescue. They have the big ships out with the big lights. But when the sun comes up, 6:00 Eastern time in the morning there, what's the first thing that has to be done?

CHRISTENSEN: Well, the first thing, I would start again on a route search. What -- they knew what the flight path of that aircraft is.

You want to start there and immediately go to where the plane disappeared, because you knew -- you know it was there. And then, as the airplane is flying in the direction of flight, when it went missing, the plane is going to drift down, or, if it came apart, it's going to float down, and you -- and then you look at the tides of the water and you can plot that and start looking there.

That's where your concentrated search is going to be. You are going to want to get ships to that area, perhaps helicopters or other airplanes from multiple altitudes you can get eyes out and look at that.

Now, weather is a big problem there. So they might have to fly below the clouds. And us in the United States, we have infrared devices or sensors to look for heat sources in the water. So, I'm sure they have some aircraft equipped with that type of device or that sensor.

BASH: Ken Christensen, thanks very much for joining us and for your insight.

And let's talk about what he just said around the table.

I will start with you, Steven, because you were sort of the -- the big cheese in charge of all of these investigations for a while. What about what he said about the capabilities that they might have and whether or not they do have the same capabilities that the United States does?

STEVEN WALLACE, FORMER DIRECTOR, FAA OFFICE OF ACCIDENT INVESTIGATION: Well, they have a lot of experience, and they have done a lot of major investigations with U.S. help from the National Transportation Safety Board and from the FAA.

Very unlikely that we are going to see anything remotely close to what we saw with Malaysia 370. I believe they will find this airplane very quickly. And, of course... (CROSSTALK)

BASH: Why do you think so?

WALLACE: Well, because it's in a very confined space. There's nothing -- nothing unusual looked -- happened here, like with Malaysia 370, where the transponders were turned off, it all looked to be completely deliberate, where the data capability of the ACARS system, another data stream from that airplane, was also turned off.

So, here, with -- without those things happening, like Ken Christensen just said, the transponder was working. They know where this airplane was right up until it was lost. So, it's a confined space in shallower water. The recorders have pingers with at least 30-day batteries.

And now the world is shifting to 90-day -- 90-day-duration batteries. So, I suspect they will find this very quickly.

BASH: And, Tom Fuentes, the other big difference between the Malaysia Air issue and this one is the Indian Ocean, compared to the Java Ocean, which is -- it's like a pond vs. an ocean.

I mean, it's going to be much easier to search, assuming that it's in those waters.

TOM FUENTES, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Yes, the average depth of the Java Sea is about 150 feet, compared to some of the areas more than 20,000- feet deep in the Indian Ocean that they were looking.

But you also have a large number of ships. That's a very heavily traveled shipping lane, air traffic lane. There are 18,000 Indonesian islands also where the plane could have gone down in.

And the -- as mentioned by Ken, the climate right now there is -- daytime highs are going to be in the upper 80s Fahrenheit, which means that if the passengers are on rafts, if they're in the water, they at least have less of a concern of hypothermia and other environmental concerns.

Ironically, in this case, I met with the Indonesian ambassador at their embassy, Ambassador Bowoleksono, in May to discuss some of the lessons learned of the MH370...

BASH: So, he came to you in search of...


FUENTES: Well, I went to the embassy. He invited...

BASH: But, I mean, he asked you.



BASH: He reached out to you.

FUENTES: Yes, invited me to have coffee with him and discuss it. And we had a really great meeting.

But the Indonesians were interested in what lessons could be learned from the loss of MH370 and the -- the Malaysians' handling of the case. So, they were very concerned about what happened in that case, in case it would happen to them. And now, ironically, it has.

BASH: Well, that's -- yes. I mean, it's obviously -- it's good to just know that they were being -- they were -- they were preparing.

And, Peter, I want to...

FUENTES: If I can add one thing.

BASH: Sure.

FUENTES: We have already traded messages this morning, where I expressed condolences on our behalf to the Indonesian people, who have 155 passengers and crew member missing on that aircraft. So, he was grateful for that.


BASH: That's right. Almost all of the passengers were -- were Indonesian.

Lessons learned. Unfortunately, they have seen this movie before in the region. And they -- it was very clumsy, to say the least, at the beginning of the rescue mission and search mission 10 months ago. Do they have kind of a well-oiled machine in the region now because of that?

PETER GOELZ, FORMER MANAGING DIRECTOR, NATIONAL TRANSPORTATION SAFETY BOARD: Well, I think they know what to avoid, what mistakes to avoid.

And the other thing to understand is, from early on in Malaysia Flight 370, there was this overlay of, was this a terrorist act, was this a criminal act? And it involved different aspects of investigative agencies both within the Malaysian government and in the region that restricted the transmission of information.

And that made the early days and weeks of the investigation very awkward for 370. In this case, it is being treated as a simple civil aviation disaster. And I think we're going to see information come out in a much smoother way.

And I agree with Steve Wallace that this airplane is going to be found in a relatively short notice, and we will start searching for the black boxes pretty soon.


I want all of you to stick around. We have a lot more to discuss.

And I want you to stay with us, because when our breaking news coverage continues, we are going to be joined by a pilot who has flown the very same route that the missing airliner flew.

Stay with us.


BASH: We're following breaking news in the disappearance of an AirAsia airliner with 162 people on board.

Indonesia's Transportation Ministry now says most search operations in the Java Sea have been halted for the night. However, some big ships with powerful lights will continue looking in the dark.

With us on the phone is former pilot and aviation consultant Alastair Rosenschein. And with us via Skype is CNN aviation analyst Miles O'Brien.

And, Alastair, I want to start with you, because you have flown this very route. Tell us about it, particularly in this time of year, when the weather is very treacherous.

ALASTAIR ROSENSCHEIN, AVIATION CONSULTANT: Well, at any time of year in this particular area, one can stumble across thunderstorms.

But, at this particular time, these storms are a little more prevalent. And it is a question of avoiding them by flying around them. Some pilots may choose to try and fly over them. But that's not always successful or even possible to do so.

And -- but, you know, flying -- even flying through a thunderstorm, aircraft, modern aircraft are not necessarily going to get involved in an accident, certainly get a ride rough ride and it's undesirable. But we cannot know for sure that this is the cause of this -- this aircraft, although it does remain a high possibility.

BASH: It does.

And, Miles, look, any of us who have flown know that you can go through turbulence, sometimes turbulence -- turbulence that's very, very scary, and it turns out just to be kind of a blip. What does the fact that this pilot asked to go higher in altitude tell you, given the fact that you're a pilot and you have navigated these changes in weather patterns before?

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: Well, you can imagine the pilots seeing on their weather radar this cell ahead of them and making a decision. And, of course, they had daylight. So, they had sunshine to help them see the tops of those clouds, making the decision that they probably could get over the tops of them.

But thunderstorms are very dynamic. It's really never advised to try to fly over the top of them, for a lot of good reasons. You -- when you're in a climb at that altitude, for one thing, you're in a very narrow margin of performance. It can be very -- it can get into a situation where you very easily stall out the aircraft just trying to avoid it.

And, then, of course, a thunderstorm can grow rapidly and you can find yourself right in the middle of it. And then you're dealing with extreme turbulence, potential icing conditions. And one of the most insidious and difficult things to deal with is hail.

When hail starts hitting an airplane at altitude at those speeds, you can imagine what happens after that. It's -- it gets very ugly very quickly.

BASH: And, Miles, you were telling me during the break that you see parallels between this and another infamous plane gone missing.

O'BRIEN: Yes, Air France 447. We're talking about the same weather phenomenon.

It happens right around the equator. Sailors call it the doldrums. It's called the Intertropical Convergence Zone. And it whips up some of the most hellacious thunderstorms on our planet. Air France 447 flew into one of those. It iced over the sensors which detected airspeed. And a chain of events followed after that where the plane stalled and crashed, killing all aboard.

You know, we -- it's obviously unwise and unfair to draw any conclusions about what's happening so soon after an aircraft has gone missing. But right at the top of the list, you have to look at the weather situation. And you have to think about what happened to Air France 447 in a thunderstorm of similar magnitude and strength.

BASH: And, Alastair, I want to ask you about the region, and specifically the fact that this was a budget airline and one that apparently has changed the region in many ways, mostly because, as Tom was saying, there are 18,000 islands in Indonesia. And the fact that this budget airline has really sprung up there over the past 20 years or so has made air travel much more frequent and much more affordable.

Having been a pilot there, can you tell us a little bit about that?

ROSENSCHEIN: No, you're absolutely right.

It's also an area which is going through rapid economic development, so more and more people are able to afford to fly. And, of course, flying is by far and away the fastest and easiest form of transport in that particular area of islands. The only other way would be via sea -- by sea. And, of course, that's quite slow, time- consuming.

So, yes, it is -- it is rapid growth. But I don't think the fact it's a budget airlines is necessarily a factor in this. It's often been stated that budget airlines somehow cutting cost and are therefore cutting safety. And that's not my experience, nor would it be the experience of the regulating authorities, who would insist that all aircraft flying within their airspace meet the minimum standards. Those minimum standards are quite high, indeed. So, I wouldn't

attach too much importance to that at all. It was actually one of the reasons given in the Everglades accident where an aircraft went down in the U.S., the fact that it was a low-cost carrier. And that -- that, in fact, was a complete red herring.

BASH: But the fact, Miles, that there's -- that there's -- that there's a much more robust air travel industry in that region, in a place that's very, very difficult when it comes to weather, what does that tell you?

O'BRIEN: Well, you know, the key point here is, it's rapidly growing.

There's tremendous demand for aviation. These airlines have a difficult time, frankly, filling cockpits with qualified pilots. And no matter what you say about it, the minimums are the minimums. You know, in the U.S. we have minimums. And most of the major airlines exceed the minimums when it comes to training standards.

What we have seen in the U.S. is low-cost regional airlines flying at the minimums. And there's been all kinds of questions about how that might impinge upon safety. So, you have a fast-growing region. There's tremendous pressure to meet demand.

And any time you have that kind of pressure, in addition to the economic pressures to, you know, be competitive, it's going to be a push against safety. The two just do not go in the same direction.

BASH: I want to bring in here to the table -- Peter, do you think that there might be a fundamental problem with Malaysian-based airlines, which this is one, or do you think it's just a horrible coincidence?

GOELZ: No, I think it's just a horrible coincidence.

I mean, as Alastair pointed out, AirAsia has got a good safety record. These pilots were well-qualified. They had a lot of hours in the cockpit. I mean, I think there is an issue that does come up on whether the sophistication of today's aircraft, the fly-by-wire aircraft, diminishes piloting skills, because...


BASH: Do you think it does?

GOELZ: I think there's evidence that indicates that it does, yes, and that -- that pilots rely so heavily on the logic and the flight control management systems that, when they get in unusual situations, sometimes, they don't fully understand how their aircraft responds.

That was true in Flight 447.

BASH: That's very scary. I mean, should those of us who are passengers frequently in

various parts of the world think twice about getting on a smaller carrier that might have pilots that aren't as experienced?

GOELZ: Well, these pilots were quite experienced. The flight times looked quite good.

And as far as the budget -- I agree with what Alastair said, that the -- you look at the two biggest U.S. carriers that are kind of lower cost, and that's JetBlue and Southwest, huge airlines that have never had a passenger fatality between them, the two of them.

BASH: Right.

GOELZ: But, of course, the automation issue you were just discussing with Peter very, very critical.

Of course, the -- and the issue of whether or not highly automated planes cause pilots to either overly rely on it or lose their fundamental flying skills no more clearly demonstrated than in the Asiana accident in San Francisco, where the airplane just got too low and too slow.

But, you know, it's day one. We really don't know what's happened here.

BASH: That's true. It's just a matter of hours.

FUENTES: But I think another issue here, I would like to sad, is that the pilot is not asking to go left or to go right. He's trying to go over the storms.

And to me, that indicates that if, he's got weather radar in the cockpit, maybe he just found himself surrounded by these storms and had nowhere to go. And then, as the weather reporters have already said, the clouds were exceeding 50,000 feet. He couldn't go that high anyway. So, he could have just gotten trapped, where he couldn't go left or right or up to avoid it.

BASH: I'm going to ask to you all to stand by one more time.

We're going to need to take a quick break. And we're going to talk more about weather and how that might have played into this, a closer look at that when we return. Stand by.


BASH: We're covering breaking news.

As unbelievable as it sounds, a passenger jet is missing again in the seas off Southeast Asia. The AirAsia jet was carrying 162 people when it lost contact with the Indonesian air traffic control early Sunday.

The plane was on a flight from Indonesia to Singapore. The flight's last transmission was a request to change altitude because of the weather. Searchers spent the day over the Java Sea. Indonesia's Transportation Ministry now says big ships will stay at sea throughout the night using powerful search lights to try to spot possible signs of floating wreckage.

Stunned relatives of the passengers are in a waiting area set up at the Singapore airport. The plane carried 155 passengers, including 17 children and a crew of seven. The vast majority of those aboard are Indonesian. Others are from South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, the United Kingdom, and France.

As we continue with our breaking news coverage we're joined by aviation expert Julian Bray and CNN aviation analyst Mary Schiavo. And let's start though with the weather and our meteorologist Karen Maginnis who has the latest on the weather now and what this search- and-rescue officials are going to have to deal with there.

KAREN MAGINNIS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Yes. And what we're looking at right now is what we call kind of a future radar. What they can expect as far as precipitation or thunderstorms, looking ahead in time. So, this goes from Monday and into Tuesday.

This is the Java Sea. That's where the last transmission was or the lost aircraft. And you can see there is kind of (INAUDIBLE) an effect. We got the daytime heating and those thunderstorms start to build and then during the evening hours it releases their heat and it kind of quiet down.

Now sunrise is in Singapore. It's around 7:00 in Surabaya. It's around 5:30 in the morning. So better to start out early in the morning when -- essentially we're looking at those thunderstorms just kind of wind down.

Here's Surabaya, here's Singapore, the trajectory was right across the Java Sea. At the time that this aircraft radioed it wanted a diversion from 32,000 feet to 38,000 feet. These thunderstorm tops they were estimating between 50 and 53,000 feet. It would be impossible for that aircraft to go over those thunderstorms.

So what would a pilot do? He would divert around them. For passengers it is unnerving to undergo such severe turbulence but aircraft are made to handle kind of those vibrating and jolting motions. Now in recent weeks we've heard about severe turbulence that has injured flight attendants, on some of the international flights.

But just to show you what we're looking at here. We are looking at these red areas that are kind of outlined and those are called PIREPs. Essentially pilot reports that may indicate there could be severe weather or turbulence in that area. Thunderstorms as I've mentioned, aircraft can take a certain amount of bouncing around. That's not extraordinary. You see the airplane wings they are bouncing. They give and take.

In a thunderstorm you've got extreme updraft. That warm moist air just kind of lifting and then it reaches that maximum saturation point becomes super saturated and it starts to fall out of the sky. So, you get these very heavy downpours and the ITCZ, the Intertropical Convergence Zone, and it shifts depending on the time of year.

Surabaya sits at about seven degrees south latitude from the equator. So, it's about seven degrees south of the equator. This is the trajectory that we were looking at for flight 8501, Asia air -- AirAsia. And they seemingly took off fine but we did see in some of the satellite images these huge clusters of thunderstorms that pilots would certainly be very wary of. They would see it in their cockpit on the cockpit radar and would know to avoid that. And, Dana, pilots are trained to know how to land or take off during monsoon but they were at cruise altitude looking to somehow get around these towering thunderstorms at around 50,000 feet.

BASH: Karen, so fascinating. Thank you.

And I want to pick up on some of what you were reporting on go back to our aviation expert Julian Bray who is joining us on Skype and also Mary Schiavo.

Julian let me start with you. You heard Karen talking about turbulence and the fact that these planes are built to with stand turbulence. Anybody who has been on a plane, who has been in turbulence knows it is really, really scary. How much is a plane really built to withstand and how much are these pilots trained to deal with this kind of weather?

JULIAN BRAY, AVIATION EXPERT: Well, the idea is to not go through a storm but as you said to go around it or over it. Avoid it, basically. But if you cannot avoid it, then you have to go through it and you try to find the least damaging portals to go through a storm.

But every pilot is properly trained and they go on simulators every few months just to keep up with training. So they are tested. Really tested. And some of these pilots on AirAsia are actually very, very experienced.

It's a difficult area. Difficult region regarding weather. As you well know because you've seen big red blobs all over the weather maps and they have been converging. So, it could well be that he knew about two of these storms but he didn't know about the third one that was heading his way.

BASH: Mary, you were talking earlier about what happens when a pilot runs into trouble. There are two codes that they have, mayday, we all know mayday and pan-pan. Can you describe what those are and what they mean?

MARY SCHIAVO, FORMER TRANSPORTATION DEPARTMENT INSPECTOR GENERAL: Sure. A mayday means that you are in imminent danger of literally losing your flight, losing control of the plane or losing the aircraft. Mayday is an emergency. It's a dire emergency.

A pan-pan is little level down. In other words you aren't afraid that you're actually going to lose the aircraft or lose the integrity of the flight or control of the flight but that it's a very serious condition. And either of those will require the air traffic controllers to give that plane immediate attention and immediate clearance, whatever it needs to get out of danger.

BASH: And, unfortunately, you have been dealing with, obviously, not just Malaysia 370 but you've been doing this for your professional life. Traditionally is weather the biggest factor in planes that crash or go missing or situations like we're in right now?

SCHIAVO: No. No. Unfortunately, you know, when you look at that and I follow the NTSB most closely, of course, but for them the causes of crashes is just predominantly pilot error.

In over three fourths of the cases they cite, the pilot as the predominant cause but weather is often a very important factor. And so what we have in many of the accidents that I've worked in the past is we have weather situation that has put stresses on the plane, on the air speed indicators, on the capability of the planes to fly in it and then the pilots have done something to aggravate it.

For example, if they've tried to climb too quickly they could have a compressor stall on the engines. I notice this plane's air speed seemed to be a little low compared to others in the area. On the Air France case 447 they didn't realize that their air speed was deteriorating and they were literally spiraling or diving down and they lost that plane. And then West Caribbean 708 that was about eight years ago they were in icing conditions at cruise altitude and didn't deploy all the icing equipment.

BASH: I want to bring back in Alastair Rosenschein who again is a pilot, has flown this very route in Indonesia.

Let's just pick up on what Mary was just talking about that most of the time it's pilot error. What is your experience specifically with what we were talking about before the last break of the pilot using his or her own judgment versus allowing the computer to take control for lack of a better way to put it?

ALASTAIR ROSENSCHEIN, FORMER PILOT: Well, Mary is quite right but the pilots do, in fact, cause more accidents than any other reason for an accident.

However, going back to the advance technology, with the automation on this aircraft this has greatly reduced the pilot's ability to go and -- well let's just be blunt about it -- to crash the aircraft. However, it has brought on other forms of accidents and that would be the pilot is not fully understanding the equipment, the equipment is not always properly designed. It is very difficult to understand some of the switches. They have multifunctions depending on the phase of flight.

But I can say this myself as a pilot who started flying (INAUDIBLE) this (INAUDIBLE) information (ph) and now has worked throughout the modern period. I would say that I (INAUDIBLE) support all forms of automation that have come along. I think they have greatly improved safety and have made -- reduced the workload of pilots. To the point in which they can operate the aircraft more rather than just flying it. There's (ph) many (INAUDIBLE) instruments to work (INAUDIBLE) where you are. You've got magnificent moving (INAUDIBLE) system all of which are great, great improvements.

BASH: Great improvement. I'll take it around the table. There is kind of a danger in too much technology?

PETER GOELZ, FORMER NTSB MANAGING DIRECTOR: We've seen it recently, but Alastair is correct. I mean, the old terminology used to be that the aviation industry use was controlled flight into terrain, CFIT accidents. And they were far more common than they are now in which a pilot flies a perfectly good aircraft into the ground. Technology has all but eliminated those kinds of accidents. But as Steve mentioned, the Asianic crash in San Francisco, the Air France crash over the south Atlantic both raised troubling questions about pilot's ability to really understand what their plane was doing in critical moments under high stress.

BASH: And what's your experience with that question going back to turbulence?

STEVEN WALLACE, FORMER DIRECTOR, FAA OFFICE OF ACCIDENT INVESTIGATION: So, just -- well turbulence, weather turbulence -- there are two kinds of weather that can be catastrophic. It's convected weather which is turbulence, lightning, and severe icing.

BASH: My understanding was that planes could actually survive a lightning strike, that ice is the big --

WALLACE: They are quite frequent. Ice is less of an issue with the jet aircraft because -- ice is in a very -- 10 degree temperature band. They just go up and through it so fast that it's -- airplanes are capable of handling that too.

But just to chime in on this automation issue it is so important that Alastair and Peter both actually I agree with them that automation has been huge boom to safety and we have devices on airplanes. And Peter talked about controlled flight into terrain. But we have these systems now that have a complete map of all the terrain in the world and every radio antenna.

These are devices that just come to life when a pilot or some other human has already made a mistake and they prevent a catastrophe. There hasn't been a mid-air collision with a U.S. airliner since 1978. They have technology on the planes and radars on the ground so automation is a huge boom to safety.

BASH: You know, we're talking about technology and we haven't talked about probably (ph) the important thing that most people who are lay people like myself would understand, the black box.

What do we know? Have we gotten any pings? Is it too early? Do we have any sense from that? Do you know, Tom?

TOM FUENTES, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Well, I think it may not be too early other than we haven't heard anything. So, the question here is how much information is being put out in terms of locating any kind of a beacon or a ping coming from the aircraft. One other point on the technology is that there had been some

crashes where the auto pilot, the computer system has acted up, if you will and has not worked correctly and confused the pilots. So, sometimes the pilots have made a mistake based on getting information that's inconsistent or the auto pilot is acting in a manner that it shouldn't be. So, there have been some airbuses have crashed due to the computer system they put a new package in that doesn't quite work right.

BASH: OK. Thank you. Stick around again. We're going to take a quick break and when we come back -- you want to stay with us because we're going to go to the airport at Indonesia where this flight departed. Stay with us.


BASH: We're covering breaking news. An AirAsia jet carrying 162 people vanished today during a flight from Indonesia to Singapore. AirAsia is a discount airline based in Malaysia.

A tweet from the company's CEO Tony Fernandes says, "Our priority is looking after all the next of kin for my staff and passengers. We will do whatever we can." In another tweet Fernandes wrote, "I as your group CEO will be there through these hard times. We will go through this terrible ordeal together and I will try to see as many of you as I can." A tweet from Malaysia's transport minister reads, "Malaysia deployed three vessels and three aircraft to assist Indonesian led search operation."

I want to go back to our CNN correspondent Will Ripley. And Will, you know, we've been talking a lot about the mystery of this plane, air safety all of the above. But at the end of the day it's about people, 162 people are now missing and their families are, of course, absolutely distraught.

Talk about your experience with Malaysia 370 versus now and the lesson that the government and the company seem to have learned in terms of their quick response.

WILL RIPLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well certainly, Dana, those tweets that you just read from the AirAsia CEO, Tony Fernandes, they are remarkably different from the initial response in the hours after MH-370 disappeared.

Keep in mind this is a very media savvy CEO to begin with. He has more than 900,000 Twitter followers so each tweet that he puts out about this incident is getting literally thousands of retweets. But what he's doing is something that Malaysia Airlines did not do in the initial hours, the initial days and weeks which success very transparent, acknowledging that this is a terrible situation.

One other tweet he said it was his worst nightmare. But he said that they're going to take after -- they're going to look after the passengers, they're going to look after the families of the crew and the families of the passengers and they are going to get through this together. You compare that to what the families here in Beijing went through, the families of more than 150 people where the information was excruciating slow to come out and then there was conflicting information.

People weren't talking to the families at one point. They were turning to us as members of the media both here in Beijing and also in Kuala Lumpur where I was out of desperation wailing in front of our cameras. It was a horrible scene. It was so horrible for the reporters to be there covering it. It was horrible for viewers at home to watch and it was most of all horrible for those families. And clearly now, Dana, airlines saw what happened. The fact that it took nine weeks to release a five page report that probably could have been released in the first week after MH-370 disappeared. And we're seeing already a remarkably different response.

BASH: And back to the families. They are now not in front of the cameras. They are now in a special place being -- where they can get easy communication from the airlines, from government officials. They are being treated the way they should be treated, right?

RIPLEY: Absolutely. What needed to happen is exactly what happened.

There was an area set aside where they are looked after and I'm sure our crew on the ground in Indonesia can describe in more detail what that actually looks like. But we know in Singapore as well there are guards and any families gathered in that airport they are keeping the cameras -- the growing number of cameras, the swarm of media far away from those families so they have space to receive information as it comes in, to decompress.

We actually believe according to local media in Indonesia, the families may actually be at the airport hotel already. So, they are being put up for the night. They'll have rooms. They'll be fed and most importantly they have a pipeline of information. They have crisis counselors available to them. The kind of things that families that are going through something like this need.

And we're talking about 105 -- 155 Indonesians, many of whom may have been heading to Singapore for the New Year holiday to celebrate. This is supposed to be a week of celebration as we end 2014 and instead we end it with the fourth plane based here in Southeast Asia either missing or crashed. It's just surreal, Dana.

BASH: And I want to follow up on one thing that Tom Fuentes here told us which was surprising and that is that during the whole Malaysia Air search that the Indonesian ambassador actually called him and asked him to come and meet with him to discuss lessons learned if god forbid exactly what has happened happen in their country.

Knowing the region that you do -- the way you do and the sort of differences between the way the government approach these things, does that surprise you or does that give you and inclination and us an inclination as to how this will go forward?

RIPLEY: Well, keep in mind all of the geopolitical issues that were at play in this region when MH-370 happened. I remember specifically being in a U.S. military search plane and we had a flight delayed for more than eight hours even getting off the ground because we couldn't get clearance to fly over Indonesian airspace to search for the missing plane.

And so what all of that coverage did is it really shined a light on this part of the world and the fact that countries realize when there is a tragedy like this nations need to come together. They need to share information. Certainly not compromising any sensitive security issues but they need to share what they can and work together to try to find the plane, to try to find any possible survivors. We know each hour that passes the likelihood diminishes.

And so right now even though it's night fall, even though the search is suspended, tomorrow when the sun comes back up they want to get out there as early as they can, get eyes on the water, do the visual search. Any ships that have (ph) side scan sonar they'll scan for debris. They need to find this plane. They need to find answers for those families that are going to have one of the worst nights of many of their lives. That's what is going to be happening coming (INAUDIBLE).

BASH: Yes. That's an understatement. Will, thank you very much. We'll be going to go to a break. Stick around because our Rene Marsh has been working her sources at the NTSB and has some new details. We'll tell you what they are after the break.


BASH: We're following breaking news, the search is under way for an AirAsia airliner, carrying 162 people. The plane vanished during a Sunday flight from Indonesia to Singapore.

CNN's Andrew Stevens is now at Indonesia Surabaya Airport where the AirAsia flight departed. Andrew, you actually just had a chance to talk to the CEO of this company, we have been seeing his tweets, what has he said about their understanding of what happened (INAUDIBLE)?

ANDREW STEVENS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Tony Fernandes, not only is he the CEO, he's also the founder of AirAsia and he held a news conference just outside the airport here where we are. He himself had just arrived in Surabaya. And his key point here is that their priority right now is to look after the family and the next of kin of the people who are on that plane. And he would not speculate and says, anything beyond that about what may or may not have happened is pure speculation.

A couple of points he did talk about, I asked him, one of them was weather conditions, he said there was heavy cloud in the area, he wouldn't go beyond that. And also we asked him about the pilots, just how experienced the pilots were. He said the captain was very experienced, 27,000 hours, flying, 7,000 hours with AirAsia on this 320, the model that has disappeared. So, that's where we are at the moment.

He's incredibly shaken, as you can imagine, at one stage during the press conference, it was outside, pretty sort of a rush job putting his head in his hands, and obviously a very, very difficult time for him as well as the families of those on board, Dana.

BASH: I appreciate it. Obviously, we're going to get -- be getting back to you throughout the day, as you get more information. Thanks for getting there so quickly and safely.

I want to turn now to our Rene Marsh. Rene, you have some new information?

RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Right. Just a short time ago, I got off the phone with the NTSB and we have been wondering throughout all of this what their role could be.

At this point they say that they are monitoring very closely the situation. They say it is possible that they could be called in for some sort of technical assistance, if anyone needs technical assistance, they could be called upon, but it's still too early to tell exactly what their role would be.

We also know that the French equivalent of the NTSB most likely will have a more prominent role for a number of reasons, this aircraft is a product of the French, manufactured in France. Also the U.S. does not have any citizens that we know of on board, so it makes sense that the NTSB wouldn't have a leading role, nevertheless, they say they have been in contact with both Airbus, they have been in touch with the French equivalent of the NTSB, the BAE, and they say they've also been in touch with the Indonesian. So, that communications are there but they are sitting, waiting and watching, of course there's not much they can do until they find the wreckage and we know that the search effort halted at this point.

BASH: Thanks, Rene.

And I want to turn to you Peter because we were talking with Will and again with Andrew who is at the airport about the families, you know a lot about family assistance, because you wrote the book on it literally, right?

GOELZ: Well, in 1996, following TWA ValuJet and then earlier the U.S. air accident in Pittsburgh, family groups came together and were pushing the NTSB and the Department of Transportation, I chaired a task force and we wrote the Family Assistance Act that the Congress passed in 1996 which really set the worldwide standard, and has been taken up by (INAUDIBLE) and virtually every other country on how --

BASH: Indonesia too?

GOELZ: Indonesia signed the treaty, on how you respond to family assistance. What sort of family assistance you (ph) give (ph) (INAUDIBLE).

BASH: And what's sort of the -- what's the -- what's your 30 second elevator pitch -

(CROSSTALK) GOELZ: Well, the key is families need to hear it first.

BASH: Sure.

GOELZ: They need to hear what's going on, and they need to hear it from the investigators. That was the lesson we learned back in the '90s, which was with just the beginnings of media, you know, saturations, if you don't get the information from the families, you're really -- it's just torturous.

BASH: We'll get some final thoughts, as you have been absorbing all this with your expertise?

WALLACE: Well -- and the NTSB gets great credit for setting the world standard for family assistance. We're getting the whole world going in that direction. So, it's day one of this accident, many accidents are a causal chain of events. This one could be -- it could be weather and it could also be pilot's response to weather, that was very much the case in Air France 447. I'm confident they'll find this airplane and solve this accident.

BASH: Any chance -- I mean, let's be optimists here, what do you think, Tom? Any chance that this didn't go into the Java Sea, that they were able -- that the pilot was able to somehow land the plane on one of the 18,000 islands, that there could be survivors?

FUENTES: I don't know about landing on an island, but if he landed near an island and they were able to get ashore or get into rafts of some kind and survive that the weather would be -- the sea is warm, the air is warm, it's going to be high 80's -- for day times high there so it's not a question of surviving in the Arctic or some really harsh environment. But it's impossible.

I think Indonesians (ph) challenge has been horrible weather at the time and date of the crash and then now darkness. So, let's hope in about eight hours or 10 hours when daylight comes in that region that they make (ph) success in locating the plane.

BASH: Tom Fuentes, Steven, Peter, Rene, thank you very much for everything, for your insights and we're going to see you back here at 12:00 eastern. So, don't go too far.

Thank you for watching STATE OF THE UNION. I'm Dana Bash in Washington, we leave with you live pictures from the Singapore airport where the AirAsia jet was supposed to land about 14 hours ago.

I'll return at noon eastern as I just mentioned. Stay with CNN for continuing coverage now of the search for the AirAsia jet.