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Search for AirAsia Jet Resuming and Expanding; Indonesian Navy Smoke on Island in Search Area

Aired December 29, 2014 - 19:00   ET


JIM SCIUTTO, CNN GUEST HOST: OUTFRONT tonight, breaking news. The hunt for AirAsia Flight 8501 now the United States maybe joins the desperate search across the Java Sea. Just where is that plane?

Plus, the final minutes inside the cockpit. What went wrong as the pilot asked permission to climb above a massive thunderstorm? And a deadly ferry fire. Passengers freezing on the deck while the fire below melted their shoes. Why did their rescue take so long? Let's go OUTFRONT.

And good evening. I'm Jim Sciutto in tonight for Erin Burnett. OUTFRONT tonight, breaking news, the United States Navy headed to the Java Sea joining the search for AirAsia flight 8501 that has just resumed as day breaks in Asia. At this hour CNN has learn that the guided missile destroyer, the USS Sampson is on the way part of an international force that includes some 15 planes and 30 ships. The Samson, the first of what we're told will be air, sea and underwater assets coming from the U.S. So far though still no sign of the missing plane.

Four areas were added to the search today after the seven zone search Sunday and Monday turned up nothing. Cloudy skies and large waves have hampered the search so far. The plane was an airbus about A-320. It was en route from Surabaya, Indonesia to Singapore when it disappeared from radar early Sunday morning in the skies over the Java Sea with 162 passengers and crews on board.

The heavily travelled route crosses the Java Sea, its floor is flat, muddy and generally no more than 150 feet. Tonight, we're going to tell what you we know about flight 8501. And examine the questions investigators are now trying to answer. One, just how dangerous was the weather flight 8105 flew into? Two, can the A-320, a plane that millions of Americans fly every year, safely navigate such storms? And crucially now, how hard it will be to find this plane so we can learn what brought it down? And while this still officially remains a search and rescue operation, Indonesia's vice president admitted that the outlook today is grim.


JUSUF KALLA, INDONESIA'S VICE PRESIDENT: We pray for that but we realize, too, the worst thing that maybe happened.

(END VIDEO CLIP) SCIUTTO: All right. Andrew Stevens is OUTFRONT tonight in Surabaya in Indonesia at the airport where flight 8501 took off. Andrew, are we learning anything more today about where this plane could be?

ANDREW STEVENS, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Still plenty more questions and answers, Jim. We know that two hours ago, the first of the air reconnaissance planes took off the search. It grows even bigger. It has also been reported, it's been confirmed by the Indonesian search and rescue authorities of smoke being detected on one of the islands in the search area. And of this stage, Jim, nothing can be ruled out. I mean, the Indonesians said yesterday that the working assumption is that the plane is at the bottom of the Java Sea. Not particularly is at the bottom.

But if there is smoke on an island in the search zone, it will be checked out. As you say, the U.S. is joining the hundred. We have also got the Chinese. They're sending both ships and planes down to Singapore, Australians and Malaysians. All cheaping in as well to help Indonesia in this search. But so incredibly frustrating and so incredibly sad for the people, for the victims' families who are gathering here at Surabaya.

Remember, 150 of the 155 passengers were Indonesians. Many of those passengers live in this city, the second biggest in Indonesia. They have been coming here for the last two days, it's taken behind closed doors. They've been constantly breach. But the frustration is there is just no news, not good news, not bad news, just no news at all, still not one thread of evidence as to where that plane may be. And that is what is really hurting them. They're telling us, we just need information. We're getting more information from television than from the authorities here. Very, very difficult all round. Because the information isn't there to pass on at this stage. But the families will be briefed this morning once again. And we sit and we wait to get some sort of news from the search area. Most of the people I speak to, experts in aviation say they will be very, very surprised if there is no news of 8501 within the next 48 hours.

Well, still though, hard questions about whether it went down, if it went down in the ocean or on land. Still to be answered. Thanks very much to Andrew Stevens live in Indonesia.

Well, piecing together the final minutes of AirAsia flight 8501 will be critical to locating this missing passenger jet. CNN'S Stephanie Elam is OUTFRONT with the latest.


STEPHANIE ELAM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: For a while, monitors at Indonesia Surabaya Airport didn't list the status of AirAsia flight 8501 but rather read, go to info counter. The air bus A-320 aircraft took off Sunday morning with 162 people on board for roughly a two-hour flight to Singapore. Distraught loved ones, first briefed behind closed doors. Linger at the airport, anxious for any updates.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: My fiance and his family were on that plane. They were supposed to be their last vacation before us got married. TONY FERNANDES, AIRASIA CEO: (INAUDIBLE) For our crews, the families,

and for the passengers' family. We're very devastated by what's happened.

ELAM: What we know happened is at 5:36 a.m., the plane took off from Surabaya. Thirty six minutes later, at 6:12 a.m., the pilot asked air traffic control for permission to turn left and ascend from 32,000 feet to 38,000 feet to avoid storm clouds. The turn was approved but the request to climb was denied due to heavy traffic. This is the last known communication from the crew.

FERNANDES: The weather conditions were not good. But further than that, we don't really want to speculate anything more.

ELAM: A screen grab reportedly leaked by an Indonesian air traffic controller appears to show the AirAsia flight QZ-8501 rising in altitude but losing speed. Traveling at a velocity too slow to sustain flight. AirAsia says at 6:24 a.m., it lost contact with Flight 8501. At 7:55 a.m., the flight is officially declared missing. Indonesian authorities leading the multinational search effort say the missing plane is likely at the bottom of the sea. So crews are focusing on this broad, yet shallow air of the Java Sea, between the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. No Americans are on the missing jet but Indonesia has officially asked the U.S. to help find the aircraft.


ELAM: As day three of the search begins, rough weather continues to hamper search efforts and any signal from the plane that would pinpoint its location has yet to be detected -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: Thanks very much to Stephanie Elma. Now I want to bring in David Soucie, he's the former FAA safety inspector and a CNN's safety analyst as well as David Gallo, he's the director of special projects at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution which has been very successful in spotting lost planes in the past.

David, if I could begin with you, the U.S. is soon going to join this search sending at first a missile destroyer, similar participation that they had for the search of MH 370 but it also say the possibility of additional air assets, underwater assets, which we know would might be key here. How crucial is U.S. help to a search like this?

DAVID SOUCIE, FORMER FAA SAFETY INSPECTOR: Well, it is. It depends a lot on where those ships are located right now, as to where they're coming from. And how quickly they can get there. Remember, we're working against the clock with finding the pingers. These are still 30-day pingers. We talked a lot on MH 370 about the fact that they could go to 90 days. That hasn't been implemented yet so we still got that clock for 30 days clicking.

SCIUTTO: So you need best equipment, the best vessels there, et cetera. They're sending in the first of those now.

SOUCIE: That's right. SCIUTTO: David Gallo, I wonder if I could bring you in. MH 370 was

in water four miles deep. The bottom of the ocean out there in the South Indian Ocean, that search area was mountainous. Here, we have a very different search area. About 150 feet deep assuming that this plane went down in the water as opposed to on land. Flatter, sandier. We know your success in helping recover the wreckage of the Air France flight 447 off Brazil. That was two and a half miles deep. When we look at this search area, what we know about it proximity to shore, shallower waters, how much easier does that make the search, assuming again, that's where this plane went down?

DAVID GALLO, OCEANOGRAPHER: Yes. In some cases Jim, it is easier. Because we are closer to the ports so it is not a long transit for the ships or planes to get out to the search area or the wreck site. That makes it easier. But shallow water does have its challenges, the currents are often higher because of tides and winds and the visibility once we get to that level might be hampered by the sediments that come off with land masses. So, there is nothing easy about shallow water but it is easier than having to go out a thousand miles and go down five miles into the deep.

SCIUTTO: And we know that the Indonesian authorities has raised a possibility asking the U.S. for somebody underwater search capabilities that were deployed in the MH370 search. David Soucie, you know, here we are again with a search like this. In this area yet, good radar coverage. There was communication with the crew just moments before the plane disappeared from radar. The plane equipped was an E.L.T. as its known, an emergency locator transmitter and yet, we have no clear idea of where this plane went down. There has been no signal detected from the ELT and there was no mayday call from the crew. How do we find ourselves back in the 21st Century with the modern aircraft without harder data as to where it is?

SOUCIE: That's the question and it has been the question for quite some time. In fact, years. We've been talking about doing direct data streaming from the aircraft for a lot of years and it is something that has been deficient in our system. And our system has failed us in this realm. These things should be on board these aircraft. They should be telling us where this airplane is exactly. There's no reason to be waiting for this. But regarding the ELTs, if this aircraft did in fact land or crash land on an island, then the emergency locator transmitters are designed to go off.

SCIUTTO: Whether on land or on water.

SOUCIE: Right. Well, actually they're more designed for land than water. The ELT is. But there's another thing called the EPRRB which is something that would go off in water. But the emergency locator transmitter is jarred. And when it hits, it goes off and it sends a signal, so within minutes, because of the satellites, it will triangulate the position of the aircraft.

SCIUTTO: So, to be fair though, there was no ELT detected in MH 370.

SOUCIE: There was not because the suspicion was it was in the water, once the ELTs in the water, it does not transmit. SCIUTTO: Well, no ELT or -- I should say.

SOUCIE: That's correct.

SCIUTTO: The one that is a water activated. Some new info that we're learning tonight. If I can mention to you, David that AirAsia was actually upgrading its jets for improved tracking. But this particular jet had not been upgraded. This is a topic we went through with MH370. Does the industry need to fast track changes like this? More consistency, for instance, constant data streaming from the planes. We know the technology is available. Does that need to happen today as opposed to months, years down the line?

GALLO: Me? Or David, the other David?

SCIUTTO: You David.

GALLO: Yes. I think so. You know, I'm an ocean guy. But, you know, I think if people understood how difficult ocean searches really are. And by now, you know, after Air France I thought we had that understood. That it is inexcusable to lose a modern day aircraft in the ocean right now. Very difficult to mobilize, an expedition to find it. Very difficult to work the site. And the question about, is it worth it. You just look at the anguish and the pain and the family members and the loved ones of those passengers and tell me it is not worth it to do this now. And also for the sake of the flying public.

SCIUTTO: Well, also, I mean, if you know exactly where it is. Presumably, you might be able to rescue someone if you get there quickly enough. That most basic question. And it is incredible to imagine that, you know, we're not allowing that opportunity in effect.

GALLO: Jim, that thing haunts me quite a bit. That there could have been, this could have been survivable. And someone could have been clinging to life. And we don't know until we find the black boxes but just the thought of that horrifies, it's horrific.

SCIUTTO: Just heartbreaking to imagine. Well, thank you to our two Davids. David Gallo and David Soucie here in the studio with me in New York.

UPFRONT next, AirAsia 8501 flew into a massive storm. We're going to talk to a veteran pilot about what it is like flying with that type of plane in that severe weather.

Plus, the airbus A-320, millions of Americans fly on one every year. What is it safety record and is it equipped to face that kind of dangerous weather?

And ten people die. Hundred are rescued from a burning ferry. What caused the deadly fire?


SCIUTTO: And breaking news tonight, CNN has learned that smoke has been spotted on an island in the AirAsia search area by the Indonesian navy helicopter crew. Official are saying a search team is being sent to check that area.

We'll going to have more details on this as it develops. Now, this comes as the search for AirAsia flight 8501 is now underway as day breaks in Asia. A senior U.S. military official tells me that the USS Sampson is on its way to the Java Sea to join that search. At least 15 planes and 30 ships are now scouring the waters off Indonesia's coast for the missing jet. And it's 162 passengers and crew. The search has been hampered by severe thunderstorms and high winds.

Chad Myers is OUTFRONT tonight. Chad, we talk about the weather when this plane disappeared. But what are the current weather conditions that are hampering the search for the jet?

CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: More thunderstorms developing, more winds developing. What happens over an ocean Jim when the winds blow? White caps. What are these search teams looking for? White things. So that's where you're feeling it. Right now, you're feeling, please don't let the wind blow. Don't make white caps out there. We can see much better. Backing up 49-and-a-half hours ago. Here's the plane coming from Surabaya. A line of weather to its north.

It knew it would going to be there. It knew it would going to fly through it. A couple of bumps there. About half-an-hour into the flights. Now we're up to 6:06 p.m. Eastern Time, 6:06 a.m. Now, 6:16. And as the plane gets right over the most severe weather, that's when the contact is lost. Fifty to 53,000 foot thunderstorms right in that area. The plane can't fly over that. Planes can't go that high. Sure like the black bird can but that plane can't.

But anyway, this is the enter tropical convergence zone. This happens. Weather like this happens every single day over this ITZZ. The air come together at the surface. It can't go down. That converging air has to go up. The earth is in the way. So, the rising air makes thunderstorms, creates strong to severe weather. And in fact, you know, over hurricane season, it will create severe cyclones, typhoons and even hurricanes if it gets far enough from the equator to actually get some force or spin. This was not a cyclone or typhoon, it was just a severe weather event.

But look at what just has happened in the past hour on the satellite. A line of weather has just developed over where they're going to be searching today. But also it wasn't there an hour ago. And that's what happened when this storm kind of blew up right to the north of where the plane was. Go back again. Twenty four hours, pretty clear skies. And the last three frames. Boom! We have more severe weather right where the plane, where we're looking for it but right where other planes we'll be flying to today. So guess this weather happens all the time. What changed this plane from all the other planes that fly through this all the time? We still don't know and we won't until we find those black boxes -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: What we do know is severe weather both when the plane disappeared and now if they tried to locate it. Thanks very much Chad Myers in Atlanta.

I want to bring in now, Arthur Rosenberg, he's an aviation attorney, Les Abend, a CNN aviation analyst and a commercial pilot himself. So, I want to bring back David Gallo, he's the director of the special events in Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution with its own record of finding lost planes. Les, I want to bring you in first. We look at those 55,000 feet high thunder clouds. You've flown through weather like that. How difficult is it? Is it safe?

LES ABEND, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: Let me qualify it. I have not flown through weather like that. I avoid weather like that. And it is incumbent upon us to give it a wide berth the best we can. Sometime we get in a situation where this developing weather is so dynamic that we may have to skirt closer than we would like to and it might cause an uncomfortable ride. But that's the purpose of putting on the seatbelt sign, advising flight attendants to discontinue the service. So, that's part of the process.

SCIUTTO: We know that this pilot requested to go higher if not avoid it, to get to what you expected was safer weather. And it was denied. You're a pilot in his shoes and they tell you you can't fly higher. Is that unreasonable? Is that unacceptable?

ABEND: Well, first of all, we don't know for sure what that request was for. It might have been just for the purpose of getting smooth ride.


ABEND: It sounds like maybe a possibility he was trying to get away from the weather. But in answer to your question, yes. The best course of action is to turn unilaterally, to go left or right of course. It is very difficult to judge the height of a thunderstorm. It is a dynamic event as Chad is indicated here. And even if you get on top of it, there may be turbulence still.

SCIUTTO: And chad made the point that I think it went to 50,000 somehow thousand feet which is not possible --

ABEND: Which is high for the United States but not for that area.

SCIUTTO: Arthur, I know you think this plane should never have taken off in that weather?

ARTHUR ROSENBERG, AVIATION ATTORNEY: Yes. I think you have to look at it like this. Thirty six minutes after this plane took off, they were smack in the middle of some of the worst weather I have ever seen. A thunderstorm developing with hail probably ice. Winds which could have approached 75 to 100 miles per hour. Vertical displacement, lateral displacement, wind shear. This is a maelstrom of the worst possible ingredients that an airplane would ever want to find itself in. Now, so the flight crew on the ground. They do their pre-flight, they get their weather briefing, they knew they were headed for that. They knew they would have to deal with that. So now 36 minutes into it, he says, you know, get me up to 38,000 feet. He is denied. They give him a left turn. There were other planes in the area. The issue here is, in that neck of the world, you have such dynamic weather, I think it almost creates a tolerance and an acceptance of risk by these pilots who fly through with regularity. SCIUTTO: -- of unacceptable risk.

ROSENBERG: Unacceptable risk.

SCIUTTO: But to be clear, there were a dozen or so other planes who flew through that weather with no problem.

ROSENBERG: Different altitudes. A slightly different pads. But they all take a risk. And I think this flight was listening in to the other planes communicating and that's probably why they wanted the 38,000 feet. But the tops on this were up to 56,000. And this airplane, probably the surface ceiling is probably right around 38,000, 39,000. They would never going to get above it. They never should have been in that situation. And if this were in New York or a local area, we fly all the time, all of us, the three have us, passengers, planes are grounded. There are delays for winds, for rains which are conditions which are benign. Compared to this.

SCIUTTO: You think here in the U.S., we have not let that plane go through that weather?

ROSENBERG: Absolutely.

ABEND: Well, we have a different system in the U.S. We have a system called metering which the northeast corridor down to Florida, we meter airplanes when weather is starting to close off specific routes. And when it closes specific routes, the LaGuardia, Kennedy, Newark, for instance, will actually stop airplanes from departing and slow down the amount of airplanes going through that particular area.

SCIUTTO: More leeway to avoid?

ABEND: Well, they start the process of whether avoidance right on the ground. I don't think Indonesia does this necessarily. They may have an informal way of doing it. But to answer some of the -- to respond to some Arthur reference too, yes, those are high thunderstorms but not every cell builds to 55,000 feet.


ABEND: So, you can avoid it.

SCIUTTO: Well, David Gallo, I want to bring you as well. Because you took part in the search for another plane that experienced severe weather at altitude. This is of course Air France 447. This is flying from Brazil over the Atlantic Ocean. What did we learn from that flight? And what changes if any have been made from that flight to avoid this kind of thing happening again?

GALLO: Well, we did learn a lot. And I think in that case, you know, it is still being worked out I believe in the courts about the, who was truly at fault. But in that case, it was a handoff from the computer flying the aircraft to the pilots. Because of some spurious information from the pedo to speed sensors on the plane. And that was not done very well. And in fact, it was a four-minute long stall that the pilots put that plane in. So, we learned that. But more importantly, I thought that we learned, never to let a plane go into the water without knowing exactly where it was. And here we are now again, it was five years ago, was Air France, and we've gone through Malaysian Air and here we are again. And this won't be the last time either.

SCIUTTO: Is it a cost issue that keep airlines from making these changes?

ROSENBERG: Yes. I think the airlines will not make changes unless they are mandated by government. I have an interesting little story. A real quick story. Recently I was at one of the largest cargo carriers on the planet and their operations watching everything that went on. And we started to talk about constant streaming. The one thing --

SCIUTTO: Streaming of data --

ROSENBERG: Streaming of data, on position, on stuff you get with the ACARS, engine performance. And one thing they said to me was we are being pinged too many times while crossing the Atlantic. And every time they're pinged for data, they're charged. So it is all about the money. It is all about the economics. You have government mandating it. It will be done. Without that, it's never going to happen.

ABEND: It's also about the bureaucracy too.

ROSENBERG: Sure. Folks trying to control their data plans on their cell phones. It is incredible.

SCIUTTO: Thanks very much to Arthur, to Les of course and to David Gallo. Coming up, OUTFRONT next, the missing AirAsia plane is an airbus A-320 plane that millions of Americans fly every year. How safe is it?

A fire at sea. Ten people died as this ferry was consumed in smoke and planes. Why did it take almost 24 hours to save everyone from this stricken ship?


SCIUTTO: And welcome back to our breaking news coverage. The search for AirAsia Flight 8501 has just resumed as day breaks in Asia. The United States is providing air, sea and underwater assets, including a guided missile destroyer, the USS Sampson, now part of an international force that includes some 15 planes and ships.

We've also just learned that Indonesian authorities are confirming that smoke has been spotted on an island within the search area, spotted by an Indonesian air crew. They're sending additional assets there to take a closer look at this search continues.

The passenger jet, an Airbus A320, with 162 passengers and crew on board en route from Surabaya, Indonesia, to Singapore, disappeared from radar early Sunday morning in the skies off Indonesia's coast.

And we now have new details about the captain of the missing flight, a veteran pilot whose final communication with air traffic control is a crucial lead in the search.

Joe Johns is OUTFRONT.


JOE JOHNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: As is common in Indonesia, he is known by only one name, Iriyanto. Pictures on Facebook more than confirm at least one of his known hobbies. Iriyanto was a fan of motorcycles. Reports suggest he's even a member of a motorcycle club.

His daughter posted a picture of him on social media with this message, saying, "Dad, please come home. I still need you."

The family had recently suffered a loss. The captain's younger brother died of diabetes just days ago. Captain Iriyanto's father told the BBC, I want my son to come back alive.

Captain Iriyanto was a veteran of the skies, with more than 20,000 flying hours, of which 6,100 hours were with AirAsia on the Airbus 320. By comparison, slightly more flying time than the Pilot Chesley Sullenberger, who executed an emergency water landing of a U.S. air jet in New York, with 155 passengers and crew on board. All survived.

The captain of the AirAsia plane likely had about the same skill set based on his experience, according to commercial pilot and author, Les Abend.

LES ABEND, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: Captain Sullenberger would say he would have been just as confident to perform the miracle on the Hudson.

JOHNS: What we don't know is what happened in the cockpit before the plane went off radar. The potential clues include the presence of bad weather in the area and a request to increase altitude, radioed to air traffic control, which was denied because of additional air traffic close by. What the captain may have done with that information is still an open question. For example, whether the pilot may have tried to disregard the controller's guidance.

ABEND: What disturbs me is that did he begin a climb without a clearance from air traffic control? That might be indicative of an emergency problem developing.

JOHNS: There was also no known communication before it went off radar. Not necessarily a radio malfunction.

ABEND: We're trained very, very early on to aviate, navigate and communicate being the last thing, because communicating in this particular circumstance, if indeed a contributing factor was the weather, the less people would be able to help you was air traffic control.


JOHNS: Captain Iriyanto is a former military pilot said to have flown F-16 fighter jets before joining commercial aviation. He is also a husband, though his wife so far has declined to make any public statements. The first officer on the plane, Remi Emmanuel Plesel is from France, according to the French foreign ministry, which notified his family about the missing plane. Plesel had logged 2,300 hours flying with AirAsia -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: Joe Johns in Washington.

We're getting more details about early reports of smoke spotted on an island within the search area for AirAsia flight 8501. Indonesian media outlets reporting that it was on a place called long island south of Belitung Island. Again, this is within the search area, but there was certainly no information at this point that the smoke is related to this missing jet. But it is something we're told by Indonesian authorities, Indonesian authorities telling CNN it was spotted by an air crew and they are going to take a closer look.

OUTFRONT tonight, CNN safety analyst David Soucie. He's a former FAA safety inspector and the author of "Why Planes Crash". And we also have retired United Airlines Captain Dan Duke. He flew the exact plane involved in this, the Airbus A320.

David, I wonder if could begin with you. Listen, it is early and we learned very well during MH370 that early signs of possible wreckage could turn out to be completely unconnected to the plane. But you have here, at least something that Indonesian authorities are checking closer, an island within the search area. Some smoke.

Would you have any other signal? Here we're here as you're seeing our viewers. It's that red little arrow at an island within the search area where the smoke was spotted. What other information would you get if the plane did hit land instead of water? The ELT, for instance would have gone off?

DAVID SOUCIE, CNN SAFETY ANALYST: Yes, if it was an impact. Remember, it is a deceleration device. If it hits the ground hard and decelerates too quickly -- I'm not talking about applying brakes. I'm talking about an impact -- then the ELT is set to put out a signal. That signal is picked up by 11 different satellites that orbit the earth and within minutes, it will triangulate where that signal is coming from.

SCIUTTO: Well, presumably, then, if there was an ELT signal, it would have already been seen. Would it not?

SOUCIE: Absolutely right. It would have been reported.

However, they're not the most reliable. There have been many situations where the ELT did not --

SCIUTTO: Did not go off. MH370 included.

Dan, I want to go with you because you have very particular and relevant experience here. Not only have you flown the Airbus A320, but you've flown in this region, on routes very close to what this plane flew. What is it like to be in the cockpit in the early dawn hours as this plane was, the sun is coming up and there are severe thunderstorms? How difficult?

DAN DUKE, RETIRED UNITED AIRLINES PILOT: Well, Jim, first of all thanks for having me. It is your job to not fly into one of those thunderstorms. It's -- at that time of day, you have some visual cues. You're using your radar. You're using all the tools in your arsenal, but you are avoiding. I think that's what I suspect they were trying to do, is to avoid flying into that kind of weather.

SCIUTTO: Now, if you can't avoid it, we know in this circumstance, the pilot had asked to go to a higher altitude. He was not able to because there were other planes, the traffic was too heavy at that higher altitude. He might have taken a turn left or right to avoid it. So, we know that.

If you have to fly through, is the A320 capable of flying through a weather like this?

DUKE: I don't think any commercial airliner is designed for the stresses that are involved in flying through a super cell. So, you really try to avoid it. Now, the Airbus does have some very specific flight control features that help the pilot fly the airplane. I'm not so sure those are either helpful or probably less than helpful in the situation when you're up near the stall speed, the altitude where maybe in a high speed stall or a low speed stall.

That's what you get in the thunderstorm. You get those severe updrafts and downdrafts, and it can really put the airplane out of control.

SCIUTTO: David, I have to admit, I'm a little taken aback because I fly all the time. I have this impression as I imagine a lot of our viewers do, that in the 21st century of testing these out, tremendous electronic capabilities, auto pilot, et cetera of these planes, you imagine they're built not only to withstand something like this but there are systems in place to allow pilots to get around it, or the pilots are also trained to get around it.

How could you end up with a situation where a plane would have to go through something like this?

SOUCIE: Well, they're constantly changing environment out there. When you say, I'm going this direct and then you say, I have to go through it and you've got a lot of thing you're worried about. One of them is comfort, passenger comfort. A lot of time you'll change altitude to be temperature most comfortable level. But when that storm comes around behind you, as it appears it did in this case, it's behind you.

So, the risk in the airmen's information manual, it says specifically from urgency procedures, that if you find yourself in a situation, before you decide you're going to turn around and come out of there, carefully consider it, because you could be in the storm longer than if you just flew through it.

So, there's a lot of decisions that go on. It's more of an art than it is a science really. So, it can sneak up on you. And it can get into that. But as Dan said, Captain Duke has been in this situation many times. And you try to avoid it. That's mitigation.

SCIUTTO: Dan, just quickly, because again you've been through this sort of this. Is the pilot given the leeway and the ability he needs to, he or she needs to make the decision to keep that plane safe?

DUKE: Oh, that's your primary responsibility. You are there to keep it safe. Everything else is secondary. You are doing everything within your judgment and your skill set to protect the people, keep the air may not safe and get safely to your destination or go someplace else if you have to.

SCIUTTO: Dan Duke, you flew --

DUKE: There are a lot of tools. Yes, go ahead.

SCIUTTO: I was just going to say, thanks very much. Dan Duke, you've flown this kind of thing.

DUKE: I have.

SCIUTTO: You appreciate your expertise on this.

David Soucie, you investigated losses of planes like this. Great to have you on.

Coming up, on OUTFRONT next, the Airbus A320. A plane that millions of Americans fly on every year. How safe is it? We're going to have a report.

Plus, a deadly ferry fire. Passengers freezing on deck while the soles of their shoes were melting from the heat. The dramatic video, ahead.


SCIUTTO: Welcome back. I'm Jim Sciutto in New York.

The search for AirAsia Flight 8501 has resumed as day breaks in Asia. And CNN learning tonight that smoke has been spotted on an island inside the search area by an Indonesian navy helicopter crew. Officials saying that a search team is now being sent back to check that area more thoroughly. Meanwhile, Airbus has single two experts to Jakarta, Indonesia, to help support the investigation in the missing AirAsia Flight 8501.

The A320 is a time of aircraft many of us around the United States and around the world have flown frequently. According to Airbus, that group of aircraft takes off and lands every two and a half seconds of every day.

Miguel Marquez is OUTFRONT.


MIGUEL MARQUEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Worldwide, more than 3,600 Airbus A320s are flown by more than 400 airlines, charter companies and private entities. Eight American carriers combined have more than 450 A320s in their fleet. Among the biggest, JetBlue with 130, United has 97, Delta and U.S. Airways, 69 each.

In the short to medium range world, the A320 is second only to Boeing 737 which has delivered nearly 8,000 of its ultra popular medium size planes. The A320 family of planes includes the A318, 319, and 321, all similar in arrange and control. Airbus says every 2.5 seconds, a plane from one of its 320 family is taking off or handling somewhere in the world.

The missing plane designated QZ8501 was delivered to AirAsia in October 2008. Since then, the airline says it has taken off some 13,600 times, logging approximately 23,000 hours in the air. AirAsia 8501 was carrying more than 18,000 pounds of fuel when it departed, enough for about three and a half hours of flight.

Shortly before disappearing, the pilot asked air traffic control if he could ascend to 38,000 feet. That request was denied. The A320 is certified to fly up to 39,000 feet. Its absolute limit is 42,000 feet. Weight, temperature, weather and fuel all play a role in how high the plane can fly safely.

In its history, 16 A320 planes have crashed. Nine of those crashes were deadly, resulting in 656 deaths, on the planes or on the ground.

The first crash, shortly after the plane started service in 1988. Air France flight 296 skimmed the top of trees during an air show demonstration flight. The cause: the fly-by wire system and pilot error.

In 2007, Tam Airlines flight 3054 crashed on handing in Sao Paulo, Brazil. A reverse thruster had been deactivated, the plane unable to stop crashed into a cargo terminal, 187 passengers and crew died, plus 12 on the ground. The deadliest crash for an A-320. Cause, likely pilot error mechanical failure.

And who could forget the 2009 ditching of U.S. Airways Flight 1549. On takeoff from New York's LaGuardia Airport, the plane collided with a flock of geese. Both engines failed. Captain Sully Sullenberger successfully landed the plane on the Hudson River, all 155 aboard survived.


MARQUEZ: Now, the A320, like many Airbus planes, has a fly by wire system. That means the commands that the pilot puts in is digitized and that changes or moves mechanical parts to the plane. That has been a factor in some crashes. It has not been clear yet whether that played into this.

The other thing is that it is so sophisticated, it can self-adjust. The computers can send commands to the mechanical parts of the plane without the pilot having to command it to do so -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: Fly-by wire standards on Boeing jets as well, we understand.

Thanks very much, Miguel Marquez.

Tonight on CNN, don't miss the greatest mystery of our time. What happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370? Tonight at 9:00, CNN investigates in "Vanished: The Mystery of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370."

And OUTFRONT next, more than 400 people trapped on a fiery ship in frigid waters, some for almost 24 hours. Why did it take so long to bring them to safety?

And it's a movie that has everyone talking from Main Street to Pyongyang. But did "The Interview" clicked with moviegoers?


SCIUTTO: And welcome back. Let's check in now with Anderson Cooper with a look at what's ahead on "AC360" -- Anderson.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Hey, Jim. Yes, we're obviously going to have more of the breaking news ahead on the program. The first hours, as you know, of daylight have search teams back in on over the waters off Indonesia looking for signs of the missing air flight 8501. A live report ahead from the airport where families of the 162 people on board are still holding out hope.

We'll also talk with our panelists, from the top names in aviation, detective work, about what we know, what we can learn on what happened on that plane and how long it may take to actually find it. Also, reports on a very bad year for aviation in Malaysia.

It's all at the top of the hour -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: We'll be watching. Anderson Cooper, thanks very much.

Ten people now confirmed dead after a ferry with more than 400 on board caught on fire in the Adriatic Sea off the coast of Greece. Treacherous seas, gale force winds and thick smoke acted as a wall between rescue teams and passengers. One passenger described it like the Titanic. Some waiting nearly 36 hours to be rescued after a fire broke out on a car deck on board. At last, 427 people have been rescued. Italian officials say they're launching a criminal investigation into how the fire started.

Nima Elbagir, she joins us OUTFRONT tonight from Brindisi, Italy.

Nima, what can you tell us about the criminal investigation? Why do they think criminal charges might be involved here?

NIMA ELBAGIR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, prosecutors have now told us, Jim, that they've issued a seize order, which means they're trying to get that ship back here into Italian waters so they can begin their own forensic investigation. They have a lot of concerns why the alarm system didn't trigger, about the infrastructure, but mainly about a lot of the things we've been hearing from many of the eyewitnesses that there were tankers, quite a number of them, carrying fuel on board on that level where the fire broke out. And this contributed to the intensity of the blaze so how difficult it

was to put out. A lot of the eyewitnesses could feel that heat coming up through their shoes melting the rubber on the bottom of their soles. This is a huge concern and embarrassment, I should say, for the Italian company running this. The Greek authorities that were supposed to be overseeing it and the Albanians in whose water this happened.

SCIUTTO: So, we have ten confirmed dead, but authorities say that death toll might still climb.

ELBAGIR: Again, this comes back to all the confusion with the number of different nationalities that are involved in this. The Italian authorities have -- they started the morning by saying four. It inched up to five, six, we're at 10 now after midnight.

Greek authorities throughout, though, Jim, have been telling us that their concern is that the manifest for passengers, it's not accurate. They are worried that there's a greater number of missing and that's going to start reflecting itself in the deaths. So, a lot of the families waiting to see family members at this port here, they tell us that until they're reunited, the shock, the unease, and the sorrow that has tarred this Christmas period, this festive period, that's going to take a long time to forget, Jim.

SCIUTTO: No question. And families are waiting for possibly bad news out in Asia as well. Thanks very much, Nima Elbagir in Italy.

OUTFRONT next, one of the most talked-about movies of the year, "The Interview", finally hit theaters as well as laptops this weekend. We know that North Korea wasn't pleased, but how about moviegoers?


SCIUTTO: Sony's "The Interview" finally hit theaters this weekend prompting an angry response, of course, from North Korea. The comedy is expected to pull in $2.8 million at 331 theaters through Sunday, and another $15 million from 2 million online sales. North Korean officials released a statement Saturday saying in part, quote, "Obama is the chief culprit who forced the Sony Pictures Entertainment to indiscriminately distribute the movie. Obama always goes reckless in words and deeds like a monkey in a tropical forest." Offensive, as you can imagine.

As for the movie itself, it opened to decidedly mixed reviews.

I'm Jim Sciutto. I'll be here all week in New York. Thanks very much for joining us tonight. We're going to see you again tomorrow and be sure to set your DVR to record OUTFRONT so you can watch us any time.

"AC360" starts right now.