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Missing Jet's Transponder Shut Off, Flew Over 350 Miles Before Vanishing; CIA's Brennan Says Missing Jet Could Be Terrorism

Aired March 11, 2014 - 13:30   ET


JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: So to be clear, the CIA director, leaving, though, open another tip, possible terror connections, separate from those two Iranians traveling on those stolen passports.

Just another point I would make on that, Wolf. I spent a lot of time in Iran. You do meet a lot of young people there who want to get out of the country and are desperate for any path out of the country, most of the time, legal, looking to immigrate to other places. But if they can't find that path, they do look into alternatives to get there. And that appears to be what these two young men were doing.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Yep. All right. Good point.

Jim, stand by.

Peter Goelz, stand by.

Everyone, stand by.

We're going to continue the breaking news coverage. We have now learned from a Malaysian air force official, that plane, the Malaysian airliner flight 370, had the transponder shut off for at least an hour while it made a U-turn and was way, way off course on the normal route between Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Beijing in China. The breaking news coverage continues in a moment.


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: I'm Wolf Blitzer, reporting. We welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world.

We want to update you on the breaking news regarding missing Malaysia Airlines flight 370. The Malaysian air force top official now telling CNN, the plane was way, way off-course when it went missing. That, according to this official who declined to be named because he's not authorized to talk to the international news media. The Malaysian air force traced the last signs of the plane to a small island in the Strait of Malacca. If the air force information is correct, the plane was flying in the opposite direction from its scheduled destination. It was not on the route scheduled to fly from Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia to Beijing and China. There is a lot to assess right now. This is very, very important information, just coming out in the course of this investigation.

Kit Darby is a veteran pilot of a Boeing 767, president of, a consulting firm here.

Thanks very much, Kit, for joining us.

Let's talk about this information. How extraordinary, unusual, is it that the transponder -- and you pointed out to me, there are usually two transponders. Both are out and the plane is flying in a U-turn hundreds of miles from its scheduled route?

KIT DARBY, VETERAN PILOT & PRESIDENT, KITDARBY.COM: It's very, very unusual. I have to say, there is a backup. So it appears to be either a power failure -- you could lose power, which would take out both transponders.

BLITZER: But you could still fly a plane?

DARBY: You could. It will fly without electricity for a long time, up to an hour or so, which coincides with the problem we have here. It could have been an electrical issue. It could have been the pilot. He can turn them off if he chooses to.

There are a lot of data sources. I think we'll have a lot more information about what actually happened. But there could have been something that caused the pilot to take the airplane off course, or, of course, could have taken that action himself.

BLITZER: Have you ever seen, in all of your years flying, anything along these lines?

DARBY: I've got to tell you. Myself and my captain friends that have all been out there doing this for many years are totally baffled by this particular set of circumstances, as it originally appeared. I'm much relieved we have an hour's worth of flight after the data is off. I would be interested to see what that data shows, whether the airplane was placed on purpose. Diverting to go an alternate without communications is possible. They had an ulterior plan. That is possible.

BLITZER: If they find the recorders, flight data recorders, voice recorders, so-called black boxes, would we learn that information?

DARBY: We would, but I think we'll know sooner. This airplane emits information every few seconds, constantly emitting information to the ground. Assuming that was working, and it is available in this area in most cases, we should have detailed information on what this airplane did from its automatic communication of its position, engine status, aircraft status, everything about that.

BLITZER: Who has that information now?

DARBY: Normally, it would go to the people that -- air traffic control and the people that record the data for monitoring the airplane.

BLITZER: The Malaysia government is not sharing that information. They're saying this airplane disappeared.

DARBY: I'm not sure it would go to the Malaysian government. The air traffic control stuff would go to the closest air traffic control. And the air craft data would go to the company monitoring the airplane for the airline.

BLITZER: Let's go to Kuala Lumbar, Malaysia. Andrew Stevens reporting on this. He's our correspondent there on the ground.

And for viewers that were just tuning in, Andrew, up date them precisely on what you're hearing from this senior Malaysian air force official.

ANDREW STEVENS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, what we're hearing is the plane undertook a U-turn, and traveled back across the country of Malaysia into the Strait of Malacca, on the other side, virtually opposite to its intended flight path, where the authorities lost contact with it over a very small island, roughly between Malaysia and Indonesian.

Behind this is the story of the transponders. What we know is the plane is last officially seen and verified, if you like, just as it entered Vietnamese air space from Malaysian air space on its way to Beijing. The transponders stopped working. We don't know why. It was then tracked on what's known as a primary radar. But the primary radar does not have the same level of sophistication, cannot pick up what plane it is. But they continued to monitor this plane, which they consider -- they thought to be flight A-370. It did a U-turn. It flew back across Malaysia, as I said, across into the Strait of Malacca. That was about -- for about one hour or so. And that radar image they were looking at disappeared around this very small island, pretty much in the middle of the Strait of Malacca, between Malaysia and Indonesian.

This does join the dots in some ways, because it's been two or three days. The Malaysian air force has been saying there is a possibility that it may have turned around. That's all they said. They haven't elaborated on that possibility at all. This now looks like that's exactly what happened.

We're getting that information from a very senior source in the Malaysian air force source, not authorized to speak to the international media, so we cannot name that person. But it does fit in with the fact that in the -- in the air, where it's thought to have gone down, when it first lost contact, no sight there of any wreckage of any debris, nothing.

Now the search is starting to concentrate much more. It has been looking across that area, but the focus now gets much, much harder on this area around this island and the immediate vicinity.

BLITZER: Stand by, Andrew.

Andrew Stevens in Kuala Lumpur.

Richard Quest is joining us in New York right now. This is major breaking news right now, Richard. And you have flown this route. You know at least one of the pilots. Give us your analysis of what we have just heard.

RICHARD QUEST, HOST, QUEST MEANS BUSINESS: You're absolutely right, Wolf. This completely changes the scenario. And you know how you and I were saying and have been saying that until we get more information, you really can't take it too much further. Well, this is exactly the sort of information that one would be looking for.

First of all, this change of direction. Secondly, the switching of or the stopping of the transponder messages. One can speculate a million reasons why. But other systems, at that point, could have been switched off. In the last few hours, I've been asking 777 pilots about how easy it is to -- obviously, the transponder is very easy to switch off. But things like the ACAR systems and these other things, it is possible. It's not that difficult, if you know what you're doing. And it does explain that extraordinary decision yesterday by the DCA, the investigating authority, to shift the -- and to widen the search to the Malacca Strait off the west coast of Malaysia.

Now, it raises a whole host of other issues and problems, not least, Wolf, how did this plane change direction and fly for an hour and a half and nobody bothered to send a fighter jet up or nobody bothered to try and see what was going on? I guarantee you this. If a plane in Europe or the United States, a large 777, was -- went off course for an hour and a half, then somebody would be asking some very searching questions.

But they're questions for another day. At the moment, we now know a better position of where that plane might be.

BLITZER: And now the search can be focused in that area, which is obviously critically important. Richard, stand by.

Tom Fuentes is our law enforcement analyst, former assistant director of the FBI.

The other breaking news this hour, Tom, is what the CIA director, John Brennan said, pointedly. He said he's by no means ruling out terrorism. In his words, quote, "not at all." Saying that terrorists since 9/11 have wanted to go after international aircraft. What do you make of that?

TOM FUENTES, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST & FORMER DEPUTY DIRECTOR, FBI (voice-over): Wolf, I don't read anything into that or his tone of voice or how -- the way he stated that because law enforcement and the intelligence community have never ruled out terrorism, ever, in this case. They have to investigate it as a possibility from the very beginning and have. So knowing that aircraft are a historic target for a variety of terrorist groups and they have never stopped putting out threat information regarding possible aircraft attacks, no one has ever ruled that out, nor in this case.

And I think that what we have learned about the change of course, in a way, it raises as many or more questions as it answers. It's an important piece of information, but it shows that that plane was in the air and being flown.

Now, maybe they lost communication but could still fly and were trying to return back to the airports they left and got lost, maybe the GPS wasn't working or whatever. I don't know how that would work. But maybe in the dead of night they just couldn't find where they were going. We don't know. Whatever mechanical problem they might have had eventually overtook the plane or pilot, we don't know that. We can't rule out that the pilots flew that plane oh off course and crashed it intentionally. It can't be ruled out. It been done in the past. That's all been looked at from the time that disappeared. Every one of these combinations or a possibility and never ruled out. And every authority I've listened to and talked to my own sources have say, look, until we get that aircraft and get the recording data from it, we're just not going to know.

BLITZER: Yeah, I think you make excellent points. The reason -- the main reason why those John Brennan, CIA director, remarks jumped out at me and so many other people, because they seemed to be very different from what we heard from Ron Noble, the head of the -- of Interpol, who seemed to be downplaying any notion of terrorism, and from Malaysian authorities, also downplaying any notion of terror. And then, all of a sudden, the CIA director says, not at all, that they're not ruling out terrorism. So it seemed to be a difference in emphasis, a difference in tone from the CIA director to these others.

But hold on for a moment, because Kit Darby, the pilot, is still with me here.

You were shaking your head when you heard what Tom Fuentes was saying, about for an hour, at least, this plane was flying without these transponders.

DARBY: Yes, sir. Certainly, the plane could fly without a transponder. And the question is, was it flying without communication because it had to? Or was it flying on purpose and the pilots were taking it somewhere? Typically, terrorism would be catastrophic. It would end with a bomb in flight. It would end with a crash whenever they wanted to crash it. But the timing, the hour, hour and a half, that sort of coincides with the amount of standby power the airplane went without electricity, that it could fly for an hour, hour and a half. That's our normal reserve. Being a little bit off course at night with minimum instrumentation, that's not inconceivable either. So I'm not seeing a clear pattern, whether it's terrorism or simply pilots' natural instinct to return to where he came, return to what he knows when he's in a stressful situation. It's not clear yet.

BLITZER: It's a good point you're making, a very good point. And you also suggest that you -- you suggested to me, if one of the pilots or both of the pilots deliberately wanted to take that plane down, they could have turned off the transponder and just taken that plane down. Why would they fly an extra hour if their intention was to destroy the aircraft and kill everyone on board?

DARBY: I agree. I certainly agree.

BLITZER: That's an important point to make. Brian Todd is with us, as well.

Brian, you have been doing some reporting on the search techniques that are under way right now. What are you learning?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, you know, we focus a lot today on the technology. As you have been reporting in the breaking news, at some point we now know the plane's transponder stop working, might have been turned off. After it was turned off, radar lost all contact with the aircraft and now we know that was near that island of Pulau Puraq (ph), a small island in the Strait of Malacca. The transponder could have been turned off or destroyed. All planes have GPS and can be tracked with satellites. But again, if something is destroyed or turned off, those devices obviously can't work.

Now, as for the technologies being used, we just got off the phone with Pentagon officials, they tell us the Navy's Seventh Fleet is out there with MH-60 helicopters, a P-3 Orion plane, and flair pods and infrared sensors, which can detect signs of life and movement. Obviously, shifting to that Strait of Malacca area. Pentagon officials are not going to give information about the satellites and other technology being used, but safety experts are telling us it's very likely that military satellites are being used with some high-res imagery of these areas -- Wolf?

BLITZER: Brian, stand by.

We're going to continue the breaking news. We'll take a quick break. Once again, we're looking into this report now from a senior Malaysian air force official, this aircraft made a U-turn after the transponders were shut down, flew hundreds of miles off course, the normal route between Malaysia and China, and, all of a sudden, the plane disappears. This according to the Malaysian air force.

We'll take a break. Much more of the breaking news right after this.


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: the breaking news, very significant. A Malaysian air force official telling CNN the aircraft, the Malaysian Airline flight 370, that Boeing 777, the transponder stopped sending messages. But for at least an hour, that plane made a U-turn, started to fly away from Vietnam back towards Malaysia. Malaysian air force radar was picking it up, but then, all of a sudden, the plane disappeared.

Andrew Stevens is our correspondent in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. He's been reporting all of this information.

Update our viewers, Andrew. This is very significant, this development. It changes the focus on the search that's been going on in a totally different area. It certainly widens this search effort.

STEVENS: Yeah, that's the key, Wolf. It does mean that this massive search, which is currently under way, the focus will switch very much to this area.

So this is what we know has happened. This is what we're getting from the very senior person within the Malaysian air force. We can't name him because he's not authorized to speak to the international media, but he's confirmed this to us. What happened, we now think, is the plane took off from Kuala Lumpur. About an hour or so into the flight, it gave its usual readings, just entering into Vietnamese air space. The transponders on that plane, the actual equipment that is used to speak to the ground and to identify the aircraft, et cetera, et cetera, went down. After it went down, a primary radar kept tracking this plane. This does not have the same level of sophistication, but it can actually track the plane itself. And it tracked the flight back in a big U-turn, back across the country of Malaysia, on to the other side of the country. The last known whereabouts of this aircraft before it disappeared, before that actual radar image disappeared from the screens, was a very small island, more like a lump of rock than anything, roughly halfway between Malaysia and Indonesia. We don't know any details.

This raises a whole host of questions. What actually happened to those transponders? Why did the pilots then go to where they were going? So many questions.

But coming back to your point, this is a massive operation now, search operation. They have been focusing on the flight path the plane was intended to take. They have been looking in the Straits of Malacca. They have been, as you say, expanding, expanding the search zone, because they found absolutely nothing, a few false leads, but nothing else in the area where the plane should have gone down according to its flight path. So they're now focusing on this other area.

Just one more thing, Wolf, is that this does tie in with earlier reports where the Malaysian air force has been very cagey, saying that we believe the plane could have turned around. There was a possibility it may have turned around. There was some radar tracks to suggest it did. But they never confirmed that. Now it looks like we've got confirmation of this. It actually turned around. It flew back across the country onto the other side and then disappeared.

BLITZER: Hundreds of miles, not just turned around, but it then flew hundreds of miles across Malaysia. That's a very, very dramatic development.

Andrew, stand by.

Tom Fuentes is CNN's law enforcement analyst, former assistant director of the FBI.

The key question investigators are going to be looking at, why did those transponders fail, either human, someone turned them out, or there was a massive power outage. Those are the key questions that people are going to investigate right now.

FUENTES (voice-over): That's right, Wolf. You're looking at still a possibility of a partial mechanical, enough of a mechanical failure to interrupt communication but not enough to bring the plane down. But terrorism doesn't just include an explosion on the plane or a bomb. It can also include, like 9/11, where the wrong people somehow gain access to the cockpit and maybe taking control of the aircraft that way, either killing the pilot or commanding them to do something. If you have someone with enough knowledge to be able to flip off those transponders, you could do it.

Among the vulnerabilities, they usually don't have toilets in the flight deck. You see the pilots come out one at a time and use the restroom, and for that brief second, the door is open so. The barricading of the door is opened up so that they can come out of the cockpit and, you know, if one of the pilots chooses while the other one is out, now he can barricade them out and the original pilot can't get back in. So you could have an individual or two individuals inside there take control of their own aircraft. You just saw this a little over a month ago where the Ethiopian Airline co-pilot hijacked his own plane. Luckily, he didn't crash it. He landed in Geneva, Switzerland, but he locked the captain out while he flew the plane. Those are among the possibilities. There are still as many possibilities out there, maybe more, now that we know about the transponders being off. It still leaves mechanical, terrorism, other issues, as much in the air as they were before.

BLITZER: I assume, Tom -- you know a lot more about this than I do since you've worked with Interpol, you've been involved in these international investigations. They're taking a very close look at these two Malaysian pilots, their backgrounds, their history, to see if there's anything at all suspicious.

FUENTES: Right. That's standard that the investigators from the beginning would be looking at. Obviously they have everyone's lives in their hands. So they're going to be a key focus right from the beginning and would have been. I think that Ron Noble, in his press conference yesterday, I think he was trying to emphasize that there was less concern than before about the two stolen passports, that he believed that they were less likely to have been involved in terrorism. But even then, I wouldn't rule that out. What if they were doing a favor for a guy that gave them the passports who maybe said, hey, could you take this package for me and give it to my friend in Germany when you get there? And they might have unwittingly taken a dangerous device in check luggage, not even knowing it. They're not terrorists. Just trying to get asylum in a country in Europe, and maybe they introduced something on that plane that should not have been on there.

BLITZER: Hold on for a moment, Tom.

Kit Darby is still with me, a retired United Airlines captain, instructor pilot, of

Kit, so give me your bottom line right now, because I can understand one transponder going. Two transponders, that's pretty unusual, electrical power going. But the plane is still flying for an hour. All of this is extraordinary.

DARBY: Well, to me, when one thing fails, obviously things fail. When two things fail, we usually look at the power source. So this logic leads me to thinking that perhaps there was a power problem. Then there's a backup power system. That is designed to last about an hour. Natural for the pilot, in my view, to return to where he knows the airports and a region he knows, so turning around makes sense. About an hour later, the airplane could become unflyable.

BLITZER: The backup power source that allows it to fly for an hour, you can't communicate during that hour?

DARBY: It has very limited communication.

BLITZER: But there's some communication?


DARBY: There should be.

BLITZER: If there was a May Day, SOS type of situation, they should be able to say and communicate, hey, we've got a problem.

DARBY: They should. But what initially happened out over the water, maybe not. As they get closer to land, there's, like, five different communication systems.

BLITZER: But at the end, they were flying over Malaysia.

DARBY: Right. And the one that's tied into the standby power is the shorter-range one. So it might not work out over the water, but it probably would work as they got closer in. But they were nearing the end of their power reserve at that point.

BLITZER: Kit Darby, lots of unanswered questions, but they're narrowing in. At least they're getting some more specifics in the Malaysian air force. This senior official sharing some critically important information with all of us.

Kit Darby, thanks very much for your expertise.

DARBY: Thank you.

Andrew Stevens in Kuala Lumpur, Tom Fuentes, Brian Todd, Jim Sciutto, everyone has been extremely helpful in getting us a better appreciation.

I'll be back later today, 5:00 p.m. eastern in "The Situation Room." Much more coming up then. Until then, thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer.

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