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Mystery of Flight 370; Updating the Situation; U.S. Official: Plane May Have Flown 4-5 Hours

Aired March 13, 2014 - 16:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: So far, it seems every lead thwarted, every theory contradicted. I suppose the only thing to do now is to expand the search grid again for Flight 370.

I'm Jake Tapper. This is THE LEAD.

The world lead, search crews may cast an even wider net to find that flight, now that new information indicates the plane may have flown four hours past the point of last contact. Are searchers finally on the right track after days of dead ends?

Also, "All right, good night," the final words from the pilots before they went silent. But radio of course is not the only way that the plane could have communicated with the ground. Was any of it working?

And if the plane did go down over water, where is the debris? So far, not a speck found. But even if search crews were able to discover a piece of Flight 370, that is not guarantee that answers about its disappearance will follow.

Good afternoon, everyone. I'm Jake Tapper. Welcome to THE LEAD.

Some breaking news in our world lead, a new wrinkle in the story that has captivated the planet. It's now been six days since Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared, seemingly into thin air. Six days of dead ends and false alarms and conflicting theories about what may have happened to the plane and the 239 people on board.

It's taking on dimensions similar to history's most baffling aviation mysteries, such as Amelia Earhart's disappearance or the many doomed planes that never escaped the Bermuda Triangle. But now, nearly a week after Flight 370 vanished without a trace, the White House says the search will get even wider.


JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: It is my understanding that based on some new information that is not necessarily conclusive, but new information, an additional search area may be opened in the Indian Ocean.


TAPPER: In the Indian Ocean. What is this new information that has propelled the search in a different direction towards the west? Well, U.S. officials tell CNN that the plane may have flown on for several hours beyond that last radar reading that the Malaysians have shared.

As we speak, there are at least 56 ships and 30 aircraft taking part in the search, but they had better hurry, because an even more important number here, the locator beacons in the flight recorders only have 23 days of battery life left.

Let's bring in chief national correspondent Jim Sciutto and Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr, both of them of course following the story closely.

Barbara, why do U.S. officials now think like the plane may have made it to the Indian Ocean?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Why so many hours to the west of Malaysia, Jake?

A senior U.S. official tells me that they now have information from the Malaysians that the engines on this plane sent data to satellites, maintenance data about the engines, very routine business for a plane to do that, sent that information to satellites, several pings, if you will, picked up by the satellites.

The Malaysian analyzing all of that, getting some help from the United States, all of that now leading to look west, that the possibility is that the plane flew four or five hours to the west out over the Indian Ocean.

None of this is 100 percent, as you are pointing out, a lot of confusion, a lot of leads that appear to go nowhere, a lot of mystery about where this plane is. But this is very significant because it makes all eyes turn to the west, hundreds of square miles of the Indian Ocean now potentially to be looked at and the U.S. will have to decide how much it wants to participate in that new search.

There are Navy ships in the area. Some officials I'm talking to say the Navy ships will move out into the Indian Ocean and some officials say they won't. We will have to see what happens.

TAPPER: And, Jim, "The Wall Street Journal" had a similar report, although they have since corrected that report. Explain to us the difference and the significance.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, their correction, they say rather than the data being transmitted back to ground, there's an ACARS system on the plane that's constantly sending data back periodically.

The data didn't go back to the ground, but it went up to a satellite, which I think is similar to Barbara and my own reporting. But it's also my understanding that it's not just this engine data that gives them an indication that it went into the Indian Ocean. It's the radar data that we have been reporting on the last several days that the Malaysian Air Force had, shows that plane taking a left turn and heading towards south and west towards the Indian Ocean, plus also their knowledge then of how much gas would have been in the fuel tanks at this point, which gives them a sense of range.

They knew they had about seven hours of flying time fuel, took a turn about two hours into the flight, so it would give it four or five hours to continue on at level flight conceivably. It's that combination of things. This is an investigation. These are all clues. Some of the clues have not panned out, for instance, the satellite images we were talking about yesterday.

But in this case, they have more than one clue that points them in this new direction, the radar data, the engine data, and their sense of the fuel range of the plane, and that's why they are going to begin looking at the Indian Ocean. As Barbara says, it's not 100 percent, but it's an indication, and three indications pointing that way.

TAPPER: Right. And, of course, as we have learned, as you point out, so many of the leads that we have heard have been undermined by further examination.

Barbara, what other capabilities does the U.S. government have to look at this situation completely independent of the Malaysians?

STARR: Well, that's what is so important right now, to have their own information.

We're told by U.S. officials that there are a number of intelligence and military analysts working this problem right now, looking at commercial satellite imagery, trying to look across all of these areas, and see if they can figure out any anomalies, anything in the water that might indicate a piece of debris, rather than just trash or garbage floating through the ocean, something that is a little more legitimate than what the Chinese purported to show about 24 hours ago.

But there's an even bigger mystery here about what they -- another piece that they can't confirm right now, the same U.S. official telling me the emergency beacon system on the airplane that would have transmitted an emergency if the plane was about to impact the water or impact land, if it was about to go down, that system should have gone off. And so far, they're not finding any data that shows it went off.

Doesn't give us much to go on about what happened to the plane, but it's another piece of puzzle, Jake.

BLITZER: All right, Barbara Starr and Jim Sciutto, thank you so much.

Let's unpack this latest development in this ever-twisting story.

Joining me now from Chattanooga, Tennessee, is Jim Hall, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. He was chair during the crash investigations of TWA Flight 800 and Egypt Air 990. He's now a government and private adviser on transportation safety.

Jim, thanks for joining us. So help us understand this, with all this new information about the flight may have continued for several hours, based on information that the engine gave that was picked up by satellite. The U.S. government, U.S. officials now say that the flight may have continued westward into the Indian Ocean. Why would that information be coming out now, six days after the flight disappeared?

JIM HALL, FORMER CHAIRMAN, NATIONAL TRANSPORTATION SAFETY BOARD: Well, it took several days to get the NTSB experts in location.

And so I would imagine that now, with individuals who are highly specialized in the accident investigation arena, that they are able to start putting together this puzzle as to where is the best place to look for this aircraft.

TAPPER: And explain this too. There is this thing called ACARS, I think that's pronounced, ACARS, the airliners' service data system.

HALL: That's correct.

TAPPER: What is exactly? Did I get that right?

HALL: Yes. It's a maintenance system that goes to a satellite and then to the ground that provides information on the mechanical health of the aircraft.

It was that system that was very helpful in identifying the location of the Air France accident. So I understand that information has come to light that may indicate that there's a possibility -- and this is pure speculation at this point -- that this may be something similar to the Payne Stewart flight, that there was some sort of decompression of the oxygen system on the aircraft, incapacitating not only the crew, but the passengers, and the plane continued to flight for several hours.

TAPPER: And what happened at that point, theoretically? And understood that everything is speculation, although it is informed speculation, based on the most recent information that we're getting from government entities and investigators. What would happen at that point? Would the transponder go out? Would decompression lead to everybody on the plane becoming unconscious? What would happen?

HALL: Well, unfortunately, with decompression, after a handful of seconds, I think it was in the 30, 40 seconds without supplementary oxygen, unfortunately, everyone would become unconscious, and it's a fatal event.

Again, this is -- it's pure speculation, but I would hope the investigators are looking very closely at the maintenance records. This was a very modern aircraft, a 777-200, but it had a lot of cycles, a lot of hours on it.

So, to look at the maintenance records, to try and determine what may have occurred, so if the pilot actually turned because of a problem to return, and then there was an event that incapacitated the crew, we might have seen a situation that is being described here, the possibility of the plane then flying for several hours, as the Payne Stewart plane did.

We knew the plane, the Payne Stewart aircraft was over Georgia, that the crew was incapacitated because the Air Force had scrambled jets and were able to see into -- get close enough to see in the cockpit. But that plane continued for several hours. We thought from the first radar tracks it was going to be possibly crashing in Chicago, but fortunately it veered, because of the winds and ended up in -- I believe it was South Dakota.

TAPPER: Jim, in terms of the airliner service data system, which is where this latest information comes from, with the airline's service data systems ACARS communicating with the satellite and that leads senior U.S. officials to believe that the flight went westward into the Indian Ocean -- how would they not be 100 percent sure that it was Flight 370? Are they not specific signals that these ACARS system are giving off?

HALL: Well, they are going to have to -- I would imagine they will probably know more information than has been released at this point. I think we ought to look very closely now at where the U.S. Navy -- if the U.S. Navy starts searching in the Indian Ocean, I think that would be an indication that there's some reliable information that that is a place that we need to be looking.

TAPPER: Let's lay out all of the twists and turns in trying to determine the location precisely of this plane and we will put up a map here.

First, we had the site where the transponder stopped working. That was the last known site of Flight 370. And then we had the military pick up -- go ahead. I'm sorry.


HALL: No, I'm saying, that's really the key event. There are only two ways that the transponder that I'm aware of could have stopped working and that it was turned off, which would be a very highly unusual move by the flight crew, or there was an electrical failure of some kind.

TAPPER: OK. So that's the last known site of Flight 370.

Then we have the military, the Malaysian military pick up this radar blip on the western side of Malaysia, which we're still not sure if it's this plane. Then, yesterday, we had satellite imagery from the Chinese, not too far from the last known site of the plane back to the east. That's been searched. Nothing has been found. Now we have reports that the flight may have gone on for four more hours towards the west and is far as the Indian Ocean.

If you were leading this investigation right now, would you focus on the west, would you focus on the Indian Ocean or the last known spot more in the South China Sea?

HALL: Well, if I was leading this investigation, first of all, I would be very dependent on the experts in radar technology and aviation that work for the board and work for various agencies to determine.

This needs to be an extremely coordinated effort, and hopefully we're going to see more of that now that we have all of the right players in place in Malaysia. But, obviously, this is not simple. This is why I have been a longtime advocate for deployable recorders, such as we have on our F-18, because they are -- that recorder, deployable recorder can float on the ocean, would send a signal, had this aircraft gone into either the ocean or crashed in the ground.

TAPPER: All right, Jim Hall, thank you so much. We appreciate your expertise and you sharing it with us.

Coming up next, how a plane communicates when a pilot does not say a word. We're looking at the signals that every plane sends back to land and what those signals can tell us about where Flight 370 may be right now.

And later, the anguish of waiting.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And I can't -- I know, as time goes on, I mean, I'm not deluded by the fact that, as this goes on, there's less and less chance of finding anything, but just, because there's no finality to it, I can't give up.



TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

More on this breaking news our world lead. New theories come and go, but six days since it disappeared, the fate of Flight 370 remains a total mystery.

Moments ago, a new possibility. Malaysian authorities now tell CNN they think several pings of the airliner were still transmitting to satellites four to five hours after last contact with air traffic control on Saturday.

Now, this all suggests that the plane could -- I want to emphasize the plane could -- have flown over the Indian Ocean. It's compelling new lead. It still does not answer why the plane's transponder lost contact with ground control an hour or so after takeoff.

CNN's aviation correspondent Rene Marsh takes a deeper look now at the communication breakdown.


RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Inside the cockpit of a Boeing 777, there are multiple ways pilots communicate with the ground. The ACAR system automatically beams down information about the health of the plane. Until today, we thought the last transmission was 1:07 a.m. local time. Now, there is word it may have been transmitting data hours beyond that.

(on camera): What information -- give me details what kind of information is being beamed down.

TOM HAUETER, FORMER DIRECTOR, NTSB OFFICE OF AVIATION SAFETY: Commonly it was download, engine parameters, temperatures, amount of fuel burned, any maintenance discrepancy.

MARSH (voice-over): Airlines monitor the real time data.

Another way to communicate: radio. "All right. Good night", the final call from the pilots of Flight 370 left Malaysian airspace, a common phrase when changing controllers.

ALASKA AIRLINES 261: We are in a dive here.

MARSH: In Alaska Airlines Flight 261, when the plane dived out of control, pilots radioed what was happening. But no mayday from Flight 370.

(on camera): In the event of an emergency, is communication secondary?

HAUETER: Yes. The first thing is to fly the airplane, navigate the airplane, and communicate. That's the order of precedence.

MARSH (voice-over): A third way to communicate, by transponder, 1:21, a.m., Flight 370's transponder signal goes dead. It transmits the plane's location, speed (AUDIO GAP) position.

(on camera): Is there any good reason that a pilot would want to switch that off?

HAUETER: No. Clearly, if all of the power was lost to the aircraft or something happened to take out that part of the electronics, the electrical system -- yes, that would turn it off. But certainly, one aspect of turning it off is because you don't want to be seen.

MARSH (voice-over): Radar tracked Flight 370 flying for another nine minutes. At 1:30 a.m. local time, the plane vanishes.

But the one piece of the plane that is likely still communicating, the flight recorders. Only sonar equipment can detect their pings and time is of essence. The signal only lasts for about 30 days.

Rene Marsh, CNN, Washington.


TAPPER: To help make sense of all this, I want to bring in Jim Tilmon. He's an aviation expert and retired airline captain.

Jim, good to see you again.

What does this new information tell you, especially about this turn at the last site to transponder contact? JIM TILMON, AVIATION EXPERT: Well, I'm troubled by the lack of more complete information. I've been looking at the timeline, Jake, and it's very interesting to me that conversation that you mentioned that they had, the last known transmission from the cockpit was stated without any emotion or without any indication that anything was wrong. And moments later, literally moments later, the transponders went off the line.

Now, what happened in that little time span between "everything's OK, roger, have a nice night", and transponder is off the line and no communication whatsoever after that point? That's one of my concerns.

The other thing is, this thing about the engines communicating with ACARS on the ground. It's my understanding that transmission is not absolute in terms of by the real time, this is happening at this precise moment, that the information can be collected and saved and then sent out in bursts of communications through the ACAR system. That could happen even after -- well, even after the engines may not be running, I mean, because it's another communication system.

There's a lot of possibilities. And I don't even have a favorite one right now.

TAPPER: Jim, is there a reason why pilots are even able to flip off transponders? I don't really fully understand why that's an option? It seems to me, the plane is in the air, the transponder should automatically be on.

TILMON: Essentially it is. But what if you had an electrical fire that involved the transponder? You would want to be able to turn it off.

I mean, pilots don't like to have anything in the cockpit that you can't turn off, I mean, because you don't know what's going to happen or what you're going to need.

I can't imagine any good reason for turning it off unless there was an electrical situation that could not be handled in another way. But you can see that little box there. It's just got a switch to switch it on or off or from transponder number one to transponder number two.

TAPPER: Jim, you've logged thousands and thousands of hours in the air flying commercial for 29 years. Have you ever willfully cut communications with ground control?

TILMON: Never. Never. That's your lifeline. You depend on air traffic controllers because they're the ones who let you know if there is traffic that you should know about or any other fact that would be interesting to you and the safety of your flight and the comfort of your passengers.

No. I cannot imagine any reason for leaning over and shutting off the transponders. No.

TAPPER: And also, I thought -- and I'm no aviator, but I thought there were so many redundancies that built into planes that knocking out communications really could only happen if there was a catastrophe. Is that right?

TILMON: Essentially, that's correct. I mean, a gross electrical failure would do all of those things at one time and it could be simultaneously. A fire in the -- as they call it the E and E compartment, which is electrical and all compartment, which is generally somewhere in the vicinity of the cockpit itself, that could disrupt a lot of things all at one time.

And electrical fires are pretty spooky. I mean, there are a few situations where a commercial airplane had crashed, as a result of an electrical fire, and then once it starts, it moves very rapidly. It can very definitely take everything off the line.

TAPPER: We had the former chief of staff of the Federal Aviation Administration on the show yesterday and he said one possibility that hasn't really been pursued by investigators as much as he thought could be pursued is that the idea that the plane could be on land somewhere as opposed to in the ocean. Is that more possible than people think?

TILMON: It's very possible. And being on land some place could mean one of two things. It crashed on land and with all that jungle-type terrain out there, the geography, it could hide underneath the canopy of trees. The other possibility of it landing someplace is that they intentionally flew that airplane someplace where they knew they could land and landed there and probably had no more damage.

TAPPER: You know, this story has consumed the media, it's consumed people, the American public, and the public around the world. They are speculating. They're talking about what might have happened. We can all identify with the fear since most people fly.

Do pilots do this, too? When you guys talk, men and women pilots, is this consuming your discussions these days?

TILMON: Well, I don't know if you'd want to use the word consuming, but you can rest assured there's conversation about the pet theory that this person has and the other person has, and they really should be looking here and they really should be looking there.

Pilots are an interesting group. We've got sometimes more ego than we've got airplane. So, you know, we do like to give our opinions here and there, and we will argue with anybody about aviation.

TAPPER: All right. Jim Tilmon, thank you so much. We appreciate your time.

When we come back, another ocean is added to the search for Flight 370. And new information that the jet may have flown for hours after last contact, how does this new information change the investigation? Well, the man who led the TWA 800 investigation, he'll join us next.