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Mystery of Flight 370

Aired March 17, 2014 - 16:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Some breaking news now: The U.S. military is scaling back its role in the search for Flight 370. Is the U.S. throwing in the towel on this baffling mystery?

I'm Jake Tapper. This is THE LEAD.

The world lead. Increasingly, it seems like the only feasible explanation, someone intentionally steering Flight 370 off course to parts unknown, and now an intensified look at the 30 minutes when communications failed or were shut down as the search area expands into two hemispheres, minus one U.S. Navy ship.

Also, increased scrutiny, not only on the two pilots, but on the crew, the ground workers, and the passengers of Flight 370. Investigators are being forced to work backwards to determine whether any of them had any motive for making this plane disappear.

And the international geopolitical lead. Backing up his threat a day after the people in Ukraine's Crimea region -- quote -- "voted" -- unquote to join Russia, President Obama slaps Russian officials with new sanctions, and now word that Vladimir Putin may be slapping back.

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

We're going to begin on this St. Patrick's Day with the world lead. It has now been 11 days since Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared with 239 people on board in what now one of the most bewildering aviation mysteries in history. And now what was once merely last week a possible explanation seems increasingly like the only one that makes sense to investigators, that this mystifying event on some level was carried out on purpose.

Today, there's a renewed focus on the 30 minutes following the last transmission from a key system on the plane. Much more on that in a moment.

But, as the search area expands, U.S. military officials are now telling CNN that they are pulling one of their Naval destroyers from the effort in the Indian Ocean, in part because Australia is taking over the majority of the search there and also as a Pentagon source tells me the Malaysian government no longer requires her support, her being the USS Kidd.

And 26 countries are now helping in the search for Flight 370, which now spans two hemispheres. Based on satellite pings after the plane flew out of the range of Malaysian military radar, investigators believe it may have followed one of two long arcs to the north as far as Kazakstan or the south to the southern Indian Ocean.

Investigators are now also turning up the level of scrutiny on the two pilots, the flight crew, ground workers, passengers. Did any one of them or more board or service the plane with ill intentions?

This as some recently released video of the two pilots going through over the weekend. Police searched the homes of the pilots, seizing a flight simulator from the captain's house. And today, as we mentioned at the top, there's another wrinkle which change everything investigators thought they knew about Flight 370's disappearance.

Malaysian officials attempted to clarify a key part of the timeline. And of course by clarify it, I mean make things even more confusing. We know that at 12:41 a.m. local time, Flight 370 took off from Kuala Lumpur bound for Beijing. At 1:07 a.m., the aircraft communications addressing and reporting system, what you have heard referred to as ACARS, that transmitted data for the last time.

Now, just yesterday, Malaysian officials said they believe the ACARS system was shut off before the last verbal communication from the plane at 1:19, the "All right, good night." But today the airline's CEO is admitting that they don't know for sure whether it happened before or after 1:19.

After our aviation correspondent, Rene Marsh, reports, if something sinister happened on board, that moment, that would have been the perfect window.


RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): And 1:19 a.m., Malaysian say the co-pilot signs off with Malaysian air traffic control. "All right, good night," he says. It's a common sign-off, as one plane is being handed off to the next controller, this time in Vietnam.

LES ABEND, CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, "FLYING": All I could tell is, it was a routine operation from the time that they said goodbye to the last controller.

MARSH: Here's how a similar handoff sounds in the United States.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: American 370, contact Washington Center, 127.7. Good day.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And 127.7, American 370, so long.

MARSH: But what is different with Malaysia Flight 370 is the pilot never contacted the next controller in Vietnam, which should have happened moments later. Instead, the plane's transponder used to track it goes off at 1:21 and a data transmission at 1:37 doesn't happen. JOHN HANSMAN, MIT: If you're trying to disappear, this would a time where again the Vietnamese controller is expecting you, but doesn't know exactly when you're going to show up. And that controller doesn't yet have responsibility for you. You're in this kind of no- man's land where nobody has clear responsibility for you.

MARSH: Could whoever was in control of the plane use this gap in responsibility to try to disappear?

Perhaps, but some experts see the potential of a mechanical failure.

ABEND: They may have started to shut things down because of an electrical fire. An electrical fire is a nightmare. It requires a process that none of us ever want to go through. You're pulling -- shutting certain things down to isolate the problem.

MARSH: But even as we know when things happened to the plane, exactly what happened inside that cockpit remains a mystery.

Rene Marsh, CNN, Washington.


TAPPER: Our thanks to Rene Marsh.

We do know more about the plane's movements after it missed that 1:37 ACARS transmission -- 2:15 a.m., the plane is last detected by Malaysian radar, more powerful than civilian radar, hundreds of miles off course. Then, at 8:11 a.m., 8:11 a.m., 7.5 hours after takeoff, a commercial satellite makes the last known connection to Flight 370. But the satellite did not pick up the precise location of the plane.

Let's bring in David Soucie, CNN safety analyst and author of the book "Why Planes Crash."

David, good to see you.

The Navy pulling the USS Kidd from the search in the Indian Ocean, do you take that in any way as the U.S. giving up hope of finding the 239 people on board alive?


On the accident investigations that I performed, they all come down to one thing, which is resource management, putting the right people in the right place at the right time. Obviously, the Australians have started taking over in that area. It's just a large capital resource that doesn't need to be used at this time.

I see that just as managing resources.

TAPPER: All right, thanks for clearing that up.

It's unclear now whether the ACARS was shut off or after the last verbal communication from the plane. There was some confusion about this from the Malaysian government. But now we don't know. We know that we don't know.

What difference does it make whether it was before or after to the investigation?

SOUCIE: It would show intent, that he knew something was going on and then gave his all right, good night sign, if he had turned the ACARS off and then said all right, good night.

I don't see that that did happen. The ACARS system goes on and off. It can make transmissions every half-hour, every hour. It depends on what the connection is at that point. But at this point, it was connecting to satellite s and to have it do that at 1:07, that was simply means it was the last time it sent data. It doesn't mean that anything malicious or with intent had gone off before he made that statement.

TAPPER: So, it does undermine the argument that this is definitively on purpose? Because it's 1:07, that was the last time ACARS transmitted, but that doesn't mean it was turned off.

Based on the information that we do have, that we're more secure and confident about now, do you believe this was a deliberate act or is it still unknowable?

SOUCIE: No, I'm still of the thought that it was a deliberate act, because of the fact that even if it had been a fire or something else that the pilot had to react to, this aircraft has so much redundancy, triple redundant system, several radios that -- there's a lot of ways that that aircraft still could have communicated to the ground, unless it was a complete fire that took all the electrical system.

But we know that is not the case, because later on, it connected through a satellite to a satellite connection, so I didn't feel that the electrical system was off that long. And the aircraft -- the pilot would have made an attempt to come back from where he had gone from. If it was a fire, he would have gone back where he headed and tried to find a good place to land at that point.

So, I'm still of the thought that this is of intent.

TAPPER: And you think it's significant -- let me phrase it as a question. Do you think this is significant that this happened in this window when the plane was in no man's land when the Malaysian government wasn't in charge of it anymore and the Vietnamese government wasn't yet in charge of it, that the window, the fact that it turned in that window is important?

SOUCIE: Well, it's important for two different reasons for me.

One is, yes, like the previous person said, there's a gap of time where the new person is waiting for them to say, yes, now I'm over there. But underneath that, too, each of those control areas communicate with each other and say I'm going to hand you off, hand this airplane off to you.

There's a double check that goes on when that happens. The fact that the other guy was waiting, it only offers a short amount of time, but that is a significant concern as far as when this might have happened.

The other thing that I think is not coincidental is there was some discussion early about a single pilot taking over a suicide attempt or something like that. In times gone by, when that has happened, it's when one of the pilots gets up from his seat, walks out of the cabin, and then the other captain locks the door so that he can't come back in, so that that captain can act alone, that pilot can act alone in the cockpit.

So, this isn't a time when I would have seen that happen, not typically, because you're going into this transition. At that time, one person is handling the communications. The other is flying the airplane. I don't see that as a time to do that. What it tells me is two things, is, I don't think it was a singular act, if it were the pilots. I don't see it as a singular act. Both of the pilots would have been in the cockpit at the same time at that point in time.

But the fact that it was done during that spot is a very vulnerable spot to take action, so, yes, I do see some puzzling facts in there.

TAPPER: All right, David Soucie, thank you so much.

Coming up next, going undetected. Could Flight 370 have flown in another plane's shadow so it would not be picked up on radar?

Plus, still no closer to finding the missing jet, and my next guest, a former pilot, says the simplest is actually the least likely.

Stay with us.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. More now on our world lead.

With no physical evidence of Malaysia Airline Flights 370 in the 11th day since its disappearance, investigators have been forced to rely on things like pings and signals and radar to figure out what could have happened to the plane and where it may have ended up.

What's become evident in the midst of this mess is the technology used to track the tens of thousands of planes that take to the sky every day -- well, it can only tell us so much.

CNN's Tom Foreman who's in our virtual.

And, Tom, explain to us the different scenarios that may have played out, based on the rather limited information we have.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, you hit the nail in the head there, Jake, because it is limited information. Let me bring in the map, you're going to talk about some of the possibilities, because frankly, I don't think we know all the possibilities.

Here's what we do know, we know the plane took off. We know it flew for about an hour, a little bit less, and then it disappeared here. And everything since then has been conjectured based on this information. Search areas have spread out. They moved them into search areas. And now, we're talking about this big picture from satellite images that suggest that there could be some kind of a southern arc that it might be on or northern arc.

What's wrong with the idea of southern route, if we look at that as number one possibility? Could it have disappeared here by flying this way? It certainly could have disappeared that way because there's basically nothing but water out here. One of the last places it possibly could have landed, was it Banda Aceh airport, the tip of Sumatra, but people would know about that. So, that doesn't offer a very satisfying explanation as to what happened to it.

Here's another possibility, what if it actually took the northern route up here and it simply was missed by radar and you may wonder how that could happen? But one thing we've learned, as we've looked at the explanation of this investigation and this search is that there are many countries along here, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, China, on up towards Pakistan and India and Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, where they either have spotty radar coverage or perhaps not very well-manned radar coverage or simply radar coverage that's not very busy during the night on top of which we have many countries you may recognize as being countries that aren't so keen on sharing much information about how they operate.

So even if they saw something, we don't know that they would have shared it. So, that's the second reason maybe they have no idea what happened beyond that point. And lastly, let's look at one other idea, what about the idea of this being hidden in plain sight? This is kind of out there but it's a theory people are kicking around. So, we just mentioned it here so you can understand it.

What if the plane basically slipped up and into the shadow of another legitimate plane, so this plane is flying legitimately out there, sending off a signal and the missing plane ended up flying close enough to it that it simply looked like a big dot on the radar and nobody really paid attention to it. Again, this seems like an outlandish idea and a difficult thing for anyone to pull off but in the absence of any more evidence to tell us what has happened, Jake, when this thing disappeared, and all we have are these bits and pieces, people are discussing that, too.

TAPPER: Tom Foreman, thanks.

While some of these scenarios, admittedly, sound a little bit too James Bond villain-ish to be plausible, they are, in fact, possible.

Joining me now live from Phoenix is CNN aviation analyst Jim Tilmon.

How hard would it be for a pilot to pull off the kind of maneuvers necessary to shadow another aircraft without being detected?

JIM TILMON, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: Well, it would be difficult. But I'm not of the feeling that these guys would shy away from difficult, because whatever happened here, number one, I believe that this whole thing was a plan thought through from beginning to end. I don't know the end result yet, I don't know what the end game was, but I think there is one. This was also a situation that would require great skill and experience to pull off.

Sure, that kind of a pilot could fly up and just like fly formation off a commercial airplane going from here to there. That's a possibility. And it would show up as just one block on the controller scope.

And then, two, you know, there's this whole matter of saying, all right, how much do we know? We know that the plane ended up someplace in this area and you've heard Tom talk about that. But where did it go from there?

And if these guys did have a good plan, what was their end game? Once they got to a certain point, were they just going to say, oh, well, we're here, can't think of anything else to do, explain (ph) good on TV, let's just go? Let's just go fly into the ocean.

I don't think so.


TAPPER: Jim, what is it about the facts of the case, the things that we know for sure that convince you that this was done on purpose and that this was planned?

TILMON: I don't think there's any way for that airplane to fly the way it has been found to fly, up until the point where we don't know where it went from there, just by chance. I think it took a great deal of skill to do this.

I think somebody was at the controls that understood the value of altitude control to eliminate the possibility of being spotted and tracked on radar, that took care of all of the warning devices and the informational devices in the cockpit and beyond. Somebody that really had the a ability to map out a route that would give them the very best chance of not being detected. That map out. That is the key.

It would require a lot of skill and a lot of practice and I only know one pilot that we've been told about that has that kind of skill and that kind of practice.

TAPPER: If this plane stayed in the air after its last communication and then flew north, do the air spaces involved with that possible flight path raise any alarms for you at all?

TILMON: It's pretty chancy because you've got to depend on controllers who are not at the stick or countries that turn off their radars at night. All kinds of things that really you cannot control and cannot predict.

I think the folks that put this thing together -- and I keep making that plural, I think you understand, because I don't think this was done by one person. I think that whoever was doing this had help on the ground and in the air.

But even then you'd have to be very, very skillful and have a lot of luck to just negotiate around each one of those radars and be willing to fly pretty close to the deck.

TAPPER: Jim, lastly, where do you think the investigation goes at this point?

TILMON: I think the investigation is -- I think that a lot of confusion, a lot of money that has been spent and resources that have been put into this thing and I think people are going to begin to get discouraged about whether or not they are ever going to find anything. I think we have to be very, very cautious because whoever is behind this is counting on our not being vigilant right down to the end.

TAPPER: Jim Tilmon, thank you so much.

Coming up next, examining the pilots. What did investigators find when searching their homes?

Plus, could the pilot have trained anyone else to fly a Boeing 777 using the simulator in his house?


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. Continuing our world lead.

Those inclined to believe that the missing Flight 370 was no accident or hopeful that a renewed focus on the pilots, crew and passengers will bring investigators closer to the truth. Malaysian investigators spent the weekend not only searching the pilot and co-pilot's homes, but delving into every aspects of their background.

CNN's Joe Johns has more of what they've uncovered so far.


JOE JOHNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Surveillance video posted on social media appears to shows the pilot and first officer of Flight 370 passing through the security. CNN cannot confirm the authenticity of this video or exactly when it was shot. It doesn't show the men doing anything unusual but to the trained eye may raise questions about the hand wand and pat-down security procedures in Kuala Lumpur where the plane took off.

MARY SCHIAVO, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: If security is bad, then virtually anybody on the plane could be carrying, you know, weapons, information, any kind of thing to carry out a criminal act.

JOHNS: Concerns about malicious intent and the disappearance of 777 have grown as authorities learn more about the plane's likely direction of travel.

NAJIB RAZAK, MALAYSIAN PRIME MINISTER: This movement is consistent with deliberate action by someone on the plane.

JOHNS: Over the weekend, searchers at the homes of both pilots, authorities in plain clothes seen here leaving the home of first officer 27-year-old Fariq Ab Hamid and later seizing this home made flight simulator from the home of 53-year-old, captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah, evidence a friend said of his devotion to his job.

PETER CHONG, CAPTAIN ZAHARIE'S FRIEND: It's a reflection of his love for flying.

JOHNS: What's interesting to investigators is the routes the pilot may have been checking out that may still be located on the simulator's hard drive.

And there is also this --

SCHIAVO: The other thing that could be important in the simulator is whether the pilot trained anyone else on the simulator.

JOHNS: Investigating the pilots requires a deep dive into their health and personal history, bank accounts, recent life insurance purchases, divorces, separations.

TOM FUENTES, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: There could be a number of things that cause personal stress and under severe stress, a person can do bad things.

JOHNS: Indicators of a problem could be carefully hidden.

SCHIAVO: Is there a drug problem, a mental problem, any additional recent prescriptions, failure to report for any physicals, which in the United States would have not made you legal to fly. Anything unusual.

JOHNS: Joe Johns, CNN, Washington.


TAPPER: Our thanks to Joe Johns.

We also learned that among the passengers was a Malaysian civil aviation engineer who worked for a private jet charter company. His father told CNN today that he's confident his son was not involved in any plot.

Coming up on THE LEAD, looking beyond the pilots, what do we know about the passengers? We'll talk with the main investigator of the World Trade Center bombing, about the questions he would be asking about every person on board.

Also, a little payback, perhaps? Russian president Vladimir Putin reporting planning his own sanctions against several prominent U.S. lawmakers. Who's on the list? Coming up.