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Mystery of Flight 370; Objects Sighted on Radar Sought; Batteries on "Black Boxes" Running Out; The Exhaustive Search for Flight 370

Aired March 20, 2014 - 16:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: For two weeks now,we have waited for the strand that will hopefully unravel the mystery of Flight 370. Are the Australians on the verge of finding it?

I'm Jake Tapper. This is THE LEAD.

The world lead. The searchers now have something that has eluded them for 14 days, a specific location to pore over, after satellite images pointed to possible, possible debris from the plane. Of course, if confirmed, this would suggest the absolute worse for the 239 people on board.

Also, the batteries on the black boxes, they only have so much life left and then the locator beacon cuts off forever. But what if the plane is sitting on the bottom of the ocean with time running out? We will take a look at the best hopes for an underwater retrieval.

And a theory being given more credence by more aviation experts as more information comes out. What if something happened that incapacitated everyone on board and the plane flew itself on autopilot until it ran out of fuel?

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

We will begin, of course, with the world lead, two major developments this hour in the now two-week search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 and the 239 souls on board. One involves that possible debris spotted on satellite images. The other involves the data erased from the flight simulator seized from the captain's home.

A U.S. official says the FBI team examining that simulator is confident that the agents will be able to recover at least some of the information. The Malaysians found nothing of concern on the simulator hard drive, but our source says they could not access everything on it and it's not clear whether the Malaysians even have the technology to do it.

And while the FBI works on that, searchers are following what Australia's prime minister called today -- quote -- "the first tangible breakthrough" in what until now has been an utterly baffling mystery.

These are satellite images released by the Australian government showing what could, could be debris from Flight 370, two pieces in the southern Indian Ocean, about 1,500 miles off the Australian coast. On the left, what you're looking at appears to be something big, about 24 meters, 79 feet long. On the right, that seems like a smaller piece, five meters, 16 feet long.

But the ships and aircraft dispatched to that location, including at least one U.S. Navy plane, well, they have not found the possible debris yet, perhaps because the satellite images were taken four days ago. One expert says the debris or whatever it is could have drifted 1,000 miles from that location by now.

Spotting it again is no easy task because the scaled-down search parameters are in an area described by Australia's defense minister as one of the most isolated places on earth, high winds, choppy waters, wicket currents, weather that can change without little warning.

Let's get over to our chief national correspondent, Jim Sciutto.

Jim, lay it out for us. Where was the debris spotted and where is the search focusing?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, remember that refined search area we talked about yesterday, about 1,500 miles southwest of Australia.

This debris found just to the southeast of that, not too far, about 100 miles between here and there. Here are the images. And that move would make sense, because the current is generally moving in this direction. The pieces themselves, here they are, this is the bigger one you mentioned piece, about 79 feet, this one about 16, 17 feet.

These are 14 miles apart and what is interesting about the big one, it's got a lot of pieces of small debris, say the Australians, who have studied these satellite photos very closely, which could indicate, they say, and again could indicate a debris field.

So right now, you have got a whole host of resources flying to this area. You have got a P-8 aircraft. This is a new U.S. surveillance aircraft flying here, three P-3 Orions, another sub hunter aircraft. They are designed to find little tiny things on the surface of the water, in particular the periscopes of submarines. Now they are using those powers to try to spot this debris.

The trouble is, it's a long flight. It's about a four-hour flight here. They only get a couple of hours on site and then another four- hour flight back. And when they did this yesterday, the weather was pretty bad so they couldn't see anything. Once light breaks there in a few hours, they are going to head back and have a closer look.

TAPPER: Jim, we have talked about there being two search arcs. And I'm wondering, is the northern arc now not being explored at all? Is it all just in the south?

SCIUTTO: Not officially.

And what Malaysian officials said today is that all these countries along this northern arc are still dedicating resources in the north. They said Laos is looking, Thailand, Vietnam, the western part of China here, as well as Kazakstan, helicopters, some Ariel Castro.

They are studying their satellite images. But really more and more -- and this is what we have heard from U.S. officials for a number of days now -- it's really down here that they believe is the strongest possibility as to where the plane ended up.

And just an idea of the allocation of resources, there are 29 aircraft involved in this search. Four of them are up here; 25 of them are down there. And the Chinese are sending another four ships in this direction, too. That gives you a sense of where they really think the most likely chance of this plane being.

TAPPER: It sure does. Jim Sciutto, thank you so much.

So, how likely is it that this debris from Flight 370, that this is what this is, exactly? And if this is debris from Flight 370, what next?

Let's bring in our expert panel. David Soucie is a CNN safety analyst and author of "Why Planes Crash: An Accident Investigator Fights for Safe Skies. And Dr. Alan Diehl is a former NTSB -- that's the National Transportation Safety Board -- air safety investigator and also worked for the Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA, and the U.S. Air Force. He's author of the book "Air Safety Investigators : Using Science to Save Lives-One Crash at a Time."

Gentlemen, thanks for joining us.

David, we have had so many false leads when it comes to finding this plane, but the Australian government, the officials there, they have given these images a lot of credibility, the prime minister appearing before Parliament today to talk about this.

Judging from the size and the location of what is shown in these images, how likely do you think that this is debris from a plane crash?

DAVID SOUCIE, CNN SAFETY ANALYST: Well, I hold back on making a comment as to what I think it is, because at this point there's no evidence of what it is, exactly.

In fact, the concern that I have is that both of these images, both of these objects are about the size of containers. They come in 20-foot, 40-foot, and 80-foot lengths. So I'm holding back to jump in on the fact that it is debris.

However, the good thing about it is that that merchant ship is out there. So, my original concern was that even if they find this and they fly over the top of it, it's going to be very difficult to identify it as part of the aircraft. But now that the merchant ship is there, they will be able to lift that up and verify it and then start moving forward with the investigation.

Alan, let's talk about what would still be floating at this point, theoretically, two weeks after a plane crash. Would there still be debris floating in the ocean?

ALAN DIEHL, FORMER NATIONAL TRANSPORTATION SAFETY BOARD INVESTIGATOR: It's possible. But a large chunk of debris, I'm with David, that may well be a shipping container.

But there could be -- you know, if the plane ran out of gas, it's possible wings got severed on impact and with empty fuel tanks, they might still be floating this long after the event.

TAPPER: David, Jim just eluded to this new aircraft that they have for the search. They didn't have it back when they were looking for Air France 447, I think, in 2009.

It's the U.S. P-8 Poseidon. Specifically, what does this plane do? What makes it so special?

SOUCIE: Well, it's a Boeing aircraft. And the difference between that and the Orion that we used on the private -- on the Air France is that this aircraft has the ability to link together and to coordinate the efforts of drones, which we didn't have that before when we were doing Air France.

We had drones, but we didn't have the ability to have a centralized, kind of like ASARS (ph), managing where this -- where those drones search, and based on what they find, tightening the search or widening the search based on that. So, it's a very, very advanced aircraft. They cost about $33 million each and the government -- excuse me -- $200,000 each, and the government has spent $33 billion just since 2013.

TAPPER: At the end of the day, though, it's still -- whether it's the person on the P-8 Poseidon, or individuals operating the drones, this still comes down to individual people, sailors or whomever, looking, with binoculars with the plane or just with the cameras and closed- circuit from the drones, right?

SOUCIE: Not entirely, no.


SOUCIE: Because there's not a lot of ferrous material in the bottom of the ocean.

So, if there's iron, if there's steel, if there's even not necessarily aluminum, but if solid, hard structures underneath there, remember, the bottom of the ocean is not like we experienced with 447, which was rocky and misplaced a lot of the debris.

From what I understand, this area is much more smooth and level, which gives the Poseidon a much better opportunity to actually map and look at the bottom of this ocean, although it's 6,000-feet deep, would make that difficult.

But I still think there is hope, even if this material went to the bottom, that we would find something through using those aircraft.

TAPPER: But, David, it's people who ultimately determine what they see. Right? That's all I mean by that.

SOUCIE: Yes, as far as the surface, what you're finding on the surface. But it does have an ability to look below the surface because it's made to look for submarines, is what it is designed for.


TAPPER: And, Dr. Diehl, if this is in fact debris, what sort of clues would the debris give us in terms of what may have happened to the plane, assuming this is plane debris?

DIEHL: Well, when we find the debris, we can perhaps tell something about what happened.

In the Air France accident, we realized right away that it was a high, flat impact, if you will, a nose-high, sort of flat impact. But the other thing that I would certainly bring up here is, yes, the P-8 Poseidon is very capable, but there are not very many of them.

And the U.S. has 150 P-3 Orions. I used to train those crews, and they are quite capable and we need to start the big pinger hunt very soon. And a couple dozen airplanes are fine, but we probably need a lot more resources and the U.S. Navy is the one that has large quantities.

I mentioned 150. The Japanese have 100. The Australians have about 12. So we may have to go with the old tech. It's still pretty good when you're looking for pingers.

TAPPER: And how many of those planes do you think we need out there?

DIEHL: If it was President Obama, I would call up the reserve unit and I would be dispatching about at least 50.

I have kind of done a back-of-the-envelope calculation. If we could get 50 from our resources, maybe 25 from the Japanese and another 25 from around the world, the Brazilians and so on, the Indians have a few, we could put together a grid search.

We have only got two weeks. If we don't find these things in the next two weeks, unlike Air France, where we knew roughly where it is, or South African Airways, 747, in the Indian Ocean, same thing, we knew roughly where it was. We still have a vast area to cover. And I do think we need lots of equipment out there, even if it is somewhat low- tech. When it comes to looking for pingers, those P-3s are pretty good.

TAPPER: All right, David Soucie and Alan Diehl, thank you so much. We appreciate it.

Coming up on THE LEAD: finding the black box before it's too late, Why Malaysian officials say they might not be able to find it before it goes silent.

Plus, the Indian Ocean, it has some of the deepest, darkest waters on Earth. We will show you the high-tech tools that will be used to scour the ocean floor for clues.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

Continuing our world lead, the clock is ticking. Every second that passes diminishes the chance of finding missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 and finally learning what happened on board. The so-called black boxes, the flight data and cockpit voice recorders, they do have a locator beacon that can send out a signal.

But as our aviation correspondent Rene Marsh explains, that transponder will soon run out of power.


RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This debris may be the best hint yet to what happened to Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. But even if it is from the missing plane, the real key to understanding what happened could still be miles away at the bottom of the ocean, and it's calling but time is running out.

The cockpit voice recorders stores at least two hours of audio and data recorder contains at least 36 hours of instrument data. Both crucial to understanding what happened. Transmitters on the recorder send out a locating tone, but that only lasts for 30 days.

Malaysian officials say without the pings, they don't have the technology to find them on their own.

HISHAMMUDDIN BIN HUSSEIN, MALAYSIAN MINISTER OF TRANSPORTATION: Looking about submarine technology, and then before that becomes an issue, let me tell you that the Malaysian submarines do not have that technology.

MARSH: The boxes may have sunk far from where any degree on the surface drifted, the water in the southern Indian Ocean can be 13,000 feet deep, more than ten times the height of the Empire State Building.

JASON SUMMERS, APPLIED RESEARCH IN ACOUSTICS: It becomes a situation of trying to hear a very tiny signal in a really complex background noise and that's a hard problem no matter what, made only worse by this being very deep which makes the signal lower.

MARSH: These tones can be heard from two miles away, but only if a special listening device is in the water. One bit of good news, the data on the boxes is preserved long after the pingers go silent.

It took two years before investigators found the recorders belonging to Air France Flight 447, on the bottom of the Atlantic. The data was still there. But even if they do find them in this case, since the cockpit voice recorder is only two hours long, there's no guarantee it will answer every question as to what happened to Flight 370.

(on camera): Well, one major manufacturer of pingers tells CNN that since the crash of Air France Flight 447, there's been a push to require pingers be attached to the body of the plane, not just the black boxes. Now, those pingers would be required to have a range of six to 10 nautical miles. That's much more than the current two nautical miles and the minimum battery life would be extended to 90 days instead of 30, and these proposed rules would only be applied to newly manufactured planes.

Rene Marsh, CNN, Washington.


TAPPER: Rene Marsh, thank you.

If the black box battery runs out and the signal stops, how can they find the plane?

Joining me now is Ian MacDonald, professor of oceanography at Florida State University.

Ian, thanks so much for joining us.

Explain the sort of process that investigators can use to find wreckage under water if they no longer have that ping from the black box?

IAN MACDONALD, FLORIDA STATE UNIVERSITY: The first task is to look from the surface, to use listening devices as we heard, and then sonar and swath mapping techniques to try to locate anomalous debris fields, anomalous objects on the bottom and try to zero in based on that.

But, ultimately, you have to go to the bottom of the ocean and search usually a large area with -- in a nested way, starting in a big area and honing in as the evidence begins to indicate where the debris might be.

TAPPER: Let's -- I want to get your take on something that's developed in the last couple of hours. A lecturer at the U.K.'s National Oceanography Center told NBC News that he thinks he sees what looks like an oil slick or a fuel slick near the arrow on the satellite image on the left that we're showing right now on our screen.

Now, CNN's own Richard Quest points out it would not be an oil slick. It would be more of a sheen on the water because of aviation fuel being lighter.

You're an expert in this field as well. Can you discern anything in that image that leaves you to conclude it's an oil slick or not?

MACDONALD: I would certainly like to believe that's oil slick, but I cannot definitively say based on the images that I've seen that it is. And the sea state at that time that the image was taken were about 10 to 12-foot waves and wind in excess of 25 knots. I have difficulty believing that jet fuel would produce a visible slick after so many days. But one can hope and it does -- it is a positive indication. TAPPER: If the search ends up going under water, they're going to need certain vehicles to assist with the search. Let's go through them. First, let's show this man craft that the Chinese have that you think could be very helpful. Tell us what it is.

MACDONALD: This is the Jialong. This is one of the deepest diving research submersibles in the world. The Chinese took it to a depth of over 7,000 meters in 2012. And so, they clearly have been working hard to up great their capability for deep ocean operation.

I would not be at all surprised to see the Chinese take a very active role in trying to locate this aircraft.

TAPPER: Seven thousand meters. And people go in that?

MACDONALD: That's right. It's a battery-powered submarine. It has a limited time on the bottom, so it would have to be used in a very targeted way for this search. But they do have the capabilities of reaching all the ocean depths in the vicinity of the possible wreck site.

TAPPER: And then there are the autonomous underwater vehicles called AUV, like this one, let's show, that found the air wreckage of Air France Flight 447. How do these vehicles work?

MACDONALD: These are launched on a program, so the operators programmed a search pattern and then the vehicle is deployed, it dives to the bottom, usually operates about 100 feet or more off the bottom and looks with sonar and other listening devices and tries to find the debris. So, it goes back and forth mowing a lawn and it can operate autonomously for periods of up to 24 hours, and then it's recovered and the operators download its data and try to see if they've located something.

TAPPER: Almost like an underwater drone there. That worked for the Air France Flight. Let's also talk about these ROVs. These are remotely operated vehicles. Let's show that.

How is this used in the search?

MACDONALD: Once they have located the debris, the ROVs could be used, they're tethered, so they have an umbilical cord which runs from the vehicle to the surface. So, the operators, the pilots, can see what the ROV is seeing real-time, they have mechanical arms and with claws and lifters that can untangle debris and this is the way that the black box would have possibly been recovered.

I think actually they raised the debris using a ship and were able to recover the black box from that. But this would be -- this would be crucial. The ROV technology would be crucial for manipulating the wreckage and untangling this mystery.

TAPPER: Fascinating ways to get as deep as they can get to find what they might need to find. Ian MacDonald, thank you so much. We appreciate your time. When we come back, the best lead yet and it's from four days ago? Why did it take Australia so long to release the satellite photos that might show wreckage from Flight 370?

Plus, why did the plane take a left turn only to presumably fly on for hours and hours? Well, some experts are now wondering if the jet's autopilot allowed it to stay in the air even after everyone on board may have been knocked unconscious.


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

Continuing, of course, with our world lead. This is a search area that spans more than 3 million square miles, roughly the size of Australia.

But even with search teams from 26 countries combing the area, both above and now below the ocean surface, few clues have been uncovered over the past 14 days. Few that give us any solid indication as to what may have happened to Malaysian Airlines Flight 370.

Now, could this have been a case of too many cooks in the kitchen or are investigators simply overwhelmed by the immense scope of the search?

CNN's Joe Johns takes a closer look.


JOE JOHNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A massive sea search that requires an equally massive amount of resources on land, air and sea. It starts in space. Satellite data imagery reportedly from an American company called Digital Globe downloaded and transferred to the Australian Geospatial Intelligence Organization. The images of possible plane debris captured March 16th. But Australia says there were so many pictures, it took them four days to sort through the volume of the imagery.

China also recently released satellite pictures after a day's long delay.

Retired Air Force Colonel Cedric Leighton who worked with intelligence satellite sees another reason why a country might slow down public release of information on satellite imagery.

CEDRIC LEIGHTON, RETIRED AIR FORCE COLONEL: Part of it is not telling the other guy what you've got. The reason for that is there's some capabilities that a lot of countries want to keep hidden. And one of those capabilities is how fast can you take a satellite image and actually analyze it and use it in an operational sense. Many countries see that as a very closely guarded operational secret.

JOHNS: The search from the air equally complicated. Three Orion military intelligence planes, two from the Royal Australia Air Force and one from New Zealand have been dispatched with large area search sensors and radar, planes capable of low level flight and able to stay airborne for up to 10 hours. The U.S. Navy has sent a P8 Poseidon aircraft with a unique capability.