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EARLY START

Debris From Flight 370 Possibly Found; Australia: Two Objects Floating in Southern Indian Ocean

Aired March 20, 2014 - 05:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


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ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Breaking news this morning in the mystery of Flight 370: the search. Have pieces of this plane finally been found?

Australian officials reporting two objects possibly related to that missing jetliner have been discovered in the southern Indian Ocean. We have live, team coverage from all the key locations as only CNN can, breaking down the very latest on this investigation, including how the families are reacting.

Good morning, everyone. Welcome to EARLY START. I'm John Berman.

ROSA FLORES, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Rosa Flores, in for Christine Romans. It's Thursday, March 20th. It's 5:00 a.m. in the East.

And we welcome all our viewers here in the U.S. and around the world.

BERMAN: There is big news this morning. We do begin with the breaking information. Day 13 in the search for Flight 370, and some pieces of that missing jetliner. The hope is, perhaps, some sign of them has now been found.

This is the very latest: Australian officials announcing two objects have been spotted floating in the southern Indian Ocean. One of these objects 78-foot long. You're looking at the satellite imagery right now. Search teams trying to actually locate them.

Just because satellites have seen them doesn't mean planes have seen them or people have seen them from the air or from the water. The key: whether these pieces came from the missing jetliner. We do not know yet. It needs confirmation.

But listen to what Australia's prime minister told his parliament earlier this morning.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TONY ABBOTT, AUSTRALIAN PRIME MINISTER: The Australian Maritime Safety Authority has received information based on satellite imagery of objects possibly related to the search. Following specialist analysis of this satellite imagery, two possible objects related to the search have been identified.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: Now, these are the actual satellite images of the two floating objects. They are raising hopes. But again, right now, just hopes. It needs confirmation before there is any reason to believe that they are pieces of Flight 370.

I want to bring in Andrew Stevens live in Perth, Australia.

This is the closest land point to where this search is now going on, some 1,400 miles, Andrew, from where that debris has been spotted.

ANDREW STEVENS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right. It's still a long way from where that debris was found. I'm at the Pearce air force base here, just on the outskirts of the state capital, Perth. And this is the staging post for the surveillance aircraft.

There's Australian aircraft, New Zealand, and U.S. aircraft involved as well. By our reckoning, the first flight went out at 6:00 this morning, and these are round about ten-hour flights, so the first flight should be landing fairly soon.

We haven't heard anything in those ten hours from the actual flights, which are over that area, what they have seen. The only thing we've heard is a tweet saying that radar images had picked up something from the U.S. P8 Poseidon aircraft.

That was a couple hours ago. We haven't heard anything since. There are eyes on the area, not necessarily on the actual floating objects yet, but we know that the planes have been going out at regular intervals so they can maintain a presence, basically, searching that grid where we last saw those images.

Now, that was a March 16 satellite picture, if you look at the data on that, so things will have moved a little bit over the past four days or so. That may be crucial. But certainly, at this stage, we can't bring you any further details on what they may or may not have seen.

This still remains a massive challenge, too. Just because there are these images, and after we've seen them, they're very refined images. They're very hard to actually distinguish what they are.

But obviously, the Australian government has enough confidence to say that it is new and credible information which could be linked, perhaps, to the mystery in the disappearance of Flight MH370. At the moment, though, we don't have further information than what we've seen on those satellite images.

BERMAN: Andrew Stevens for us in Perth, Australia.

But enough, as he mentioned, for Australia, for New Zealand, so many countries to send enormous resources headed in that direction. You have these planes now flying overhead, you have Australian and New Zealand naval vessels now headed to that area, you have commercial satellites being repositioned to get a better look to help bolster these images, to get a closer, closer view of what they might be.

FLORES: To get eyeballs on the scene, like they mentioned, and perhaps these developments mean the most to the families, the families who have been looking and waiting for information about their loved ones.

Every lead is hope. That's the reaction of one Malaysian official after hearing reports of the debris sighting in the southern Indian Ocean. The Flight 370 families have already been briefed, and the Malaysians have dispatched six navy ships and three helicopters to help with the search.

Sara Sidner is tracking the very latest developments for us live from Kuala Lumpur.

Good morning. What can you tell us this morning?

SARA SIDNER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, so, you just mentioned that the navy is going to be sending from here in Malaysia six ships and three helicopters, and that gives you some idea of how seriously they are taking this new information that Australia has put out.

We know that the Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, was able to speak with the prime minister here earlier today. They had a conversation about these satellite images.

One thing that they were very clear on, though, is that while this is new and credible evidence that this may be linked to missing Flight MH370 -- and they say this is the best evidence they have so far -- they cannot be sure and are not sure until they are able to see these pieces. And we cannot stress that enough. The Malaysian government and Malaysian officials are being very careful, very cautious with their language, saying the same thing, really making sure that people understand that until these pieces of evidence are found, they simply cannot know what they're from, whether they're from the missing flight or not.

Obviously, this puts the families in a difficult situation again, because they, again, have to wait and watch and wait until these objects are actually found. And until they do that, they simply don't know what it is they're dealing with.

We did hear from some of the family members here in Malaysia. One in particular said at least they were thankful to Australia, thankful that at least something may have been found. It does give them hope.

But they're still holding out hope that, perhaps, after all these days, almost two weeks, that perhaps their family members are alive and well. That has not gone away. A lot of people are resigned to the fact that it could be something much more dire than that, but certainly, these families have been in a very difficult spot, and they remain that way until more evidence is found -- Rosa.

FLORES: All right. Sara Sidner live for us from Kuala Lumpur -- thank you so much. I think it's safe to say that it's been a rollercoaster of emotion from these families. They've been getting tidbits of information here and there, but nothing conclusive.

BERMAN: I certainly hope they can find some peace in any of this.

You know, obviously, I want to bring up those pictures of the satellite images again right now, these two pieces of debris spotted from 1,400 miles off the coast of Australia.

Want to focus in on these images. Was the technology that took them, what do they indicate to the officials looking at them, and what happens next?

I want to bring in John Blaxland. He's a senior fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Center at Australian National University. He joins us now from Canberra, Australia this morning.

And, John, break this down for me. Talk to me about the satellites that took these images, when they were taken and why they set off the red flags that they set off.

JOHN BLAXLAND, STRATEGIC AND DEFENCE STUDIES CENTER: OK. This is a photograph from the 16th of March, so it's several days old now, but this is not an area of the world that we try to photograph all that frequently. I mean, let's not forget, there's nothing there except lots and lots of water.

So, this is far away from anywhere. It's far away from Australia, from Africa. This is not a part of the world that is frequented very often.

It's not even right on the track, the sea lines of communication that the major maritime trading ships pass by.

So, this is out of the way. This is something that had to be photographed, and these photographs are taken around the world all the time, but you know, the level of granulation of the photographs is often not very good.

So, what the analysts have done is they've taken this from the satellite, they've looked at the photographs -- and these are major, massive photographs, massive files -- and they've been zoomed in and scrutinized, elements of the photograph, to figure out what's possibly there, what kind of indentation or coloration in the water could possibly indicate something that would remotely look like part of an aircraft. And of course, we've seen in the photographs that you've got that the Australian geospatial and intelligence organization has released, unclassified, we've seen something in the photo that looks like may be part of a fuselage.

But the thing is, and you've said before, 78 feet long -- 78 feet, geez, that's almost 80 feet. And what is an ISO container? An ISO container, well, they come in 20 feet, 40 feet and possibly 80 feet. So, we're not sure exactly what it is, so we can't get our hopes up. And, of course, to add to the clarity, to try and get a better picture, satellites have been steered to try and re-photograph that area at the moment. And of course, on top of that, the surveillance aircraft from the U.S. Navy, the Royal Australian Air Force and the New Zealand air force are all out there trying to do the same thing at the moment, trying to get some fidelity to what's going on.

The part of the issue is, there is poor visibility, and this is the part of the water that used to be called the Roaring 40s. You know from history, from the 19th century, this is where ships got ship wrecked. This is really rough waters.

So, it's not something that we can expect to stay calm for long. And it means it's going to be hard to really stay on that and actually follow it. And you think about it, this is a 4-day-old, 3-day-old photograph, and that photo shows it's really partially submerged already.

So, if it's gone further under water, we're not at all sure that we're actually going to see what we're hoping to see. But we're hoping against hope that piece of debris, that flotsam and jetsam will actually stay invisibility and that will actually pick it up. It's --

BERMAN: All right. John Blaxland for us from Australia right now, talking about these images and the satellite that took them, the difficulty in now trying to locate those images from airplanes and also from some surface vessels and ships that are now headed there.

We want to talk about the next steps in this search, the next steps to getting information about this piece of debris.

I want to bring David Soucie. He is a CNN safety analyst, a former FAA inspector, the author of "Why Planes Crash."

Also joining us, Les Abend, a Boeing 777 pilot and aviation analyst.

David, you have been honing in now on how far these objects are from the Australian coast. How difficult it will be to get to them. And really, the key pieces of information we still need.

DAVID SOUCIE, CNN SAFETY ANALYST: Yes, what I'd like to do is set some expectations for the families, because this investigation from this point forward, we have to think with how long it takes just to identify whether it's a piece of the aircraft or not. When we talk about these ships going out there, understand, they're only going at 20, 25, maybe 30 knots. Even at flank speed, we're talking about a long time, 50, 60 hours before that ship could even be there.

To identify this as part of the aircraft from the air is going to be extremely difficult to do, if possible at all.

FLORES: And I want to bring in Les, because one of the things that we've been hearing, of course, is that there's just so many theories out there that have been supported by pieces of information. This new piece of information, the most important lead we've gotten so far, you're skeptical about this. LES ABEND, AVIATION ANALYST: Well, I've been skeptical since day one. You know, this thing could indeed be a container that's sitting out there in shipping or had been shipping out there in the shipping lanes. Seventy-eight feet leads me to believe, if this is actually a piece of the airplane, it would probably be a wing, because I can't see the fuselage floating, if, indeed, you know, it's fragmented.

But that being said, I think it's really important to go to the oceanographers, all the experts that are out there that can calculate drift, and we're talking almost two weeks here. So I think it's really important to find out where it started, originated, and where it's gone.

BERMAN: Let's talk about where it is right now. It's about 1,400 miles off the coast of southwestern Australia. It is beneath, it is south, really, a little bit, of the southern-most point in that southern arc, which we've been focused in now on the last few days, which was believed to be the furthest point that Flight 370 could have flown.

So, talk to me about the importance of this area where this debris has been spotted.

SOUCIE: Well, to remember how they found the information about where to search in the first place, it came from the NTSB and the FAA calculating drifts, calculating where the fuel would have run out in the airplane and from that point adding the drifts and the wind factors as to where it might have ended up. So, remember that the arc is the outside most area that the pinging came from. So, if it did run out of fuel before it got to that arc, which, evidently, it did, and then from there drifted down, because we're talking 12 days of drift, it could be hundreds and hundreds of miles.

BERMAN: Right, so the point of impact could be 1,000 miles away from where we're seeing these objects right now, which is also key, because it means that the black boxes could be 1,000 miles away from where this debris has been spotted.

SOUCIE: Easily.

FLORES: That was my next question, actually. The information we'd be able to find in these black boxes, and how would we even begin to search for the black boxes, given where this debris is found?

ABEND: It sounds like, you know, we're back to Air France again. I would use that technology. It just -- remember, two years is what -- it would have took them five days to even find the debris. This is that multiplied. But it's important to find that.

BERMAN: And it is just the beginning of the process, David.

SOUCIE: Absolutely. The thing that worries me most is that we've got a clock ticking right now. We're about 420 hours left before that black box stops transmitting. This is a transmitter that's five watts, 370 megahertz, it's sending out a signal. It's not designed to be heard from a long ways away. There's three models. One's three kilometers, five kilometers and then nine kilometers is the broadcast range. So, I don't know which one's on this aircraft, but I can hope that it's one of the larger, because this is deep water.

BERMAN: Look, you can sense the urgency, I think, right now with the amount of resources that have been deployed by Australia, by Malaysia, by New Zealand, by the countries involved there, not to mention the enormous international effort.

David Soucie, Les Abend, stick around for us because we want to talk more about this.

We are covering the breaking news, the appearance apparently of debris, these objects -- two objects off the coast of Australia. We're trying to uncover exactly what they might be. We're covering all the details from all around the globe.

More right after this.

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FLORES: It's 18 minutes past the hour. Welcome back to EARLY START.

We are following breaking news in the search for Flight 370. Australian authorities have spotted two objects floating in the south Indian Ocean. You're looking at them on your screen. This is satellite imagery.

They've sent jets to locate and identify the debris to confirm if it is, indeed, connected to the missing jetliner.

Let's bring in former director of the FAA's Office of Accident Investigation, Steven Wallace. He's also a CNN aviation analyst.

First of all, thanks so much for joining us.

I'm hoping you can let us know what's next in this process. So, there are planes headed that way, ships headed that way to identify the debris. After that debris is identified (AUDIO GAP)

STEVEN WALLACE, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: Well, I think, Rosa, you just outlined the next steps, send planes and achieve some greater level of precision as to what we're looking at. I have to say that when I walked into CNN this morning and immediately looked up on the screen and saw that this object, it was estimated to be 74 feet long, I immediately flashed back to the Chinese satellite photos we saw so early on in this investigation, which most of us would quickly dismiss the likelihood that that could be a part of the aircraft simply because, typically, lighter, interior components float.

Now, I mean, I just heard Captain Abend, and I do not disagree, if this plane had run out of fuel, of course, the wing could be very light and might float for some period of time.

Clearly, what's next is to get a lot of precision about what the Australians have just seen in the ocean.

BERMAN: And, of course, you say just seen. These images were taken on March 16th. That's three to four days ago now at this point, by satellite. They've been sending planes out to the area all morning. Some are due back within the next few hours.

I imagine just now locating this imagery, even though it's been taken by satellite, locating this debris by lien or by water, that's no easy target now at this point, Steven, is it?

WALLACE: No, it's not. And the information flowing into this investigation has been consistently sort of slow. And you know, as you pointed out, John, this photograph is four days old. Well, and then the accident, you know, the airplane departed 12 days ago.

So you know, that makes me a little less -- makes it less likely in my mind that this piece, if this were, say, a wing, that it could have floated for eight days.

FLORES: Time, of course, of the essence in all of these situations, and time is really not on our side. We're really running out of time when it comes to gathering those black boxes, finding more information as to what happened to this flight.

So, when it comes to the investigation and where the investigation is now, I imagine that there is not only focus on this new development, which is the biggest development, but also still keeping an eye on all of the other leads that investigators were following out of Malaysia.

WALLACE: Well, that's right. It's incredible here that 12 days into an investigation, everything is still on the table. And you know, sadly, this investigation has, I think, broken all records for speculation and for seeing families in agony. And we certainly hope that there will be some resolution soon.

And you know, I -- and of course, the level of international interest is absolutely unprecedented. Now we have the prime minister of Australia who says he's called his counterpart in Malaysia, and I've just never seen an accident investigation like this.

BERMAN: Thanks to Steven Wallace for pointing that out. I think that's a key point, because this announcement overnight came from the Australian prime minister, who was speaking to his parliament, alerting them, really alerting the world to the fact that Australia has now located two possible objects, two pieces of possible debris some 1,400 miles off the southwestern coast of Australia.

You're looking at the images right now. This is really simply in the middle of nowhere.

I want to talk about exactly where that is in the southern Indian Ocean. Let's bring in former pilot and aviation consultant Alastair Rosenschein. He joins us live from London.

Alastair, this location south of the southern-most area of that southern arc that they've been searching right now -- talk to me about the significance of where this possible debris has been sighted.

ALASTAIR ROSENSCHEIN, AVIATION CONSULTANT: Well, it's off any air routes, but let's assume it is debris from an aircraft. As I said earlier, it would have drifted possibly even 1,000 miles from where an aircraft might have impacted the sea. From that basis, it might just lie on an air route between Perth and South Africa.

But it isn't on any air route that I've ever been to, and I can't think of any aircraft that would be going down there, unless it were heading off to the Antarctic.

You know, if you backtrack a route from where the Australian navy was searching just now to the Andaman Sea, which was the last radar contact from the Malaysian radar sets, the aircraft would have passed over Sumatra. This is Indonesian air space.

Now, in that basis, I put it to you that the Indonesians may have at some point, and possibly well after the aircraft went missing, revealed to Malaysian authorities that they had, in fact, tracked the aircraft in that direction. That's entirely why the Australian navy was looking in that area.

So, if this does turn up to be debris, then I suspect that the Indonesians had finally come up with the goods and given this track.

Now, given that track, that would allow the authorities to narrow down the search area for black boxes, which would effectively be on the bottom of the ocean, unless they're attached to this floating debris, which seems unlikely.

So, there you have it, but it's definitely not an area where aircraft would fly normally.

FLORES: Now, I've got to ask you this. Because of the intensity of this investigation, the unprecedented part of this investigation, could this change anything when it comes to adding trackers on planes or adding something so that this does not happen again, where we don't have, you know, 239 families waiting to hear about their relatives and investigators trying, practically, to search an area that is so large that it's almost humanly impossible to find it on a timely -- in a timely manner?

ROSENSCHEIN: Well, first of all, aircraft are normally tracked through ACARS and other equipment, but if this equipment is tampered with, switched off or damaged or electrical power is lost to it, then, indeed, that tracking will fail. So, you know, it's difficult to come up with something that is fail-proof, that allows aircraft to be tracked.

BERMAN: Right.

ROSENSCHEIN: But let me put this to you. There is an ELT, which is the electronic locator transmitter, which sits in the roof of the aircraft, the 777, near the tail, and that's supposed to start transmitting signals to satellite when the aircraft is in water. However, it is not designed for high impact. So, if an aircraft was to hit water at very high speed, it could come off. So, that could be improved, and then the aircraft could be found.

BERMAN: And those improvements are something that will be discussed in the days ahead. Those black boxes are something they will be searching for in the days ahead, if this debris does turn out to be anything, because we are following the latest developments, this breaking news, debris spotted.

You're looking at pictures right now, possible debris some 1,400 miles off the coast of Australia. A live news conference from Malaysian officials is just minutes away. What will they say about this? Right after the break.

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