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Search for MH370 Continues; Beijing Slow in Giving Answers to Passenger Families; Answering Questions about MH370; Russia Annexes Crimea.

Aired March 21, 2014 - 13:30   ET


BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: This area, according to oceanographers and weather experts, is incredibly nasty, especially as it gets into this time of the year in the southern hemisphere down there. They're getting into the fall, the winter months. It's going to get only worse in this part of the Indian Ocean. They call this area southwest of Perth and toward the Antarctic the roaring 40s, because it starts at about roughly 40 degrees south longitude, right about there. And goes down to about 65 or so degrees south longitude, almost to Antarctica, right about there. And the problem is, this is all open ocean. There is no land mass, according to experts, that will stop any storm. So every two or three days, according to oceanographers, there's a pretty nasty storm that blows through this area. There is nothing down here to break it up. That's going to become very problematic for searchers, especially when they have to bring in vessels and have people on deck towing radar and things like that.

One of the biggest problems in weather in that area, Wolf, it's really high wind. The wind gets very ferocious and kicks up swells in the ocean very intense. You have to have people on the decks of these sea-going vessels that have to operate some of this equipment. They're not going to be able to do that in the weather that's coming up, as we get into the fall and winter, Wolf. This is really a problematic area. It is very remote. And it's just going to get nasty from here on in.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: As you point out, 1,500 miles from Perth, Australia, the western part of Australia, right in the middle of nowhere, basically.

Brian, thanks very much.

So a huge, huge undertaking under way in extremely tough conditions. Our next guests know exactly what that's like.

Joining us from Seattle, Mike Williamson, an expert in ocean search and recovery operations in deep ocean waters. And joining us from San Francisco, Lieutenant Colonel Ken Christensen, a commercial pilot, certified aircraft crash investigator, retired U.S. Air Force.

Guys, thanks very much for coming in.

Mike, let me start with you.

These batteries powering what I call these pingers on the flight data voice recorders, they have, what, only 15 or 16 days left before they go dead and the pinging stops. You say it's going to be really hard to pick up those sounds, those pinging sounds, if they are anywhere around the bottom of that southern Indian Ocean.

MIKE WILLIAMSON, OCEAN SEARCH SPECIALIST: Well, those are very low- powered pingers. And there's a real problem in detecting them in these kinds of water depths. They're range-limited. And as we just heard about the sea conditions, if you have a lot of ambient noise from breaking waves and bubbles in the water, that background would make it very difficult to even hear the pingers. You have to be just about over the top of them to even get a signal. So the chances are pretty slim that even if we can get a hydrophone out there within the 30 days that we would even be able to pick them up.

BLITZER: That's pretty depressing, when you think about that.

Ken, you have extensive experience in these ocean searches. It's been, what, a few days now. Crews haven't found these two missing mystery objects that were seen in this commercial satellite photo. It's been, what, two days they have been searching for anything. They haven't seen anything yet. They have come back. It's now nighttime over there. What's your gut tell you? Are these objects going to be found, whatever they were?

WILLIAMSON: You know --


BLITZER: Hold on. Let me let Ken answer.

Go ahead, Ken.

LT. COL. KEN CHRISTENSEN, PILOT, AIRCRAFT CRASH INVESTIGATOR & AIR FORCE, RETIRED: The jury is still out on that. Because so many days have passed from the satellite imagery and they can still get a location if it's time stamped and the latitude and longitude, and then you'll be able to track where the item is. And I'm sure the search teams are searching in those areas. But we don't know if it has sunk since then, depending on what the sea state was. So these questions still need to be answered.

BLITZER: Ken, the weather was very good today flying over that suspected area, but we're told the next couple days it's going to get really bad. How much of a factor will that be, the deteriorating weather?

CHRISTENSEN: Deteriorating weather, if it's the winds, that can be a factor if you're flying very close to the water. More so for ceilings. If they have -- if there's low ceilings, then the aircraft might have a problem going through there and getting close to the water to get their eyes on the water or visual searching, as you say. If it's an electronic search, a radar search looking for metallic objects, the radar will penetrate the clouds and they can fly above the cloud and do an area search. If it's infrared, the infrared sensor will be reduced, because they can't look through the clouds. BLITZER: Mike, what do they really need? We know they've got P-3 surveillance aircraft, P-8s surveillance aircraft. They've got some cargo ships in the area. What do they really need? Let's say there is wreckage at the bottom of the Indian Ocean, in that area, that general area? What do they need to find it?



BLITZER: Go ahead. Let me let Mike answer that.

WILLIAMSON: OK. What we really need for search plan is loft data. They need to know where to start the search plan and an origin point. And that's going to be very difficult without something, either wreckage that's confirmed that we can back-calculate from tides, currents and wind, to an impact point. Without that, any kind of technology is going to be really limited in what it can do in those kinds of water depths and sea conditions.

BLITZER: As you well know, the Air France crash back in 2009 off the coast of Brazil in the Atlantic Ocean, they started finding debris within five days. And they started finding a whole lot of debris. But eventually took two years to actually find the flight data and voice recorders. And that was a relatively contained area.

This seems so much more challenging, Mike. What do you think?

WILLIAMSON: I think it's very challenging. And without a starting point, it would -- you would expend a lot of resources with fall -- very small chance of success.

BLITZER: What do you think, Ken? Do you think they're looking in the right area? A lot of people are suggesting, you know what, this is a wild goose chase over there. They should be looking in the northern part over land someplace, given the northern arc it could have gone. What's your sense?

CHRISTENSEN: Well, let's go with that for a minute, Wolf. On that 777, you have an emergency locater transmitter. And if the aircraft, let's say, did have an accident and impacted the ground, then that emergency locater transmitter would turn on. Now, there has been some commentary on the news lately that that can be disabled. But it's able to be reset. For instance, if you have a hard landing and it went off, you could reset it. But resetting it does not disable it. So if you did reset it, and you wouldn't -- as a person inside an airplane, if you crashed, you obviously wouldn't have the ability to reset that because you just crashed. So you cannot disable it. You only can turn it on in flight, or you can reset it. But if it crashes, then it's going to go off. Now, we have not heard that. The SAR-SAT satellites would pick up on that and pinpoint that location very quickly. That has not happened. So you can get in geometry where you can crash an airplane so hard that it can actually disable or break the antenna of the emergency locater transmitter and, because of that, wouldn't transmit. And that's a possibility. Or did the plane land safely somewhere that we still don't know about. (CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Intriguing thought, which a lot of folks are worried about that, as well, wondering if that is even possible.

All right, guys, thanks very much. Ken Christensen, Mike Williamson, guys, thank you.

A desperate search for answers for a family of the missing flight 370 passengers. We're going to see how those waiting are dealing with the trauma. How are they holding up? Remember, 239 passengers and crew members were aboard that flight.


BLITZER: Certainly been an emotional rollercoaster for the families of the missing passengers on flight 370. Some of those relatives are already getting some financial support, automatic insurance payments of as much as $20,000 a piece already have gone out. The money is intended to help families travel, cover other expenses, while they wait for answers.

In Beijing, the answers have been very slow to come.

Our Pauline Chou has an update on those clinging to hope.


PAULINE CHOU, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): For the very first time in two weeks, the Chinese families here in Beijing got a chance to meet face-to-face with the high-level delegation from Malaysia and asked pointed questions about what happened to Malaysia Airlines flight 370.

One man got up and asked about one scenario. He said, "Is it possible that a country's military shot down the plane"? While the Malaysian air force official was very careful in the way he answered that, he said, based on the data and the radar, at this point in time, shooting by military is "not highly possible." Those were his words.

Another man stood up and asked about the debris off the coast of Australia, and what was happening with that. And he also asked about a possible scenario. He said, "I have learned there are two uninhabited islands in that search area. Are you going to look at that"? Now the official said, of course, we have to confirm first that the debris is from the plane. But if it is confirmed, they will go and check out these islands, if they exist.

But the very fact that some of these families are asking these kinds of questions show they still have a sliver of hope that their loved ones are still alive.

Pauline Chou, CNN, Beijing.


BLITZER: Let's not forget, 239 people, passengers and crew members, were aboard that flight.

Many of you have serious questions surrounding flight 370, and about the search under way in the Indian Ocean. We're going to read some questions on the air when we come back. Our panel of experts will answer them. Go ahead and tweet me, @Wolfblitzer.

We'll be right back.


BLITZER: Understandably, many of you have been sending questions about the disappearance of flight 370 using Twitter, the #370Qs. Now our panel is here to answer those questions.

Once again, our aviation analyst, former American Airlines pilot, Mike Weiss, 777 pilot. Also our aviation analyst, former NTSB managing director, Peter Goelz; and CNN law enforcement analyst, Tom Fuentes, former assistant director of the FBI.

Peter, first question from Nadine. When is the appropriate time for all to scale back their search efforts if this Australian lead is false?

PETER GOELZ, CNN AVIATION ANALYST & FORMER NTSB MANAGING DIRECTOR: I think we're not there yet. But certainly sometime in the next month or six weeks people are going to have to assess what kind of resources they're going to apply, who is going to pay for it.

BLITZER: Because the -- you know, this is already costing a lot of money. Who pays for this search effort under way right now?

GOELZ: Right now, each one of the countries are footing the bill for their own investigations. Malaysia and the Malaysian air carrier is footing the bills for family and that sort of thing. But as it goes on, that becomes a real question because these things can cost tens of millions, hundreds of millions of dollars.

BLITZER: Here's a question for you, Tom. Don't the experts think they should still be looking in the north? What if this new lead doesn't pan out?

FUENTES, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST & FORMER FBI ASSISTANT DIRECTOR: That's a good question. I think everything we're hearing -- it's the technicians saying that it could have taken both arcs. But if it went north, you would have all of these countries with defensive radar systems report it. And that's English what they are basing it on, more than anything.

BLITZER: But what if it was going to -- an unfriendly country that was, you know -- that wouldn't necessarily share that kind of information?

FUENTES: Well, if an unfriendly country might have shot it done since the transponder wasn't working. One way or the other, I think the feeling is it would have become public if that plane entered that air space. BLITZER: I think that's the theory.

Here is a question, Mike. Could the plane have landed somewhere and sent pings as long as the engines remained on, even if for several hours? In other words, sending pings while it was on the ground.

MIKE WEISS, CNN AVIATION ANALYST & FORMER 777 PILOT: Well, yes. As long as you have electrical power on the aircraft, you're going to be getting that -- the pinging. But I think the arc that was determined from the satellites would suggest that the aircraft was in different places over time.

BLITZER: Because that arc could have been all the way up in Kazakhstan, in the southern part of the Indian Ocean, that's a huge, huge area. But something is giving them reason to believe it's in the southern part

WEISS: It is. It's giving them more of a defined arena to search but not necessarily a pinpoint area obviously.

BLITZER: Here's a good question for all of you. Would dispatching a U.S. aircraft carrier to the search area help search because that would eliminate long flights back to Perth?

FUENTES: That would be a good possibility for multiple helicopters if there was a more pinpointed area to search from. The big jets that you are seeing doing the jets have to land on land in Perth. But --


BLITZER: A P-3 can't land on an aircraft carrier. Is that what you are saying?

FUENTES: They can't.

BLITZER: But they do have equipment, they do have planes that could use carriers or other ships to take off from and search around as well.

WEISS: They do, but one of the things you have to consider is, how long would it take to get that asset on site.

BLITZER: To move a whole carrier battle group of whatever.

WEISS: Yeah.

BLITZER: That's not cheap either.

GOELZ: Yeah. And there are strategic considerations. A carrier group is a very strategic weapon and do you want to move it away from where it is in national defense posture.

BLITZER: Here's a question I keep getting all the time.

This is to you, Mike. Could someone have taken control of the plane from outside the plane? Just a question. Could someone have hacked into the cockpit and caused whatever happened?

WEISS: It is highly unlikely. The answer is miniscule.

BLITZER: Do you agree?

FUENTES: Couldn't have happened.

BLITZER: That's the scenario you would see in wild fiction.

Peter, why is no one looking to Somalia and the African coast? It is a straight path, eight hours, and plenty of places to hide.

GOELZ: That's a good question. Because the handshake signal from the aircraft did not show that was where they were headed. It showed the northern ark and the southern ark. And as Tom said, the northern ark is peppered with defense radar. Someone would have seen something.

BLITZER: Good questions from our viewers.

Guys, thanks very, very much. We will do it again.

You can always tweet me more questions, @Wolfblitzer. If you have other questions about flight 370, post them to Twitter. Use #370Qs. Later tonight, 10:00 p.m. eastern, Don Lemon will host a CNN special report on flight 370. He and his expert panel will answer many more of your questions. #370Qs.

Much more coverage of missing Malaysia Airline flight 370 coming up.

Also, it's official now. Russia's president signs the paper officially annexing Crimea to the Russian Federation. But with as many as 20,000 troops on the border with Ukraine, it was more of a formality. Now the question is this: Will Putin want more?


BLITZER: Much more on the mystery of flight 370 coming up.

But there's other important news we're monitoring right now. The two sides in the fight for the future of Ukraine with pens. Moments after the Russian parliament passed the treaty annexing Crimea, President Vladimir Putin signed it. Russia also takes ownership of the Black Sea port of Sevastopol. In response, Ukraine's prime minister signed a trade agreement with the European Union. You'll require, it was a dispute over closer ties to the E.U. that led to the current crisis. And the crisis is growing more tense as Russia tightens its grip.

This YouTube video shows pro Russian forces breaking through a gate of a Ukrainian military base. Each side starred down the other. So far, no reports of shots fired.

Our senior international correspondent, Nick Paton Walsh is joining us now. He is in Crimea.

How much of these new developments are adding to an already rather tense situation, Nick? NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: In many ways, like a done deal, as it has for quite sometime. They went to one Kiev situation still with solders loyal to Kiev. The commander said he had about 500 men under his control, but he had hoped that tomorrow morning he might get some inclination of whether to stay on the base or withdraw back to the mainland, where he is from himself. But Russian soldiers very nearby. And it seemed some Ukrainian soldier, who appears to have defected as well.

We also saw on the ground here, long queues of Crimean citizens queuing for Russian passports. There is a huge bureaucracy to go through to incorporate Crimea into the Russian Federal that nobody in the west recognizes as being part of the case. Most people said they were much better off inside Russia.

But the real -- for people here, the difficult part begins now. There has been a whirl wind of Russian motion to drag them into the Russian Federation. Now the question of where the utilities and gas and water and electricity, et cetera, will come from. What's it going to be like for those staying behind? Are they simply going to accept that life has changed significantly for the citizens of the new country? Many people are asking what happened here in Crimea, Wolf, and, of course, in Eastern Ukraine. Many concerned about Russian troops on the border there -- Wolf?

BLITZER: Nick, as you know, the U.S. and others are keeping a very close eye on what are supposedly 20,000 Russian troops that are poised on the Ukrainian border. There's deep concerns Russians may move into other parts of Ukraine beyond Crimea. I'm sure that's a concern you're hearing about. What's the latest on that front?

PATON WALSH: The concern I think is fuelled by what Pentagon officials are seeing. As you said, these 20,000 troops are motorized. The concern of U.S. officials is they could move very fast, indeed, if they are given the green light to do that. The real concern, too, is we keep hearing from Russian officials again and again the idea that ethnic Russians in the east of the country are somehow under threat from extremists -- Fascists, they call them -- affiliated to the new government in Kiev. I should say, there is little evidence of that being the case. There was a clash where they ended up killing or wounding those who are pro Ukrainians on the streets. That's the concern in the immediate future. And bear in mind, Vladimir Putin himself, in a lengthy speech, said Ukraine's territorial integrity depends upon their actions in securing the futures of ethnic Russians in the east. So it's absolutely clear from Western officials, too, they think Crimea is the beginning of what Putin wants to do rather than the end of it. So very tense days ahead -- Wolf?

BLITZER: Very intense, indeed.

Nick Paton Walsh, right in the middle of it. Nick, we will continue to check back with you. This is an important story we're all monitoring.

That's it for me this hour. Thanks for watching. I will be back at 5:00 p.m. eastern for a special two-hour edition of "The Situation Room." Until then, thanks for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer, in Washington.

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