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CNN Special Report: Flight 370: The Final Hours"

Aired March 29, 2014 - 18:30   ET


ANNOUNCER: The following is a CNN Special Report.


KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN HOST: A high-tech aircraft, an experienced crew, and 227 passengers. What began as a routine flight for Malaysia Airlines 370 became the total opposite, leaving behind unending grief and unanswered questions.

"Flight 370: The Final Hours."

Here in the cockpit of this Malaysian Airlines plane, the captain trains this co-pilot to fly the aircraft. Calculations, notes, and a rare towering storm to avoid.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If we see it on our radar and penetrate it, but yellow and red is asking for trouble.

PHILLIPS: Adjustments made, the trainee touches down moments later, a perfect landing. It's February, 2014, and the trainee is Fariq Hamid.

Weeks later, Hamid would again be in the right hand seat, this time as first officer of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

March 7th, 2014, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in one of the busiest cities in Southeast Asia, millions of people are on the move. Including Philip Wood, a 51-year-old IBM executive. Thousands of miles away in Beijing, the day begins as usual for his partner, Sarah Bajc.

SARAH BAJC, PARTNER OF PHILIP WOOD: I get up early. I drink coffee in front of the window and look out over the sunrise. We live next to an apple orchard. And I do yoga every morning and eat my oatmeal and go to work.

PHILLIPS: In the early morning hours, Phil will take the red eye home to Sarah in Beijing.

The airport at Kuala Lumpur connects Southeast Asia to the continent. Paul Weeks needs to make it thousands of miles inland, all the way to Mongolia.

DANICA WEEKS, WIFE OF PAUL WEEKS: He was doing this for the right reason. It was his dream job.

PHILLIPS: Weeks is an engineer, husband to Danica, and the father of two young boys.

WEEKS: He spent so much time with his kids. He'd take them to the zoo, like, he was his little shadow.

PHILLIPS: In fact, preparing the boys was a major issue before Paul left for his 28-day assignment abroad.

WEEKS: We cried when we left. I mean, this is a big change for the family. And we'd prepared Lincoln. A little pad to Skype him and a map with, you know, where daddy was going to be.

PHILLIPS: When Weeks left home, he told his wife he was leaving a few things behind.

WEEKS: I'm going to leave my wedding ring and my watch, and should anything happen to me, I want the ring to go to the first son that's married and the watch to the second. And I said something to him, like, don't be stupid. Just come back and I'll give it back to you and you can give it to them.

PHILLIPS: Hours earlier, first officer Hamid and captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah passed through security at the airport.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: They're there early and they're going to talk to the airline dispatcher.

PHILLIPS: Miles O'Brien is an aviation expert for CNN.

O'BRIEN: They'll talk about the route. They'll talk about the winds aloft. They'll talk about turbulence.

And with that all in mind, they will come to an agreement on how much fuel to load onboard an airplane.

PHILLIPS: Hamid and Shah load enough fuel to get to Beijing plus 45 minutes to spare. Hours later, Philip Wood, Paul Weeks and 225 other passengers arrive for the flight. Bags checked. Boarding passes printed.

Among them, a group of Chinese painters and calligraphers returning from an exhibit of their work, a family heading back from vacation with their toddler, two Iranian men traveling on fake passports, passengers flying for business, and pleasure, as well as the flight crew.

In the cockpit, the captain and first officer make their final preparations.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK. Oxygen. Check. Instruments. Check.

PHILLIPS: In a 777 simulator, commercial pilot Mitchell Casado shows CNN's Martin Savidge the preflight prep.

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: So, it's going into this system here.

PHILLIPS: The pilot loads the route, programming the aircraft to fly to its destination.

SAVIDGE: And it's essentially step-by-step going to take this plane from Kuala Lumpur all the way to Beijing.

PHILLIPS: The plane is ready.

Before taking off, Paul Weeks sends a message home.

WEEKS: The last line was, this counts as one day, so that means it's only 27 days until I see you all again.

PHILLIPS: Around 12:30 a.m., Malaysia Airlines 370 pushes back from the gate and gently eases toward the runway. The aircraft is cleared for takeoff.

SAVIDGE: Let's go.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. All right. So the brakes are off. And everything is set.

PHILLIPS: The captain boosts the massive engines. The plane roars into the sky. Its altimeter tracking its climb through 5,000 feet, then 10,000 feet. Now airborne, air traffic controllers pick up the flight

O'BRIEN: They're going to see you on their radar because you have a squawk code in your transponder which basically turns your simple radar return into something that has a lot of information on it. It includes the flight number and the speed and the altitude.

SAVIDGE: Coming up to 17,000 feet.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is Malaysia here. And this is Vietnam here. There's Cambodia on the left side.

PHILLIPS: As the plane reaches its cruising altitude of 35,000 feet, the pilots can relax a little, so can the passengers like Paul Weeks and Philip wood. It's 1:19 in the morning. A voice from the cockpit addresses air traffic control saying simply, "All right, good night." For Flight 370, it's been a routine evening.

Coming up, an aircraft with 239 people aboard vanishes, completely.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's got to be some practical joke. And then it stayed missing and it stayed missing.




PHILLIPS: March 8th, just before 1:00 a.m., Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 and its 239 passengers and crew are 35,000 feet above the Gulf of Thailand, cruising comfortably in a Boeing 777.

O'BRIEN: The 777 was a pivotal aircraft to Boeing and the 777 has a sterling safety record.

MITCHELL CASADO, PILOT TRAINER, 777 COCKPIT SIMULATOR: It's extremely safe. It's triple redundant. There's at least three backups for every system. Electrical, hydraulic.

PHILLIPS: In the cockpit of Flight 370, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, a captain with over 18,000 hours in the air, and a stellar reputation.

O'BRIEN: He's the kind of guy I want to fly with, you know? The quintessential good airline pilot. He's everything that you'd want to have taking you down to the ground on that dark and stormy night.

PHILLIPS: Seated beside him, 27-year-old first officer Fariq Hamid who has just under 3,000 hours in the air.

O'BRIEN: An airline pilot in his mid-20s with the amount of experience he had would never be flying a 777 in the U.S. That would be unheard of. So, this guy was doing well.

PHILLIPS: Doing so well that Fariq Hamid had just finished training on the 777 and Flight 370 is his first time flying the plane without a check co-pilot. Nearly 30 minutes after takeoff, all seems well according to an automatic message sent from the aircraft's communications system.

O'BRIEN: That's kind of like a little text message that is just checking in. Everything about that indicates a plane at cruise, everything's fine, everything's normal.

PHILLIPS: Twelve minutes later, at 1:19 a.m., a handoff with air traffic control.

O'BRIEN: What happens during these handoffs is the controller in the station that is giving an airplane over to another sector gets on a phone to the next sector and say, hey, I've got Malaysian Airlines 370 coming your direction, do you see them? And they'll acknowledge it, OK, I'm going to give him a handoff, he'll be checking in with you shortly.

PHILLIPS: Someone in the cockpit signs off with, "All right, good night." But just two minutes later, signs of trouble.

O'BRIEN: So everything kind of goes quiet all of a sudden in a hurry.

PHILLIPS: At 1:21 a.m., the plane's transponder goes silent.

O'BRIEN: When you turn that off, it's like lights are out. So, there's no more voice communication.

PHILLIPS: And no signal to air traffic control with the plane's location, speed, and altitude.

O'BRIEN: It could have been physically turned off. There could have been a circuit breaker pulled. Or there could have been some kind of catastrophic failure on the plane which caused an electrical disruption. PHILLIPS: Then the 777 makes an unexpected left turn heading west and way off course.

O'BRIEN: What we see is a quick turn almost 180-degree turn back toward land.

PHILLIPS: According to a source close to the investigation, military radar then shows the plane dropping and flying as low as 12,000 feet.

O'BRIEN: The control at the other end is expecting a call from that aircraft.

PHILLIPS: But the call never comes.

O'BRIEN: There was repeated attempts to reach the aircraft. Not only on the 120.9 frequency which is the frequency they were assigned, but also on an emergency frequency.

PHILLIPS: There is no answer.

O'BRIEN: They're going through their checklist for a missing aircraft, an aircraft that has apparently fallen off the radar screens and is not communicating. You know, what's going on?

PHILLIPS: At 2:40 a.m., a worried air traffic control tower alerts Malaysian Airlines. They've lost contact with the plane. Flight 370 has disappeared.

By 6:30 a.m., the sun is rising over Beijing. The same time Flight 370 is scheduled to land. But there is no plane and no sign of Philip Wood, Paul Weeks and the 237 other passengers and crew members onboard.

Coming up, the news no one could prepare for.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: After more than 30 hours without any contact with the aircraft, we believe that the family members should prepare themselves for the worst.




PHILLIPS: A large 777 jet is missing and the news quickly makes its way around the world.

ERIN BURNETT, CNN ANCHOR: Malaysia Airlines confirms it has lost contact with a plane --


PHILLIPS: Families begin to gather at information centers in Kuala Lumpur and Beijing.

BAJC: Twelve hours, disbelief set in like this can't be happening. It's surreal.

PHILLIPS: It soon becomes apparent that it's going to be difficult for families to get clear information. And anxiety turns to anger. This woman is telling families she can't get them an answer until noon the next day.

"No, answer us now," this man yells.

WEEKS: We're not getting any information and we don't know anything and they're not telling us. At this stage it's just blank -- just blank waiting and praying.

PHILLIPS: Just north of Perth, Australia, Danica Weeks waits for news of her husband with her 3-year-old Lincoln and her 11-month-old Jeff.

O'BRIEN: The good news is Malaysia hasn't had to deal with this before. The bad news is Malaysia hasn't had to do this before. We're in a situation where we're watching and kind of learn how to do this and it's unfortunate.

JIM TILMON, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: We go back to square one where we have something catastrophic that happened.

PHILLIPS: With a lack of clear communication, speculation, and theories abound.

O'BRIEN: Could it have been mechanical, structural failure? It's possible. I say when you weigh the evidence, the balance is moving towards some sort of intentional act.

PHILLIPS: But what kind? A rogue crew intent on hijacking or murders/suicide, or maybe a terrorist act? That theory gets a boost by two passengers traveling with stolen passports. It's later determined those men are seeking asylum, not trouble. But that talk of terrorism surprisingly gives Sarah Bajc hope.

BAJC: If I was a terrorist, I would want to protect those valuable assets like the people on the plane.

PHILLIPS: As Bajc and families wait for answers --

TV ANCHOR: China has deployed two ships to search the South China Sea, along --

PHILLIPS: Investigators are scouring the seas. The problem is, they don't know where to look. First, they concentrate near the Malaysian peninsula but then they expand east toward Vietnam.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: These satellite images --

PHILLIPS: And west toward the Andaman Islands. But there's another problem.

BAJC: The way the international investigators have been working together is kind of like a bunch of teenage girls running around a locker room all trying not to show each other what they've got. O'BRIEN: The U.S. is there, the U.K. is there, Australia is there. But who is in charge? It has to be managed better than it is to get those answers.

PHILLIPS: The answers come fast and furious with several pings send from the plane referred to as handshakes.

O'BRIEN: So, there is a box on the plane that gets you the satellite. That box was still alive. So, it's not unlike your cell phone is on, even if you are not making a call, it's constantly checking in with a cell tower.

PHILLIPS: And those handshakes or satellite pings give the satellite company enough information to reconstruct the plane's likely flight path. Surprisingly the data shows that the 777 flies for several more hours after disappearing from radar and ends in the South Indian Ocean.

The constant, changing, conflicting news puts families in a tail spin.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's a roller coaster ride. One moment I'm fine and the next I'm a mess. I felt that I had positivity that -- that -- you know, he was coming back.

CROWD: Be right here waiting for you --

PHILLIPS: On March 24th that positivity is dashed when Malaysia Airlines sends families they haven't been able to contact this text, "Malaysia Airlines deeply regrets that we have to assume beyond any reasonable doubt that MH370 has been lost and that none of those on board survived.

A short time later, Malaysia's prime minister makes an announcement.

NAJIB RAZAK, PRIME MINISTER OF MALAYSIA: Flight MH370 ended in the southern Indian Ocean.

O'BRIEN: What was the hurry to make that statement? If the Malaysians thought that was going to make people feel better and go home and be happy, it didn't work very well, did it?


PHILLIPS: And Sarah Bajc is still trying, desperately to cling to hope.

BAJC: I'm coping through it. There's just this huge vacuum because you know, it's not only that Philip is missing and by any reasonable person's calculations, he's most likely permanently missing, and I can't -- I can't quite accept that because, you know, what my head is telling me and what my heart are telling me are two very conflicting things.

PHILLIPS: As she hopes the data is fine tuned and the search area shifts again and the world waits. O'BRIEN: We can't stop thinking about this. And wondering, because how could it be in the 21st century a modern airliner could go missing? How could that be? And here we are with a missing airliner. And I think that just -- that boggles people's minds and we just need to know what happened, don't we?

PHILLIPS: A mystery unsolved, clues scattered, questions unanswered and heartbroken families left to pick up the pieces.