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The Mystery of Flight 370; Searching Under Water for the Aircraft's Pinger

Aired April 4, 2014 - 22:00   ET


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: This is a CNN special report, "The Mystery of Flight 370." I'm Don Lemon.

And we have breaking news tonight. At this moment, the Australian ship Ocean Shield is towing the U.S. Navy's pinger locator, essentially an underwater microwave that can -- microphone that can detect picks from the plane's data recorders in water as deep as 20,000 feet.

The ship will have a travel -- have to travel very slowly at a speed of one to five knots. Since the pinger locator doesn't require daylight, it can search around the clock, a good thing since the black boxes could go silent as soon as Monday; 13 planes and 11 ships are out there. But as the hunt goes on, there are still more questions than answers.

And you have been tweeting us your questions by the thousands. We have got top aviation and security experts standing by to answer them throughout the hour, like this one from Liz. She says: "Maybe 370 goes down in the ocean in one piece. This explains the absence of the debris. Would it be more hard to find?"

And LJPhoenix says -- asks, "Where will debris begin to wash up on shore?"

I want to get right to CNN's reporters in the region. Matthew Chance is in Perth and Nic Robertson is in Kuala Lumpur, Richard Quest also here with me in New York.

Good evening to all of you.

Matthew, I will start with you. Yesterday, there was a lot of excitement about the targeted search area of about 150 miles. What progress has been made searching there?

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's progress in the sense that that search has been continuing for the 24- hour period.

It's the first time that they have managed to go all night, because they have been wholly dependent up until now on visual searches from Ariel aircraft. Now they're on the surface of the South Indian Ocean, trawling through that 150-mile corridor. The problem is, it's a very slow process. You mentioned that. It's going to take about three days. They have completed the first day of that. So far they have turned up nothing, so, yes, still start of what's been a very frustrating process.

LEMON: What is the sense there on the ground? Is there any indication that we're closer to finding Flight 370, Matthew?

CHANCE: That's a difficult one to answer.

Certainly, what the authorities say here and the search teams here say is that they're confident that if the plane is out there, they have estimated the most likely place it's going to be. What we're talking about here, this search area, this 80,000 or so square miles of South Indian Ocean, it's their best estimate as to where this plane may have ended up.

But we're not dealing in any kind of absolutes on this. It's just essentially a guess. They're hopeful they can turn up something. But so far, after, what, nearly 29 days now, they have not even found a trace.

LEMON: Let's go to Kuala Lumpur and talk about the families with Nic Robertson.

The families there have now been suffering for a month, Nic. They feel like they're not getting the information they need. What is a primary complaint on the part of the families with this investigation?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That they're not getting enough data from the investigators. They would like to know the exact routing that the aircraft took when it turned back, did it turn left, did it turn right? They know what was in the cargo hold, they want to know -- they want to be able to listen to the air traffic controllers' conversation with the cockpit, with the first officer, with the captain. They want to hear that.

All of those things they have been told, that's subject to investigation. That won't be disclosed by the investigators. They have been told a route that the plane took. That doesn't satisfy them. They don't believe or they're unsure whether the investigators believe or can trust the Inmarsat data which led to this South Indian Ocean search off the coast of Australia.

Of course, that is leading to conspiracy theories. One of those conspiracy theories is, did the plane get hijacked, did it land in Diego Garcia, was it shot down by the military base in Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean there? With the lack of answers come those conspiracy theories. As wild as they sound, families are latching on to that sort of thing, Don.

LEMON: Nic, we're going to talk about a little bit later on in the show. I'm glad you mentioned it, but more on that later.

But my question to you now is, why are Malaysian officials keeping secret the audio recordings of conversations between the cockpit and the ground controllers? The families aren't even allowed to listen to it. Why is that?

ROBERTSON: They say because it would prejudice the investigation. The chief inspector of police here have said to prejudice the investigation could damage a prosecution. He hasn't said who would be prosecuted at the end. That's the reason we're given.

Officials say they don't know who made that last communication, the "Good night, Malaysian 370," was the last communication. One would reasonably expect whoever made that last communication to be a big clue about who was last in control of the cockpit in the aircraft, which obviously is key to the investigation. We're told that on the ground, the push-back taxiway, the first officer makes all the radio communications, that after that it could believe the pilot or the captain or the first officer on the radio.

It should be readily clear to investigators by now who was on the radio at that key moment, that last transmission. So that's a vital piece of the investigation. Most analysts expect the investigators should know that by now. Why are they not releasing this when it's apparent they perhaps know it?

They clearly, if they have it, don't want to hand over the whole picture. And, again, that reticence for the investigation, to protect the investigation, but that reticence feeds all the wild conspiracy theories, feeds the angst, the anger, the unknown and the pain here, Don.

LEMON: Richard Quest, you want to follow up on that?

RICHARD QUEST, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I just want to say, almost never, almost never is the actual audiotape released.

You're talking about men and women in some cases who are dead. They never release the tape. They release transcripts of it. And sometimes, as in Asiana, it's been recorded by third parties, live ATC, for example, but the authorities almost never release the actual tape.

LEMON: All right, lots more to talk about here. So thank you, Nic Robertson and thank you, Matthew Chance. Stand by.

A lot of attention tonight on the Navy's pinger locater.

For more on that, I want to bring in Christopher Johnson. He's media relations manager for Naval Sea Systems Command.

Good evening to you, Chris.


LEMON: We're now a full four weeks into the disappearance of Flight 370. It's really unbelievable that we're still here and nothing has been found. And only now, for the first time the search is finally diving underwater. Chris, could they have started the underwater search any earlier?

JOHNSON: Well, no. To be honest, the underwater search is limited in that we really need kind of a smaller search area.

So the towed pinger locater, that's the thing we put in the water just earlier yesterday, can only search about a mile away from its location. Until we have some indication of either where the plane might have gone or have we seen some surface debris, it wouldn't have done a whole lot of good to put in the water, because there's just so much ocean to search.

LEMON: Chris, CNN is reporting today that the black box batteries were due for overhauls in 2012, never returned to the manufacturer. If that is the case and the batteries are now dead, will the pinger locator be able to -- will they be able to find it, find the black boxes?

JOHNSON: The pinger locater really will only work if the black box is activity sends out a ping. It's a passive listening device. And that's all it does. It just listens for that ping.

If it's stopped sending that signal out or if it was never sending it out to begin with, had it been damaged in the crash, then, no, our system won't locate it that way.

LEMON: I imagine that there is a lot of noise in the ocean. I'm wondering what other natural sounds could be confused for the pinger.

JOHNSON: There are a couple different types of sounds in the ocean, tectonic sounds, whale sounds, that kind of thing. But our processor is able to distinguish the sound the pinger actually makes.

LEMON: OK. This is a tweet from James. And James says, "If the pinger locater gets a hit, how long does it take to deploy the rest of the technology needed to find Flight MH370?"

One Australian scientist who actually helped developed the flight data recorder said finding them at this point would be "remarkable." Would you agree?

JOHNSON: Well, if we're able to get that sound, if we hear the ping in our system, we're able to put our other system into the water very quickly. So we have got two different types of systems, systems operating off the Australian Navy ship Ocean Shield.

The first is that towed pinger locater. The other is the Blue Fin 21, which is an autonomous underwater vehicle. And that vehicle can be equipped with a side-scan sonar or a still camera. What we will do is, we will put that in the water, make a map of the ocean floor to see what's under there, to see if we can find some debris, large or small aircraft debris and hopefully that black box.

LEMON: All right, thank you very much, Christopher Johnson. Stand by.

I want to bring in now my panel of experts, Richard Quest back with me, Geoffrey Thomas, editor in chief of AirlineRatings, Mary Schiavo, former inspector general of the Department of Transportation. She is now an attorney for victims of transportation accidents. Ocean explorer Tim Taylor, Jeff Wise, the author of "Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger," Jim Tilmon, a retired American Airlines pilot. And also back with me is Nic Robertson.

Jeff Wise, to you first. The search area is just the area of highest probability, we have been hearing. And the batteries, as we heard as well, may already be dead. Chances much be extremely thin at finding those data recorders. Do you believe that they will ever be found?

JEFF WISE, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: If the pinger is dead and there's no debris on the surface, and we still remained convinced it's somewhere along this southern arc, then what we're really facing is we would have to go down and try to locate this thing with side-scan sonar, which is the equivalent of like riding around the continental United States on a horse looking for this thing. It's going to be an extremely, extremely slow process.

Maybe if you deployed multiple underwater robots to look at the same time -- this could take decades. It's a vast undertaking.

LEMON: Tim Taylor, this is your expertise here. How does a search plan change, if nothing is found within the next few days?

TIM TAYLOR, PRESIDENT, TIBURON SUBSEA SERVICES: Well, they're going to have to take a long-range look at this and really evaluate if they proceed.

Jeff said it's going to take a long time. That equates to money. I have one quick thing. Sound has a different propensity, low-frequency sound underwater, and there's a channel from 2,000 to 4,000 feet that allows sound to travel great distances. It has a ricochet effect.

And maybe they're using this acoustic sound to get down to that depth to see if they can hear that beacon. No one has really talked about this, but it's called the deep sound channel. I think that's extremely interesting that maybe they're hoping against hope that they can extend the range of this pinger if it's actually there.

LEMON: What are you writing, Richard?

QUEST: I was just writing, very interesting, what Tim just said -- the level at which the pinger is going down, I believe reading about it this morning, is about 3,000 feet. That's the sort of level they're looking at.

So Tim may have just latched onto something there.

LEMON: All right.

Mary Schiavo, to you. Do you think the U.S. should continue looking for this plane after the black box pinger signal is thought to be dead? Would adding more resources at this point make a difference?

MARY SCHIAVO, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: Well, I think we will continue and we should continue for at least a reasonable time thereafter.

We don't exactly know when the pinger is going to go dead. It could be dead already, it could be lasting another week or two beyond that. But I think we would want to deploy both submersibles, side-scan sonar, et cetera, and put forth an effort even thereafter to find it through submersible methods.

But at some point, the U.S. and other nations will pull back and they will go on and leave this mystery uninvolved.

LEMON: Geoffrey Thomas, so far, all the debris spotted from the plane and satellite turned out to be trash or never even located. Is it time to deploy fewer assets in the air maybe and more underwater?

GEOFFREY THOMAS, AIRLINERATINGS.COM: Look, indeed, Don, there are mores assets coming, there's more ships on the way, there's more planes being dedicated to this.

But I think that we should not underestimate the will of the Australians and the Chinese, particularly the political will to find this airplane. I think, as time goes by, more and more brains will be brought to bear on this.

I think that this is a mystery that will be solved, but it may be very, very long in the solving. But the political will to do this is very, very strong, the relationship between Australia and China particularly. So it's going to be long and hard, I know, but I believe that they will stay the course.

LEMON: All right, stand by, everyone, lots more to talk about. Coming up, the families of Flight 370. A wife faces the future without her husband, what's she doing to hold her family together.

And next, will we see any wreckage of the plane from the air? What about those hundreds of seat cushions?


LEMON: Thirteen planes, 11 ships searching for Flight 370 right now, in an area about 84,000 square miles.

Back with me is my panel of experts.

As we speak, the air search is under way. I would like you to take a listen to Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston -- he's the head of the investigation in Perth -- last night. Listen.


AIR CHIEF ANGUS HOUSTON, JOINT AGENCY COORDINATION CENTER: I think there's still a great possibility of finding something on the surface. There's lots of things in aircraft that float. I mean, in previous searches, life jackets have appeared, which can be connected to the aircraft that was lost.


LEMON: Richard Quest, this one is for you. Life jackets, other floating debris, how difficult is it to detect something so small? QUEST: It's really -- let me put it -- let me show you more than anything else. There we have, of course, an aircraft seat. This is exactly the sort of thing that would float because it's made of materials that will float.

LEMON: It's very light.

QUEST: It's very light and it's also designed for buoyancy.

This will float. You have got several hundred of them on the aircraft. If the aircraft does break up, then these will rise to the surface. Not only that, but on the back of this, this one was actually manufactured in 1996. But there's a huge amount of detail about the seat, the numbers.

LEMON: Oh, yes, you can see that, right?


QUEST: Right, the number, the serial code, all that sort of thing. I'm not suggesting if you found one of these seats in the middle of the ocean, you wouldn't be able to tell where it was from. But you would be able to definitively able to say this came from this particular airline on this particular aircraft.

LEMON: It's really light. But here's the thing. You said if it did break up. If it didn't, that's not going to float.

QUEST: Right, which is why I'm interested in that very first tweet that you mentioned, whether or not the plane entered substantially intact.

LEMON: Went down intact.

OK. All right, a small seat cushion, Geoffrey Thomas, something as small as seat cushion may bee -- may help, but do you think they more likely to find debris by air or by water?

THOMAS: Look, I think that, with debris, if there's one piece, there's typically a whole lot of debris on the water.

So I think the air part is still very, very important. It may well be the ships stumble onto something. But at the moment, what's happening is the airplanes, the spotters on the airplanes are looking out for debris, possible debris. They're dropping markers.

The ships have been going into have a closer look and pick it up. In the first instance, I think the main thing are eyes on the airplanes looking out. As you suggest, there's 11 military planes, but there's also four commercial planes as well with volunteer spotters on board. There's quite an armada of aircraft out there at the moment. Visual sighting from the air I think is the best bet.

LEMON: Hey, Jim Tilmon, you have covered several air disasters, some of them right here on CNN with me and with others. They're throwing everything they have at this. What if no debris turns up and no black boxes are found in the next week or so, Jim Tilmon?

JIM TILMON, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: I think we go to plan B, and I think it's not too early to start making some definitive plans with plan B in mind.

And I have I guess kind of an individual approach to it, that I want to go back to the last known absolutely documentable location for the airplane. Then the plan B should start from there, as if we hadn't done anything else any place before.

LEMON: Nic Robertson addressed this earlier. Do you think the Malaysians should release the audio recordings of air-to-ground conversations from the cockpit, Jim Tilmon? Here in the U.S., you can listen to the cockpit audio on any flight at any time because it's streamed online. Isn't it stunning that the Malaysians refuse to release it, Jim?

TILMON: I'm amazed at the Malaysians and the way that they have conducted this thing and what they consider to be secret and all that.

But I also am just as amazed of, where were all the radars? The Malaysian military had a radar. It was going. How long did it really in fact track the airplane? Where was the radar from the neighboring country islands? Even the one in Australia, I'm told that's one of the most powerful radar systems in that hemisphere. Nobody seems to have seen the airplane beyond a certain point, unless it's part of that stuff that they're just not telling us.

LEMON: Nic Robertson, the Malaysian officials also haven't released Flight 370's complete cargo list. Why not put all this out there?

ROBERTSON: Again, they say that that's part of the investigation, Don, that they don't want to do that. They did talk about there being a cargo of mangosteens on the plane. They have talked in detail about all the checks they're doing on that particular piece of cargo, where it was picked, who picked it, who packed it, who transported it to the airport, Who loaded it on the aircraft, who was going to buy it at the other end, what price they were going to pay for it, all these sorts of things.

Just going back to that air traffic control conversation that hasn't been released as well, I talked to a former Malaysia Airlines pilot here. And he told me if you look at Malaysia, take the east and the west of the country, on either side you will have radio buffs here recording flight frequencies, air traffic control frequencies.

At 12:42:52, air traffic control told the pilot and first officer to go to frequency 132.6 for the rest of their flight. This former pilot tells me, normally on the east side of Malaysia, there would be somebody monitoring and recording this, just an amateur doing it out of interest. He also tells me that that week in question, that person wasn't recording because their equipment was down. Any other week, he said there would be an independent recording, Don.

LEMON: Yes, I hate to cut you off. I have got to get some breaking news in here. Thank you, everyone. Stand by. Breaking news tonight about the search of the captain and the co- pilot, their hard drives. A source says the captain had several alternative routes, alternate routes programmed into that simulator, but there was no "we got it" information, several alternate routes programmed into that simulator, but no "we got it" information.

When we come right back, a wife's anguish. Her husband was on Flight 370. Now she says she can never give up trying to find out what happened for the sake of their two small boys.


LEMON: The worldwide obsession with the mystery of Flight 370 has been growing ever since the plane vanished a month ago tonight. But none of us should forget that there were 239 people on board, all with grief-stricken loved ones.

Danica Weeks, her husband, Paul, is one of the missing. She spoke to CNN's Paula Newton.


DANICA WEEKS, WIFE OF FLIGHT 370 PASSENGER: The hardest process for me is understanding that a commercial airline can just go black.

I don't think for the rest of my life I will ever give up trying to find out what happened. I owe that to my soul mate and, you know, my loving, amazing, strong, awesome husband who, you know, was an amazing father and an amazing husband. He was an extraordinary man. I owe it to him.

I still have a slight, slight hope. And, sometimes, I have to catch myself as, you know, seeing the excitement of him coming home. And I have to -- I have to get rid of that out of my brain quickly, because I can't let myself go to that level of excitement, because it would only -- it's only going to make me crushed when I find out the real truth, which we're all expecting will be that the plane has crashed.

We need something. The families need something. We need answers, not just for me, but for my children. Hopefully, we do get answers and then we can go on. If we don't, oh, this will be a lifelong quest for me. It -- just for him.


LEMON: And our thoughts are with Danica Weeks, her two sons and all the families of the passengers on Flight 370, which disappeared a week ago today -- four weeks ago today.

That's it for us tonight. I want to thank my panel. UNGUARDED with Rachel Nichols starts right now.