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The Mystery of Flight 370; Report from WSJ About Engines Says Plane Could Have Flown for Four More Hours; Search Area Could Be Enormous

Aired March 13, 2014 - 12:00   ET


ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Ashleigh Banfield. It is Thursday, March 13th. Welcome to LEGAL VIEW.

It has now been six days since a wide-bodied jet carrying 239 people just vanished en route to Beijing. And investigators don't know any more today than they did six days ago. In fact, the Malaysian government's point man on the search says, quote, "with every passing day, the task becomes more difficult." And here's what we can tell you. That is one of the very few statements from the Malaysian officials on which there is total agreement.

The latest apparent dead-end might be a "Wall Street Journal" report that data transmissions from the plane's engines indicate that it actually might have been flying for four additional hours after its last confirmed contact off South Vietnam. Well, that could put Flight 370 and all of the people in it anywhere inside the circle that you see here on your screen. And it is massive, I agree. This takes you from northern China to northwest Australia.

But the Malaysians say, not so fast, that's just wrong. The last data they say came shortly after the plane took off. They also say that some Chinese satellite photos that were such big news yesterday reporting to show possible debris may be a breakthrough near the plane's scheduled flight path. Well, really, that's not the case at all.


HISHAMMUDDIN BIN HUSSEIN, MALAYSIAN TRANSPORTATION MINISTER: Malaysian maritime enforcement agency surveillance plane was dispatched this morning to investigate potential debris shown on Chinese satellite images. We deployed our SFs (ph), but found nothing. We have contacted the Chinese embassy, who notified us this afternoon, that the images were released by mistake and did not show any debris from MH-370.


BANFIELD: I want to kick off our coverage with CNN's Richard Quest, an aviation expert and really the leading voice on this as we try to parse through all of these developments that simply get shot down before we can even make sense of them.

RICHARD QUEST, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Right. BANFIELD: I don't know that I've ever seen this happen in a missing plane before where we get report after report after report of breakthrough that only leads to nothing.

QUEST: It has happened, but not quite as viciously as this. The -- this "Wall Street Journal" article, there is now a straightforward disagreement on facts about whether it's accurate and true. There is a body in (ph) opinion out there that is saying, yes, it is true and that the - and that there is information that is now being looked at. But I can tell you, because I've spoken to a senior source on this who's told me exactly the opposite. I specifically asked this person again and again, is there data from the plane? And the answer was no. I asked, is 'The Journal" article correct? The answer was no.

BANFIELD: Which is congruent with what the Malaysians have let out most recently.

QUEST: Correct. Correct. So to anybody who hasn't actually got the pieces of information left, you really have got no idea, frankly. I mean until somebody stands up - you know, I suppose you have to go with always with what the minister said, because he's the only person who's in a position to know and he says quite clearly that information doesn't exist. But I'm told "The Journal's" standing by its story.

BANFIELD: So as we cover plane crashes, and there have been myriads since I began my career 26 years ago in broadcasting, there seems to be some resolution no matter what fairly proximate to the time of the crash. Some kind of resolution. And perhaps the reason why so many people are so fixated on this mystery flight is because there's so much misinformation. Is this a factor of bad management on the part of the Malaysian government or is there something more afoot?

QUEST: I'm going to just take that - take that. It's not that there's misinformation, it's there's no information.

BANFIELD: But there is misinformation.

QUEST: No - well -

BANFIELD: The debris that's been floating, the radar ping --

QUEST: That's normal. No, no, that's not miss information. That is not information. That's not miss information. We really -- this is not air crash investigation, a 30-minute program on television that is going to start beautifully at the beginning and end elegant at the end with a result that we could all sort of watch. This is happening in real time.

It is quite normal to have pictures coming up of potential debris that you find out not to be, have allegations of this that prove not to be. Where there is a deficiency in this investigation is that it's being played out in a seemingly unorganized fashion by the Malaysian authorities. That's the difference here. If you go back to TW-800, if you go back to Pan Am -- to Lockerbie, if you go back to --

BANFIELD: To Air France. QUEST: Air France, forgive me, Air France. In all of these cases, there was multiple rumors, was it shot down by a missile? What was happening with the aircraft?

BANFIELD: But, Richard -- Richard, I agree. At least we knew where the bodies were.

QUEST: But that's because we had information. Here, we don't have information. And what the Malaysian authorities are saying is, we don't know because the plane stopped transmitting at this particular point.

BANFIELD: Can I ask you something? Perhaps there is so much leaking information that turns out to be debunked. Is it typical in an investigation that this stuff is kept very close to the vest and you and I would never have been privy to it but for the fact that we have hundreds of thousands of journalists that are trying to ferret out anything they can?

QUEST: No, I think what's typical here is that we have a slightly less experienced investigative body.

BANFIELD: In the Malaysians?

QUEST: Getting to grips with it. But if you look at this picture now, this picture of the press conference is very different from those earlier pictures. It is much more measured. It is less chaotic. The Malaysian authorities are getting their hands around the neck of this investigation. And I think they're doing so with huge assistance from the NTSB and the FAA.

The size and scale of this, you've got the Chinese on one side that's screaming for information. You've got the relatives screaming for information. You've got hundreds of members of the media. If the Malaysians have been deficient in any form, it is in the early stages not getting their hands around the information and starting to process it in what seemed to be a coordinated fashion. But that seems to be changing now, Ashleigh.

BANFIELD: And there may be some diplomatic consternation between a lot of these nations, which could be thwarting the communication.


BANFIELD: Let me take a break.

QUEST: Sure, please.

BANFIELD: Don't go anywhere.


BANFIELD: I've got a lot more questions for you. And one of the questions will revolve around Rolls-Royce, which to many people, when you hear Rolls-Royce, you think la creme de la creme. There could be nothing wrong with something Rolls-Royce. Well, it turns out Rolls- Royce may be very key right now in trying to find out any kind of clue that can lead us any closer to finding those people, that wreckage, that disaster, that missing plane that is just now more than missing, it's a mystery.

When we come back after the break, we're going to talk about the Rolls-Royce connection and how the Americans may know something and whether there is something truly afoot when it comes to information being admitted of a Rolls-Royce engine. That's next.


BANFIELD: We're back covering the mystery of Flight 370. I'm back with Richard Quest, our aviation expert here at CNN. And also I'm joined live from Irvine, California, "Aviation Week" senior editor Guy Norris.

Mr. Norris, thanks for being with us. I'm told you've just had a chance to speak with a source at Rolls-Royce. And as we went to break, I said to our audience that Rolls-Royce may hold key information being the maker of those engines of that 777. What have you - what have you learned?


I've been trying to verify a little bit about what we heard overnight with the idea that the engine was, in fact, continuing to -- both engines were continuing to transmit data down to the ground for an extended period beyond which it originally disappeared from the flight path. So, so far Rolls isn't actually confirming to me any of that. But it, at least, it sort of indicates that perhaps there is something to the reports that we've heard.

BANFIELD: Something to it. Does that square with your contacts you've been talking to at Rolls-Royce, Richard?

QUEST: Well, actually, the opposite. The people -- Guy, the people I've been speaking to, one person quite close to the company specifically says that no data exists and when pushed to shove denies "The Journal's" story. You know as well as I do, Guy, that Rolls is notoriously tricky when it comes to the release of information. So we can't really read too much into that. But it's a very rum business we're in now, isn't it, when we have this very diametrically opposed views on this.

NORRIS: Right. Absolutely. It's the most extraordinary set of circumstances I can certainly remember covering this business for 20- odd years. The curious thing about it to me is that, if this engine data did in fact come down, then there's a sort of certain way that it's transmitted. As you know, Richard, there's -- the engine -- it's like taking the health of a patient really in hospital. It's a -- the system is not meant to prevent a failure, but it's a system that's meant to help engine makers and the airlines predict perhaps a maintenance event or forestall a failure by monitoring the trends that it's showing.

So this data is meant to be a long-term feed, as you know. So what puzzles me is that the engine data also comes down the same pipe as the ACARS data, which we're familiar with. So if the ACARS was suddenly turned off, how is it feasible that engine data could also be coming down?

There is one element which I'm not sure about yet, and bear with me if you will on this, but there's three types of data that I know that the engine uses or that comes through this engine health monitoring system. One is the snapshots which the engine provides on takeoff and at climb and in the cruise.

The second is if something's exceed or gone wrong essentially during the flight, it triggers an immediate sort of temperatures too high or oil pressure's too low. That would also trigger a second set of messages. And the third one is a summary of the entire flight. And obviously that takes place at the end of the flight when it's back on the ground.

And if you imagine that this system transmits via satellite or via VHF radio and it was disabled for some reason, then is it possible that at the end of a flight, say for example the aircraft actually did land somewhere and whoever was commandeering it decided to transmit via VHF, is it feasible that perhaps in that few moments a burst of data from the engine, pent-up information in the summary of the flight, was sent? So I know it's exactly -

BANFIELD: I have a quick question about that.


BANFIELD: It all sounds -- it all sounds so logical. But the two of you are experts and I am not. All I keep thinking is, Richard, if this plane blew up in midair, all of those spectacular data systems, delivery mechanisms that Guy was just talking about, could they still function? Or if this plane hit the Indian Ocean or the Straits of Malacca or the South China Sea or wherever the hell it is, would it also disable all of those miraculous data delivery systems?

QUEST: We need to go back to Air France 447. And the reason we need to do that is because there were 24 of these so-called ACARS messages that were sent from the aircraft while it was in extremist falling out of the sky. So if anything failed, ACARS is sending them out instantaneously. As fast as the computer is generating them, they are being sent out to the airline.

If it's instantaneous, if the thing blows up in the air, then ACARS obviously stops. But even then there may be just one or two. But this is really significant because what's happening here is, And, Guy's absolutely spot-on, if the aircraft stopped transmitting because of a failure of systems, ACARS and the engine systems would have failed too.

BANFIELD: Would have failed, too.

Guy, I need you to do me a favor because, since these pieces of information from come out so fast and so furiously and many of these pieces have been debunked, I want you to repeat for me as succinctly and clearly as possible what your source at Rolls-Royce told you about this " Wall Street Journal" report, and clarify in layman's terms, if you would, what it means.

NORRIS: OK. Well, I mean, very frankly, Rolls wouldn't really comment at all on the veracity of the "Wall Street" story. They basically were saying that at this stage there's nothing more to say. If there was an opportunity to further the story, it could happen later today some time.

But as far as actually confirming or denying anything that was said in that story overnight, they wouldn't talk about that. All that we're doing really, I suppose, is telling you the technology that's in that system and the way that it would normally operate.

BANFIELD: Richard?

QUEST: Guy, I'm not in any shape or form disagreeing or disputing what you said, but I'm going to put the opposite position. One of my sources at -- very close to Rolls-Royce said exactly the opposite, that there is no data. There is no data and that the "Journal" article's wrong.

Now, you pays your money; you takes your choice on this one.

BANFIELD: Sure, but --

QUEST: You absolutely --

BANFIELD: -- I'll tell you something, it fits beautifully with the way the information process has been coming out so far. There have been so many facts and hypotheses that have been negated fairly quickly.

Guy, I need to fit in a quick break, but I do thank you for this.

And, Richard, stay with me, as well, because if the plane kept flying long after disappearing from radar, the search area could stretch to 20 million square miles. And if you think about how big that is, it's almost incomprehensible. How do you find something in an area that big? To say needle in a haystack doesn't even begin to describe it.


BANFIELD: It is possible -- it is possible that Flight 370 could be missing in an area that spans not just thousands but actually millions of square miles. Millions. And after six days of searching for this flight, there are only a couple of things we do know for certain, and that is that the plane's original flight path, we've got that on record.

The time of the last reported radio communication, that's irrefutable, too. And the last point where the plane's transponder was working, we know that for a fact, as well.

But that? That sums it up, three basic pieces of data, and not any of those is enough for us to find these people and find this plane. But there is a new report that's coming from "The Wall Street Journal," troubling at best, suggests that that plane could have actually been flying for four additional hours after its last known contact.

Now, the Malaysian officials are simply saying this is wrong, it's just not true. But we know that the Malaysian officials have been messing a few things up. And if in fact it is true, well, that search area just got a whole lot bigger. In fact, bigger than the United States.

CNN's Tom Foreman joins me now with a live virtual look at the search efforts. Tom, it's very difficult when we see these video reports coming from the scene from high above, a lot of blue waves, to understand the scope of what we're looking at, and your virtual shot may help us understand 20 million square miles.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes. It's a tremendous amount of space. This circle that I'm standing in right now, if you look all the way to the edges of it, this would be the space that would be circumscribed by "The Wall Street Journal" report if it were true stretching from India to Australia. It's just an immense amount of area.

When I was listening to the discussion you were having a short time ago with Richard, I kept thinking to myself if in fact any of that were true, what that really means is this is unsearchable. This is simply too big an area to even contemplate searching because there's so much territory involved.

So, we have to go back, at least for now, until there's some proof of this wild idea. We have to go back as you mentioned a minute ago to what we do know.

Let's go over that again because it's always worth remembering, six days ago the plane took off. We know the plane flew for about 45 minutes somewhere up in here on the way toward Vietnam. And then we know that it vanished.

Since then, we know that a series of search areas have been set up for a variety of reasons. This was the primary search area in the beginning, right here. And this is somewhat manageable because it's not a gigantic area, it's contiguous. This is something that can be searched.

When you say we're going to search on land, too, that brings a whole new set of challenges with it. When you start talking about a different body of water over here in the Malacca Strait, it's a different equation because the water over here is a whole different depth. At least this is a manageable amount.

Right now if you look at 35,000 square miles to be searched here, which is about a quarter of what they had to search for the Air France plane, they had debris there in the first couple of days, they knew where to search. And it still took two years to find it. But this is a smaller area, shallower water. Maybe that helps out. If that "The Wall Street Journal" report were to be true, Ashleigh, then it's completely up for grabs. The chances of finding the plane, I would think, would be incredibly slim, unless you have altitude, direction and time of flight, and I say altitude because, bear in mind, the reason these planes fly at 35,000 square feet, the reason they get up into the stratosphere is because it's much calmer and smoother flying.

When you drop down to where we all live, it gets much rougher and the air is much denser. A plane at 35,000 square -- feet up, will go a lot further with its fuel than a plane down lower. So you have to know all those things to even have a hope of finding where it would go if it continued to go for hours.

BANFIELD: My heart absolutely sank when you started that report with that massive circle that was bigger than the United States of America's land mass and said if this is really the case, then we have a very slim chance of ever finding the resolution to this mystery.

Tom, thank you --

FOREMAN: It's not -- I'll say, Ashleigh, it's not merely bigger than the United States. It's bigger than a multiple of the United States, probably three times as big as the United States, the contiguous states here.

BANFIELD: Very distressing to say the least. I hope we can at least narrow something down in the coming days with information that can help us. And great information about the difference in altitude and what that does to the plane's distance and ability to travel, Tom Foreman, always a remarkable job of bringing it down to something we can understand.

Something that I can't understand is I carry a BlackBerry, and people carry iPhones, and we've put murderers behind bars because of the information in their pockets as they drive around. It's so specific. We can find out where people were in the middle of the night, in the middle of the desert, but we cannot find an airplane with all the technology that we have to track people, to track planes.

What is wrong with this picture? The tracking technology, how is it so deficient? That story, next.