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Search Spans Hemispheres; Inside 777 Cockpit Simulator; Accessing 777 Electronics and Engineering Compartment

Aired March 17, 2014 - 12:00   ET


ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Ashleigh Banfield. It's Monday, March 17th, and welcome to LEGAL VIEW.

Amid the vastness of the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, one key focus remains on a very small window of time. The airline's chief executive now says the flight data communications system known as ACARS may not have been disabled on Flight 370 before the last verbal communication with the crew.

Now why is that important? It just so happens to contradict a government assertion made only yesterday. And it's important because if the pilots had said that a normal good night to Kuala Lumpur actually happened after the ACARS was switched off, it could suggest that they had a deliberate role in whatever happened to that aircraft.

In either case, a U.S. official says the jet climbed to 45,000 feet after ground controllers lost contact. And then it dropped to 23,000 feet before climbing yet again. And as I mentioned, vast. Just look at this. Satellite pings that went on for almost six hours after the plane flew out of range of Malaysian military radar. That shows that it followed one of two enormous arcs to the north as far as Kazakhstan or to the south to the southern Indian Ocean. The satellite station over the middle of the ocean can only judge the angle from which the signals came.

And with that, I turn to some of the best minds in aviation and air investigations. John Lucich joins me here in New York. He's a former commercial pilot, former criminal investigator and founder of the high-tech crime network. And he's seated beside our Richard Quest, who's our aviation expert here at CNN. And then also from Denver, on the left-hand side of your screen, we're joined by former air accident investigator David Soucie.

Gentlemen, bear with me for a moment, if you will, because I want to nail down some key issues about the timeline, the events as we know them. They have changed. They have changed since the beginning, so a reset. It's Monday. Things are new now.

At 12:41 a.m. local time, Flight 370 departs Kuala Lumpur en route to Beijing. That much is the same. At 1:07 a.m., the plane's ACARS system, that's the data transmission system, it transmits for the very last time. But then at 1:19 a.m., someone in the cockpit, believed to be the co-pilot, makes the last verbal contact with air traffic controllers. And he says the words, "all right, good night." Now, nothing out of the ordinary so far. But then at 1:21 a.m., the plane's transponder goes out. Nine minutes later, civilian radar contact is lost and it is never again restored. At 1:37 a.m., another ACARS transmission is due to come in 30 minutes after the last one. But it doesn't. It's silent. At 2:15 a.m., the plane is last detected by Malaysian military radar off the country's west coast, hundreds of miles off course by now. And finally, at 8:11 a.m., that's seven and a half hours after take-off, a commercial satellite makes its last rudimentary connection with Flight 370. This is something that's been called the handshake, the electronic handshake.

First to Richard Quest. What do we make of this brand new series of events?

RICHARD QUEST, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: It's important that we stress what we've done here. We have taken known facts from the press conferences and from statements made by officials, and that's how we've come up with this timeline. And the reason I say it's important that we get -- we understand that, is there may still be discrepancies that will come further down the road. But what we've done is we've listened to the press conferences, we've looked at the statements, and that's the timeline that seems to be the most rigorous understanding of the sequence of events. And the big, new one is this question of the 19 -- the 1:19, the 1:21 and the 1:37.

BANFIELD: And, if I can, Mr. Lucich, help me out. At 1:07, this is the last transmission from ACARS. There's a 30-minute period before the next one is supposed to come in, and it does not. So sometime in that 30-minute period, that's when the transponder is turned off. But effectively we don't know what happened first, right? Something could have happened to ACARS first. The transponder could have happened first. And that is significant, why?

JOHN LUCICH, FORMER CRIMINAL INVESTIGATOR: Well, here's the problem. All of these issues keep conflicting each other. All these reports conflicting each other. The fact that it's been talking to the satellites for seven hours, it's the ACARS system that typically talks to the satellite to send its data back. So what's talking to the satellite if it's not the ACARS system?

Remember in the Air France disaster out of Rio de Janeiro, it was the ACARS system that was sending back the messages as the airplane continued to have mechanical problems.

QUEST: I think - I think I can shed a little bit of light on that, if I may. What we understand is that what the satellite was receiving was not the ACARS messages or system but receiving the antenna being switched off. So it's not connected to the messaging system -

LUCICH: Right.

QUEST: But the satellite is getting -- is basically recognizing that there's an antenna out there that is - that is there (INAUDIBLE) ACARS -

BANFIELD: Let me - let me - LUCICH: But that ACARS system has to be on in order to be able to do that. And now there's reports that say it was turned off. That's what doesn't make sense.

QUEST: Yes (ph).

BANFIELD: So let me get David Soucie in on this from Denver.

If you could help the layperson understand the significance of this, because up until now --


BANFIELD: When we start -- we're learning about a lot of these systems for the first time. And effectively, people were making decisions based on these very technical issues. And it sounds like now everybody's presuming that the pilots had something more to do with this than they thought before might actually now be reversed. Is that the takeaway here?

SOUCIE: Well, that appears to be the way most people are thinking. But I need to point out on the ACARS system, there is actually two parts to that system and they can be separated, isolated. If the ACARS transmission system is separate, which is called the SATCOM (ph), and that board's (ph) also uses VHF, but what we're talking about here on those pings or that last transmission is the SATCOM system attempting to connect, rather than the ACARS system. The SATCOM is part of the ACARS system. It's the communication mechanism to the satellite.

But the ACARS data is stored on the ACARS system and then it is transmitted through the SATCOM. So it's possible there is a separate way to turn off the ACARS without disarming SATCOM, and that's, I believe, the way I interpret this data is that there's two different things going on here.

The fact that the ACARS stopped transmitting between 1:07 and 1:37 is not uncommon. But the fact that it didn't report when it was supposed to, that concerns me a great deal. What I'm confused about is whether or not -- and what I don't know -- is whether the SATCOM tried to communicate at 1:37. If it did and no data came through, that's one scenario. If it didn't, then that's something else, meaning that the SATCOM had been turned off at that point and then was turned on again later on seven or eight hours later.

BANFIELD: I think what so many people agree it that it is highly unlikely that this is just a big coincidence. David Soucie, thank you for your insight. John Lucich, as well. We appreciate that. Richard Quest, stick around, if you will. More questions - more questions than answers for pretty much anyone who's involved in this now mystery. How did both communication systems on board that plane get turned off during this flight, especially within this time line? We're going to take you inside a Boeing 777 simulator. We're going to talk with a pilot who knows that plane like few others know that plane. And by the way, did you know you can reach the belly of the plane from the cabin? I didn't either. We're going to tell you that -- what that's all about in a moment. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BANFIELD: It is hard for anybody who has never had a chance to fly a 777 to comprehend what it would take to make one virtually just disappear. And that's why CNN's Martin Savidge is in the cockpit of a 777 simulator today in Mississauga, Ontario.

Marty, I want you to, if you will, take me through this latest timeline and what it tells us about the notion that we really don't know which systems were turned off first or went out first or what it would take to disable the ACARS and the transponders, if it's difficult, if one pilot could do it without the other pilot knowing. Perhaps the two of you could just walk me through that.

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: All right. Well, let's begin with the fact that you would have been flying about 45 minutes. We're talking about the Malaysian Airline 370. And then that's about the time that they begin to see some of these electronics being shut down.

The ACARS system you mentioned. This is a communication system between the airplane and the ground, the ground and the airplane. It can work in a number of ways. Let's, Mitchell, bring up the text so I can show you here how it would look and let you get a view of this screen. But this is what the ACARS screen looks like. It literally would allow the pilot to send a text message, or the ground to send a text message to him. But at the same time, the system - the airplane is reporting down to the ground.

It would be physically located right here. This simulator doesn't have it, because for the need of simulating flight you don't have to have it. But it would be right here. To disable it, though, there is no on/off switch. That's one of those things that you would have to somehow either pull a fuse or unwire. And that would require going down one level below where we are to get into the electronics bay. So that's the ACARS system.

BANFIELD: Oh, Richard Quest wants to jump in there.

SAVIDGE: The second -

BANFIELD: He's actually - Marty, he's actually finding what you're saying intriguing right now. What do you want to add?

QUEST: Martin, quick question from Quest. You can't disable it, but you can switch off the various VHF or SATCOM or data communication abilities, can't you, from one of the screens?

SAVIDGE: Let's talk to the expert. Mitchell, do you understand the question?

MITCHELL CASADO, PILOT TRAINER, 777 COCKPIT SIMULATOR: Yes. From -- from what I understand -- you're asking if you can disable the VHF and HF communications?

QUEST: No, I'm asking, by going -- my understanding is, by going into the ACARS screens, there are options within the screens where you can switch off VHF, you can switch off SATCOM so you can degrade the level at which ACARS will transmit.

CASADO: Yes, that's absolutely correct. You can do that. You can reduce, but you can't completely eliminate, OK?

QUEST: Right. Now --

CASADO: So this thing has - it's multilayered.

QUEST: Right.

CASADO: And if you want to completely eliminate it, which in this case it seems to what - to be what they did, you would have to get into the avionics (ph) bay there.

QUEST: All right. Now, if you have degraded the level of ACARS transmissions, you've switched off VHF, you've switched off SATCOM, you've switched off the data link, but the satellite will still attempt to connect to the antenna as it's been doing at 1:07, 1:37, on a regular sort of Bluetooth way, discoverable. The plane is still discoverable, but it just doesn't send any data. Is that also in your understanding?

CASADO: That's absolutely correct. Yes. It's still sending a signal -

BANFIELD: So, Mitchell -

CASADO: Even if you reduce --

BANFIELD: Sorry, I don't want to interrupt. I must - I -- my curiosity here is if there are two people sitting in those seats, can one act alone without the other knowing?

CASADO: That's -- no. There's no way.

Both crew -- both these pilots, when you're in the cruise and you're in these seats, you're paying attention to what's going on. You're engaged.

One guy does something -- no one does anything in a cockpit, I don't care how big or small the airplane is, without the other guy knowing.

And it's all about communication. We always verify, right to the smallest detail. I'm going to do this. Verify it. Confirm it.

You don't just go on your own, half the plane is yours, half the plane is mine. It doesn't work like that.

BANFIELD: So it leads us to this notion that, if it can't be done by one pilot and both pilots, if, in fact, one of the theories has these pilots deliberately acting, both would have to act in concert.

How would this have possibly happened, especially with the kinds of security systems we now have in place?

I want the both of you to hold if you would for me, please. When we come back after the break, that very question, the United States had already said that they are looking towards more of the fact that they -- those in the cockpit were possibly responsible for this.

The Malaysians going further, saying apparently a deliberate act by someone onboard, pilot or someone in the cabin, because there is access to the belly of the plane from the cabin.

But does that matter in the scenario we're seeing today? You'll have that answer in a moment.


BANFIELD: As the mystery swirls around Flight 370, the series about what happened or what could have happened to this jet ranged from the logical to the absolutely outlandish.

Whoever or whatever turned off flight 370's tracking system shortly after takeoff may be the key to solving this mystery.

Just how it tough is it to do that? Joining me about the technology onboard the aircraft is CNN's aviation correspondent, Richard Quest, and he's joined, as well, by Les Abend, a 777 captain with nearly 18,000 hours in the cockpit.

Captain Abend, I wanted to ask you, I heard you on our morning show this morning, "NEW DAY," suggest there is this access through the cabin to the belly, the guts of the plane, that you had actually seen. You had had a chance to see in your career that many 777 pilots actually had not.

Can you expand on that and tell me a little bit more what that is and how one gets to it and help me, Captain Abend, understand that?

LES ABEND, 777 PILOT: It's called the E-and-E compartment.


ABEND: It's electronics and engineering compartment, and it basically is the guts of the airplane. This goes back to the days of the 707, this particular compartment.

There's one there. There's also one in the tail of the airplane that's not accessible in flight.

This one's accessible in flight. You can pull the carpet out. It's an operation to get to it. It really takes a lot of knowledge, not only to access it, let alone to know what's down there.

BANFIELD: As a 777 captain, could you access it yourself or did --


BANFIELD: -- someone have to open it for you?

You can do it.

ABEND: I could do it myself.

BANFIELD: So presumably this captain could as well.

ABEND: He could, but we're trained to fly airplanes and to go from Point A to Point B, and the bottom line is there's some stuff down there that one checklist may take us to, but it's a real mystery.

This is an electronic airplane that has all sorts of controls. We wouldn't know each little -- each box that's down there.

BANFIELD: But this -- and I don't want to suggest for a moment until we know the facts of what happened -- but since the Americans and the Malaysians have come out saying that we're now looking more towards those in the cockpit being responsible for this and deliberate action taken by someone on board, Richard, weigh in on this.

If there was -- if there were perhaps a co-pilot or a captain that had an intentional, nefarious plan that was able to, say, disable his partner and then access that, is there something they could have done that would make all of this make sense?

QUEST: No. Well, yeah, you have a possible -- yes. But you're talking about -- it's like you going into a computer room. What you're talking about this, this area under the flight deck, is the computer guts of the plane.

It's not that sort of -- it's not like -- there is so much technology, so much wiring, so much sophisticated -- if I understand you correctly, that, you know, you --

BANFIELD: Not like he'd know what he was doing.

ABEND: Even the engineers that designed the airplane, I'm not so sure they're -- they're going to have to go to their own schematics to determine --

QUEST: It's not like it's a single computer.

BANFIELD: I hear you. I hear you, but then I hear this morning that this particular pilot had a flight simulator in his home and was known for being, so to speak, an aeronautics geek who could not get enough of this kind of technology.

ABEND: My wife and I own a little airplane. I do busman's holidays. I love, still, flying airplanes.

So this was the same thing. In Malaysia, there's a good chance that flying airplanes at the level that I am able to do here in the states is just not -- it's just too cost prohibitive. So this was his way of enjoying aviation on his own.

BANFIELD: So we shouldn't think anything --

ABEND: No. Absolutely not.

BANFIELD: Because it does spark a lot of memories from the flight simulation courses that the 9/11 pilots took, et cetera, and people get very nervous when they hear that someone's got one in his home. You're saying it's perfectly all right.

ABEND: Why would a professional flight crew and a captain with a lot of time and many years supposedly with this -- with Malaysia, why would he even consider, you know, doing something nefarious when he could do it on the airplane or in the simulator when he goes to training? It just -- it doesn't make sense to us as professionals.

BANFIELD: So much of this doesn't make sense to any of us as laypeople either.

Last thought?

QUEST: I've got a question for you, Captain.

BANFIELD: Just quickly.

QUEST: Every pilot is talking about this at the moment, aren't they? This is the big talking appointment in the industry.

ABEND: It's a big point, yeah. It is. It's very -- these are one of our colleagues that we've lost, and we need the answers.

We really need to -- not only for these four grieving people, we need answers for them. That's what's the most important thing, but we need answers to find out what -- how do we prevent this from ever happening again, whatever it is that occurred.

BANFIELD: It's such a great point, Richard, that you just brought up, because I tell you, every time I hear a whiplash judgment from a country or from an analyst from someone in the know that suggests it's nefarious, it's accidental, it's mechanical, it's deliberate, I grieve for the families of those pilots, as well.

Because if they have nothing to do with any of this, and they have been, you know, excoriated worldwide for what they possibly may have done, we are all going to feel horrified at the possibility we thought that they -- and I can't imagine you as a pilot being that these are your colleagues and you could be in the same boat. Theoretically you could be in the same boat.

Les Abend, thank you. It's good to have you on. Your expertise has been very helpful. And, Richard Quest, as always, stay? Can you stay?

QUEST: I'm here.

BANFIELD: You're the expert. Just so many questions, like how far would that plane have actually been able to fly after the communications were turned off?

How much fuel did that plane have on board? If it flew high, if it flew low, how far could it go? There are so many possibilities.

We're going to lay out some of them, ahead.

And then, what do you do when an earthquake hits in the middle of your newscast?

That's what these people did. The alarm bells rang. They ducked for cover. Find out about what happened in Los Angeles in a moment.