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New Data Corroborate Westward Veer; Thai Military Says Its Radar Tracked Flight 370; Pilot Background Checks

Aired March 18, 2014 - 12:00   ET



A week and a half into an aviation mystery that none of us will ever forget. A second country is now coming forward with radar data on Malaysian's airline Flight 370. It's the Royal Thai Air Force now weighing in saying that it too tracked the Boeing 777 through normal channels until roughly 40 minutes after that flight took off and then disappeared from civilian radar. And that jives with the timeline that we've been hearing for days from Malaysia.

But six minutes later, Thailand's military radar picked up a plane that - that might have -- might have been Flight 370, except it was going in the opposite direction. Now that too is more or less consistent with what we think we know at this point. But it still leaves us with this, two potential flight paths covering two and a quarter million square nautical miles, an area almost as big as the continental United States.

"The New York Times" is today reporting that there was a change of course programmed into the jet's navigation system. And more to the point, this information was sent to controllers by that ACARS system. That's the flight data communications system you've been hearing so much about. ACARS' last full transmission before it was disabled was at 1:07 a.m., 12 minutes before the co-pilot's routine "all right, good night" to the Malaysian air traffic controllers.

So how do these events and when they occurred actually help us understand anything about what happened? Do they help at all? Les Abend joins me now again here in New York. He's a 777 pilot and a contributing editor at "Flying" magazine. From Mississauga, Ontario, we welcome again CNN's Martin Savidge and flight instructor Mitchell Casado in the cockpit of a 777 simulator.

So, Marty, I'm going ask you and Mitch, if you would, walk me through this step by step on how you reprogram a flight as "The New York Times" is suggesting happened and how one extra waypoint is entered in with the gear that you have in front of you.

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Sure. OK. That's what's so beautiful about having access to this simulator. It's a great way to show and tell.

This is the Flight Management System, FMS. It is the latest focus right now as you described of "The New York Times." A lot of ways to describe this thing. I guess you could say it's the brain of the plane. It does a number of functions that really assist the pilot and co-pilot with the aircraft.

But I think the primary purpose here is navigation right now. And think of it as just a GPS on steroids. You know, just like in your car, you would program before you go somewhere. Before we take off, or before 370 took off, you would preprogram it to take you from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. However, once you're in the air, it is possible to change the course, change the direction of the aircraft. Pretty simply, Mitchell, if you would, just demonstrate how it's done.


So, this is our aircraft here. This magenta line is our track. That's on the way to Beijing, you can think of it that way. All we have to do is punch in the waypoint that we want to go to, where we want to go. So I'm going to use this little keypad here, just like you have at home on your computer. And it's just a matter of punching in a few keys and entering it into the computer. And it asks you if that's what you want to do. It shows a little white line here, just to verify. OK, we want to do it. And once you execute it, you can see outside the airplane is now turning to the left, and what did that take, 15 seconds?


CASADO: So, very, very easy (ph).

SAVIDGE: What we should point out, Ashleigh, is that, you know, this turn is not - I mean it's a major course deviation, but to the passengers it wouldn't feel really that different. I mean you wouldn't know, I wouldn't know if this was just a normal part of flying the aircraft.

BANFIELD: But, Mitch, when you did that, it looked as though there had to be two people in that cockpit aware of what was going on. So if there was a change of course, it's not something you can really do surreptitiously, is it?

CASADO: No, it's not. It's something -- any change of course, altitude or flight level, as we refer to it, it has to be verified. So with that line, that white line that I showed you there, when we verify, I would say to the other pilot, left turn to a heading of whatever, verify, and he would say confirm. And that's when I would enter that key.

SAVIDGE: So that's normal procedure.


SAVIDGE: I mean it would have been possible that one person could have done this?

CASADO: One person could have done it. It's just not normal for that to happen. So it depends on the context.

SAVIDGE: Yes. BANFIELD: Mitchell, the other question -- maybe you and Marty could let me know about. The reason that this is sort of relatively easy is because, on occasion, pilots are encountering turbulent air and weather and they have to change course. This is the reason, typically, for these changes midair. So it's not necessarily that this course was altered nefariously. That there was some malicious intent. Or is there something else to the waypoint do we even know about that was added that just makes no sense at all?

CASADO: That's correct. Yes. If there was a mechanical malfunction or if there was a weather problem. I heard there was no weather issue, so must have been mechanical if there was something to do with the airplane. Yes, sure, that's why it's so easy to do. But, you know, it still requires some basic knowledge of how to use that system. You still have to be familiar with the FMS. And that's something that only pilots are trained to do.

SAVIDGE: And we also discussed the fact that it could depend on the kind of emergency. It also may be the policy of a particular airline -


SAVIDGE: As to whether you would use the automatic pilot in a sense to make this adjustment or whether you would immediately take manual control of the aircraft. You know, again, a lot of things we just don't know.


So Les Abend is here.

And, Captain Abend, I'm sure that that looks extraordinarily familiar to you as you look at where Marty and Mitchell are sitting. It doesn't make sense to me as a novice here that anybody would have some kind of a nefarious plan to hijack or to take a plane off course for bad reasons and then actually fly established routes and established waypoints. I mean if that's your intention, why are you following the super highways everyone else is on?

LES ABEND, 777 PILOT: Well, I don't think -- it's not necessarily following the super highways. There's just one waypoint that if the information is correct that was entered, OK? And if I had, as I've asserted before, if I had an emergency situation that I knew -- or some sort of abnormality that compelled me to want to return to base, I would want to enter in that airport or a diversionary airport. So it may have just been one point which, if it was an airport, it would have been four -- a four-letter identifier is what we call it and it would have headed right for the airport and it would have been, just as they demonstrated there, a direct point.

BANFIELD: And as "The New York Times" reports, the waypoint that was added in was so far off course from the planned route to Beijing. What does that tell you?

ABEND: That tells me that they were considering another diversion or they were possibly -- they might have entered their original -- the departure airport, Kuala Lumpur. It's hard to say. I mean apparently the information only indicates how many key strokes.

BANFIELD: Mitchell, can you just come back on camera for a bit with Martin Savidge in the simulator for a moment? You know what, as I understand it, and correct me if I'm wrong, this is a fairly simple code that you have to type in. It's about five or six numbers in order to change the course or to add the waypoint. Is it easy to just make a mistake? Is it possible that this was just a stupid mistake and there were sleepy pilots, didn't notice that the plane was banking gently and on its way somewhere else?

CASADO: If it was a mistake, I'm sure the air traffic controllers would have come on and challenged the crew and said to the crew, hey, you're deviating, you know, wake up. And it would have been corrected that easily. I don't think they would have made that mistake, so basic to begin with. But if they did, there would have been some protection there.

ABEND: Yes, but -


CASADO: And to talk on the waypoint. I mean the waypoints, maybe - I mean the reason it's so far off course, what that says is that they were no longer concerned with Beijing. Whether that was because there was something more pressing or because they were - they had a different objective, I don't know. But they were no longer concerned with Beijing.

ABEND: That's correct (ph).

BANFIELD: And Captain Abend is nodding his head in agreement with you.

ABEND: But the assertion about air traffic control getting ahold of you, noticing that you're putting in a different course. If that indeed would happen, if they were in a radar environment. But from what I can tell, they were in a non-radar environment. So they would -- air traffic control would have no way of knowing that that course was entered.

We have a very specific procedure at my airline that when anything is changed in that computer, as it's probably trained here, that we -- we verify it. How does that look? And then you hit the execute button.

BANFIELD: It is so helpful to be able to see what you're talking about with Martin and with Mitchell.

Mitchell Casado and Martin Savidge, thank you for that. And thank you for walking us through it once again. They've been doing some stellar work, just outside of Mississauga in Ontario, Canada. That's an excellent way to try to illustrate what at least we know at this point.

And we do have some other news that's breaking at this hour as well. A news helicopter - or - yes, it's a news helicopter, as we're being told now, it's gone down in Seattle, very close to the location of the Space Needle. Two people on board that chopper are reportedly dead. A third person who was on the ground has been rushed to the hospital in critical condition. That man was in one of the several vehicles. Not sure about the ones that you just saw on your screen.

But several vehicles were damaged and burned in this air disaster. Apparently the chopper coming directly down on some of those vehicles. The chopper belonged to the station KOMO where it was apparently en route to land. So, there you go. A very sad story in Seattle near the famed Space Needle. Two people dead on a news helicopter.

And as we continue to follow this air mystery in Southeast Asia, what is this new information that we're getting about the military radar in Thailand, apparently picking up Flight 370. And here we are, 11 days later, just learning about it. What does it mean for the search? Does it narrow those millions of miles that we are now looking for all of those people on board that plane? Going to dig deeper into that in just a moment.


BANFIELD: Welcome back. I'm Ashleigh Banfield.

We're digging deeper into this new radar data that has come from Thailand. Yes, it is day 11 and we're getting new radar data. And it could actually impact the search for the missing Flight 370. Thailand's military radar may have detected this jet after it went off its original flight plan from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing back on March 8th.

At 1:22 a.m., Flight 370 was heading northeast. That was the plan. But then it vanished from Thai radar. A Thai military official tells CNN that six minutes later, radar picked up an unknown signal at 1:28 a.m. and that could have been Flight 370. But this time, it was heading southwest.

This does support what we already knew, that that plane had diverted from its northeast path to Beijing, taking a very sharp left turn and heading southwest in the direction towards the Indian Ocean. But after that, it's all a mystery. And, sadly, it seems to just remain a mystery day after day.

And joining me to talk about how this new radar data may help to unravel the mystery, this Boeing 777 pilot knows a lot. Les Abend has been helping us navigate through this.

First off, and I don't know if you can answer this or not, but it is in my craw. Why on day 11 are we only just learning about radar information from the Thai military? Where were they when we could have perhaps used this a lot earlier?

ABEND: That's -- that's a good - good question. I go back to the theory that an airplane crash is overwhelming. Even for people here in the states. I've been involved in one. And the data, the information from an airplane that actually exists for you to examine is overwhelming. They may be getting so much data, so much information, they don't know what to withhold and what to release. BANFIELD: Captain Abend, fishermen who don't speak the dialects or the languages are calling in, thinking they have spotted oil slicks and suitcases.

We can't have the Thai military weigh in to it a global crisis where we have international -- we've got I think 20-odd countries searching for this flight and the Thai military is only now suggesting we might have a piece of information? It just defies logic to me.

ABEND: I'm with you on it. It's frustrating. I don't get it.

BANFIELD: Does it change anything?

ABEND: It doesn't change anything in my viewpoint. I'm thinking we're dealing with a professional flight crew that had a problem. What that problem was, it's pure conjecture on my part.

BANFIELD: I want to also bring in another expert voice on this. Glenn Schoen is an aviation security expert. He's joining us overseas right now.

I hope you can hear me OK. You're live in Holland, as I understand it. This is the topic we're trying to make sense of today, that the Thai military radar positioning has now weighed in that it actually had a beat on this missing plane.

But does it make a difference to the search area that just by the day seems to expand larger and larger and almost impossibly so?

GLENN SCHOEN, AVIATION SECURITY EXPERT: Well, it may mean we're going to stack up more resources to look at those areas west of the original flight path, as opposed to still putting some emphasis on other areas, as well.

What's unfortunate is indeed that it has taken so long for this information to come out. To the extent that it strengthens at least the concern of a hijacking or some type of takeover or catastrophic event, of course, we wish we would have had this sooner.

So bringing assets to bear, accelerating the search, but also expanding on the potential scenarios that we're now looking at that are being stacked up in order to find a resolution to the incident could have happened a lot sooner.

BANFIELD: Mr. Schoen, it makes me wonder, because it's not the first time I've had this conversation in the last 11 days.

There have been dribs and drabs of what seems to the layperson critical information coming out much later than programs it should have. And it makes me wonder, am I going to hear something new tomorrow from another nation? Or perhaps a week or a year from now? And why on Earth would that be?

SCHOEN: Well, unfortunately, I think you're correct. I mean, this may dribble out over some time until we have the final evidence. What it does mean, I think, is that a couple of scenario investigations are probably going to accelerate now.

That's not only the focus on what we know about the aircraft and the people aboard, but also on the cargo loads going back to checking was it possible that somebody smuggled something on board that shouldn't have been? Is it possible somehow perhaps that there was a stowaway on board this aircraft?

But also, I think, looking ahead, we're going to be looking at an investigative component, looking for is there possible connection to information on the ground.

In other words, is there indications that members of an extremist group somewhere might have been waiting or preparing for an aircraft to land, maybe have purchased an old airstrip, perhaps prepositioning people in a particular area? I think that process will start to accelerate now at increased speed.

BANFIELD: And I think that is a grave fear that many have held in the back of their mind and hoped it would stay in the back of their mind, that this is somehow, you know, a group amassing a fleet, or perhaps at least amassing a lot of hostages, God forbid.

Glenn Schoen, stay with us, if you would, and Les Abend. I've got a couple other topics I would love you to weigh in on.

As investigators key in on those pilots of the missing plane, it certainly does raise a lot of questions for people flying in the back. Who is flying the plane? Who is at the yolk? How have they been vetted? Do we really know who they are? How much can we know? What about the security of the men and women who have your life in their hands? That's coming up.


BANFIELD: Do you recall this story where a captain on board a JetBlue airways flight absolutely lost it back in 2012?

He started running through the cabin and yelling something about religion and terrorism. Just minutes before he had been at the controls of this flight, and it had taken off from New York bound for Las Vegas. He was subdued, passengers and crew all weighing in on that, and he was arrested and taken off that aircraft once they got on the ground.

But the video got us thinking about what we know about our pilots. What kind of training, what kind of vetting, what kind of threat they could pose to our safety when we are on board in mid-air?

When it comes to Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, the pilot and co-pilot are right now a very key focus in this investigation. The experts say their performance records and psychological evaluations will be part of the official investigation if it isn't already.

But no evidence, and let me be clear, no evidence has turned up so far on these pilots to suggest any wrongdoing. I'm joined now by Richard Quest, aviation expert here at CNN, as well as 777 pilot and contributing editor for "Flying" magazine, Les Abend, and aviation and security expert, Glenn Schoen.

Mr. Schoen, I want to come back to you on this issue of how well we know our pilots and how well we keep our flying public safe and secure from those we know have taken over the controls of planes and done terrible things, whether they be the terrorists of 9/11, who became pilots, or whether they be suicide murderers who deliberately, twice in '97 and '99, took the yoke and just went right into the ocean carrying everybody on board with them.

How do we know who these people are?

SCHOEN: Well, you have to think of it as a long chain of an effort, so it goes from pre-employment screening to in employment screening.

And, obviously, different countries maintain different levels of effort, but you're looking at checking a person's not just their own behavior, their own track record, what's known to authorities, but also sets of interviews.

So you're looking at personal data. You're looking at colleagues being able to look at people's behavior. You're looking at physical and health exams, psychological exams.

And, also, there's a backstop here in terms of police and intelligence agencies who are checking, essentially keeping out a radar for what names are popping up, do we see anybody whose background suddenly raises suspicions because of their connection to a certain person or because of things they're doing?

So, things like monitoring social media behavior of people who might come under scrutiny can be an added layer of checks. Think of people who suddenly have a high gambling debt or might become addicted to drugs.

So, there's a lot of safety checks in this system. The big challenge is now that some airlines and some countries have basically a stricter regime than elsewhere, and there's a lot of discrepancies in that still. That's a big concern.

BANFIELD: Want to get Captain Abend to weigh in on this.

After 9/11, I worried deeply that there could be sleeper cells out there, amassing hours, so that, ultimately, in their flying career they could get a hold of the controls of large aircraft like these. Is that so implausible?

ABEND: Not anymore. It requires quite a vetting process for anybody that's not domestic resident in the United States to get that kind of training in airline-type equipment, you know, that could do any sort of destruction that is similar to 9/11.

I mean, we're dealing -- you're dealing with a group -- of course, I'm going to be biased, but you're dealing with a very professional, high- caliber, mostly intelligent people, a-types that deal with stress situations to the nth degree. And every profession is going to have an issue or two.

BANFIELD: I worry only -- look, in al Qaeda's leadership, the second- in-command to Osama bin Laden is a doctor, a medical doctor, which is a very pristine profession, and that is a cadre of professionals who would never for a moment think they could have one of their own perpetrate one of the worst terror attacks in the world.

Richard, one of the things I heard this morning from this "New York Times" report that I found deeply distressing was that the Malaysians are not sharing the access to the flight simulator that was found in this pilot's home.

Why are the Americans not getting access when perhaps this nation has some of the best anti terror experts known around the world who could really lend a hand in finding out what's afoot?

RICHARD QUEST, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: First, we don't know that's true. It's reported.

Secondly, the Malaysians have already said on several occasions that they are now going above and beyond anything they have done before.

The prime minister and the minister both said that the national security is not an issue, and they will do whatever is necessary. So, there's no indication yet that a failure to give access to this simulator, if that's what's happening, is relevant.

There may be one or two U.S. intelligence officials who are trouble making, who are deciding to stir the pot a bit and say they're not getting what they need, but we do know that the Malaysians are now providing the necessary information.

Now, are you suggesting for a moment, because if you are I don't think it would hold water, that the Malaysians should basically say to every country that comes along, Have a look at our military radar?

You want to go into that place? No problem. We'll hand over all of the details of what we've got.

Why? Because no other country would do it, too.


QUEST: And I promise you this. If it was a U.S. carrier and another nation was making the same allegations, the U.S. wouldn't hand over the information either.

BANFIELD: Well, they might give the access to the simulator. That's all I think. Clearly, they've got the experts.

I just want -- our satellite window is going down with Glenn Schoen. I just wanted to say goodbye and thank you to Glenn Schoen, our expert who had lent a wonderful piece of insight to this story.

But carry on.

QUEST: I want to just back to this idea of the psyche in the pilots.