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Profiling Airline Pilots; Search Area Now 2.2 Million Square Nautical Miles; Pilot's Politics Questioned; Hunger Strike Threatened

Aired March 18, 2014 - 12:30   ET


ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: 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.

RICHARD QUEST, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: I want to just go back to this idea of the psyche of the pilots. First of all, you have an A- type, as you said. They can be an -- I always say, all right, you want a little secret? The most difficult people to interview as a television presenter in the world are surgeons and pilots.


QUEST: Because they have got people's lives in their hands on a daily basis. And they don't care, really, about necessarily how they will answer the question. They'll give you an honest, straightforward answer. And they are difficult. They can be truculent sometimes. They can be awkward to interview.

But here's the point. They are amongst the most highly qualified people on this planet, because they have people's lives in their hands, and they are aware of that fact. Now, every now and again, one is going to go rogue. Every so many years, there's going to be an incident, such as the JetBlue.


QUEST: EgyptAir, JetBlue, SilkAir.

BANFIELD: SilkAir in Indonesia.

QUEST: There are tens -

BANFIELD : These were murder-suicides.

QUEST: But there are tens of thousands of pilots in the world, hundreds of thousand. You're not saying -- you cannot, must not, because otherwise you'll start a witch hunt. You'll have Les looking at his co-pilots -- oh, he did this. And you'll have his co-pilot saying, Hey, Les was 10 minutes late for the flight. What's going on? Marital problems, drinking problems? That's what you'll end up with in that culture.

BANFIELD: Is that such a bad thing? I hate to even ask that, but is that such a bad thing that you police each other?

LES ABEND, 777 PILOT: We do police each other. You know, what do you do when you spend anywhere from six to 14 hours in a cockpit.

We talk about our families, things that you folks talk about here, you know, so we get to know a person -- especially when we fly with them on a frequent basis. We get to know that individual, and if something is going wrong with their life.

And I can guarantee you that, you know, my particular airline at this point has 85 people -- 8,500 people on the seniority list, not including -- but these are wonderful -- they're wonderful people.

BANFIELD: Last quick comment.

QUEST: But what's your threshold for when you would make an anonymous report about a fellow person in the cockpit?

BANFIELD: Good one. What's that?

ABEND: My threshold is if their job performance is being affected. Something is not -- they're having a bad day when they don't consistently have a bad day.

BANFIELD: Not just on job performance, suspicion of something else.

ABEND: If there's anything -- but I've never had occasion to, so it's sort of a moot point for me.

BANFIELD: You know, Captain Abend, you've just been terrific. I appreciate everything you've had to say. You've been very frank, and obviously, this is difficult because this involves your people.

And they involve all our people. We are all passengers, and we are all in this together trying to figure out the answer.

ABEND: You're the most important people to us. You really are.

BANFIELD: Thank you.

And Richard Quest, of course, appreciate your insight too.

The searchers are now, if you can believe it, it's hard to even say this number. It just doesn't seem real or possible. They're covering more than 2 million square nautical miles. That is an area roughly the size of the continental United States. Try that with a fine-tooth comb, see how far you get.

We're going to give you some detailed information on just how this search is breaking down, what the quadrants are, who the nations are, and where they're actually searching, and if they're coming up with anything.


BANFIELD: This is just a staggering fact. The search area for the missing plane is now at more than 2.2 million square nautical miles. Sit on that for a moment. The Malaysian authorities are saying today this is being broken down into northern and southern corridors with different countries taking the lead in these different areas.

Australia, for instance, they're taking the lead in the southern search, being helped along by their next door neighbor, Indonesia. And Australia officials actually released their planned search area for today. It is off the coast, fittingly, that west coast of Australia and northward.

And officials are saying they were able to narrow this down because they were working with the NTSB in the United States.

And Tom Foreman joins me live now in our virtual room. Tom, it is -- it just defies logic when you hear 2.2 million nautical square miles. I don't even know how you begin, but somehow they're doing it.

How are they doing it?

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I'll tell you something. This is the big map of the area if you want to look and see the big players that are involved here.

You mentioned Indonesian and Australia, yes, of course. In the north, Kazakhstan and China are big players up there.

But think about the small area that we started with. We started off with this plane taking off, flying less than an hour, coming up here and disappearing. We've talked about it many times, and steadily, it has spread out from there.

You mentioned the nautical miles. Let me put it in land miles. This is around 3 million square land miles when you talk about all the space involved, including these big arcs that were described in these satellite readings, one of which you'll notice goes off the coast of Australia, so that's one of the reasons they're searching there.

Meanwhile, other parts of it, which are considered less likely, head up into Asia, past Thailand, where today we had reports of their radar apparently saw the plane turning, heading towards the Straits of Malacca, and then on up to Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, other places that seem a little bit less likely.

But part of what's coming out of this, Ashleigh, because of all this confusion, are more and more of these theories that just seem more outlandish, but they're living because what else can people do right now, including the investigators, except look at all possibilities.

One which has drawn a lot of attention is the idea that somehow the plane hid in plain sight, that it turned off all of its radar gear, then slipped in behind another airline that was flying along with all of its gear operating.

And this plane didn't know this plane was here, because it was sending those signals, the radar didn't know it and they basically became a single spot on the radar that nobody noticed going by. Could it happen? Be hard to pull off, but everything right now is a mystery and it all seems improbable, at best.


BANFIELD: I think a better word is freakish. All of it just seems freakish, flying in the night behind, in the contrails of another jet, and it doesn't match the m.o. of any other kind of nefarious behavior that pilots have actually perpetrated.

Tom, thank you, as always --

FOREMAN: You're welcome.

BANFIELD: -- excellent, excellent visuals to help us get through this.

Investigators now looking into the pilot of the Malaysian airliner, what are they learning about him? We've had a chance to learn some things about him. We've talked with a political leader and a fellow pilot who knew him. And you're going to hear what they had to say, next.


BANFIELD: In the mystery of Flight 370, investigators said just this morning that they still believe this was a deliberate action, whether or not it was intentional or under duress, that somebody actually did something to cause this plane to go away.

That keeps the spotlight on the pilot and the co-pilot in this story. And Kyung Lah right now has a closer look at this pilot.


KYUNG LAH , CNN CORRESPONDENT: The investigation continues to zero in on the two men in the cockpit, and particularly the most skilled pilot, the captain, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, so passionate about flying that he's what's known as a "home-simmer."

He built his own flight simulator, as seen in this YouTube video, and he talked about it online, writing on a flight-simulator chat site, looking for buddies to share this passion. Curiously, Captain Zaharie also posted a series of do-it-yourself videos, like how to repair an ice maker.

Malaysian investigators are now combing through every part of the pilot's home and his life. This YouTube video shows him as a loving father of three, but he was also active in Malaysia's volatile politics. Captain Zaharie was a public supporter of opposition party leader Anwar Ibrahim and a thorn in the ruling party's side, a political party in control for over 50 years Zaharie attended Anwar's pro- democracy rallies and meetings. He even wore a "Democracy Is Dead" T- shirt, denouncing the one-party rule in Malaysia.

For the first time, Anwar tells CNN that he did, in fact, know the pilot of the missing plane.

LAH (on camera): Can you describe how you know the pilot?

ANWAR IBRAHIM, OPPOSITION PARTY LEADER: Well, he has attended some of the, I think, party meetings. And I confirm only afterwards whether he is a card-carrying member of the party.

LAH (voice-over): Why is that important? Because just hours before Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 took off, a court of appeals ordered Anwar to prison on charges of sodomy, reversing the not guilty decision of a lower court. Anwar says the sentence is a political vendetta. Local press now asking, did Zaharie purposely down the plane to make a political statement.

LAH (on camera): Is it possible that a supporter of yours would be willing to take this step in order to make a political statement on the global stage?

IBRAHIM: It cannot be conjecture. It's grossly unfair to him and his family. I'm open for a full investigation. I mean they could investigate. There was nothing of that sort.

LAH (voice-over): Anwar says his political opponents are feeding that narrative to reporters.

IBRAHIM: In order to deflect that, their own failure, their own incompetence, they now choose to attack me.

LAH (on camera): Just to throw off the scent.

IBRAHIM: Yes. I think there's a desperation of the (INAUDIBLE) government, of the ruling leadership, particularly the (INAUDIBLE), for the manner they managed the whole crisis. Clearly incompetent. Contradictory statements, poor management of the crisis.

LAH (voice-over): But so far there is no evidence to tie the plane's disappearance to the pilot or his politics. We could not reach the Malaysian government for comment on this.

HISHAMMUDDIN HUSSEIN, MALAYSIAN ACTING MINISTER OF TRANSPORTATION: The fact that there are no distress signals, no ransom notes, there are no parties claiming to be responsible, there's always hope.

LAH: The transport minister did acknowledge that the captain and co- pilot did not ask to fly together, and that investigators are looking into pilot suicide as a possible cause. Officials also say it was the co-pilot, not the captain, who gave the plane's last verbal message, "all right, good night." LAH (on camera): Anwar stresses that his is not a fringe party. It's a mainstream political party with a number of seats in the government. He also stresses that many Malaysians support him.

Kyung Lah, CNN, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysian.


BANFIELD: It's been 11 days since Flight 370 disappeared and that has been 11 agonizing days for those who are most closely connected to this, the families of the missing. We're going to tell you how they're coping, what they've been doing. As we all think this is a mystery, for these people this is already a tragedy.


BANFIELD: Say what you will about this mystery. No one can begin to imagine the pure agony that the family members of the passengers of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 are going through right now. And what makes matters worse, it's not just the waiting, it's all that misinformation that they've been given.

One hundred and fifty-three passengers on board that plane came from China or Hong Kong. And Chinese families are so furious right now that they're threatening to go on a hunger strike until the Malaysian government tells them what they're asking for, the truth. After a briefing by airline officials at a hotel in Beijing today, this woman held up this sign. And if you want it translated, it literally says, "hunger strike protest, respect life, return my relative. Don't want to become a victim of politics. Tell the truth."

Our Will Ripley is live in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

This is so heartbreaking to see this and hearing that these family members want a hunger strike. What are they doing? Is there one central location where families are gathering? Have they been home in the last 11 days? What's the status of these people?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, we know all of those Chinese families are staying at a hotel in Beijing. Malaysian Airlines is picking up the tab for that. But they are very, very frustrated, grief-stricken. This is an agonizing time for them. And there's also a sliver of hope for a lot of these families, holding on to the very slim possibility that perhaps, perhaps their loved ones' plane landed safely somewhere, even though nobody made a phone call, nobody was able to send out any kind of message.

And because there's so much uncertainty and there's so much that they just don't know, it makes this process that much more painful. Add to the fact that the Chinese media just came out with a report blasting the Malaysian government for their lack of transparency, claiming that politics were playing a role in the lack of information. We spoke with a Chinese mother who talked about that and talked about all the pain that she's going through right now.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): We only have one child. We are respectful Chinese people. It's hard to control your emotions when you might have lost your loved ones. We just need the truth. Don't use them as political pawns.


RIPLEY: And you can hear the grief in her voice. And you heard her talk about China's policy, one child per family. Think about this country, where families -- most families only have one child, and that child is responsible for supporting their parents as they get older. So we have many more victims than just the two-thirds of the passengers on Flight 370 who are from China. The other victims are their families who rely on their children, many of them, as they get older for support. So just a very painful, terrible ordeal for these people right now, Ashleigh, and really no end in sight.

BANFIELD: It's just heart wrenching to hear their voices. And this has been going on and on.

Will, are they getting regular, daily updates? Do they have some structure, at least, that they can rely on, on a day to day, you know -- just because everything else is so confusing in their lives, are they at least being looked after in that respect?

RIPLEY: There are daily briefings, but the briefings are at times frustrating because Malaysian Airlines and the Malaysian government are really being blasted for not releasing information quickly, and not being fully transparent when they know things, not telling people. So there are briefings happening in Beijing. There are briefings happening here at this hotel in Kuala Lumpur.

And so, you know, basically, what's happening at these briefings is, we're getting a list of what's already been said for days and days on end right now. And that is what is so difficult because -- and, in fact, even today, the Malaysian -- the Malaysian Airlines president said, look, we're not trying to be secretive, but we are working right now with a number of different countries, 26 different countries, sharing information, sharing radar, sharing satellite data.

There's an international investigative team. And all of these parts have to come together. We have to corroborate the information before we can release it. So they're saying that's why we're not learning as much as we'd like to hear. But you'd imagine, Ashleigh, just how frustrating it is for these families who just want any answers and feel they're not getting them.

BANFIELD: I'll be honest with you, I can't. I can't imagine anything -- I've never been able to imagine what crash victims' family members go through -

RIPLEY: Me neither (ph).

BANFIELD: Even when there's wreckage that they - that they can sort through for answers. But this is just -- it's awful.

Will, great job. Thank you for that. Will Ripley live for us in Kuala Lumpur.

We are also working on another big story at CNN. You've been watching it too, this showdown between Russia and the Ukraine. We've got a big development today. Mass arrests of soldiers and now one dead soldier, another injured soldier. And a grave concern that this may be the beginning of something very serious. Back in a moment.


BANFIELD: So we've got this news just into CNN from Ukraine. A military spokesman says that a Ukrainian naval officer was killed today by armed and masked fighters in Crimea and a second officer has apparently been wounded. That spokesperson goes on further to say that all Ukrainian troops at a base near the Crimean capital have now been placed under arrest and that documents have been seized by pro-Russian fighters.

Hours earlier than this, in Moscow, here he was, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, signing papers annexing Crimea just two days after that heavily Russian enclave voted to secede from Ukraine. We'll continue to follow this, as well as the mystery of the missing plane. Please stay tuned. My colleague, Wolf, takes over now.