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The Search for Flight 370; Fears of War; Pilots' Psychological Testing Probed; Flight 370 Families Struggling to Cope

Aired March 28, 2014 - 16:00   ET


JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: After 22 days, have we finally found the breakthrough we were waiting for?

I'm Jim Sciutto, and this is THE LEAD.

The world lead. Could this be a piece of the missing plane? After turning up nothing for a week, the search moves 700 miles northeast, and just like that, possible debris spotted. CNN was on one of the search planes when it made what could be a big discovery.

And persisting questions about the pilots' state of mind when Flight 370 veered off course. What kind of psychological screening do they have to go through, and how does it compare to the tests that American pilots take?

Also, in world news, Mr. Putin, move your troops away from the Ukrainian border, so says President Obama, amid fears that Russia could start a war at any minute. Meanwhile, Putin is gloating on television about taking over Crimea. Think he got the message?

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jim Sciutto, filling in again today for Jake Tapper.

And we begin again with our world lead, the search for Flight 370 in what could be a more promising phase, as we enter the fourth week since it disappeared with those 239 people on board. Soon ships will be out at sea trying to retrieve multiple objects spotted by planes after the search took a major shift to an entirely new area.

We may have an idea about as to why until today the search has been fruitless, and that's because crews may have spent the last several days looking in the wrong area. But officials in charge insist they have not wasted any time or effort.


SCIUTTO (voice-over): Day 21 of the search for Flight 370 began with an entirely new search area, nearly 700 miles north of the zone searchers had been scouring for more than a week.

MARTIN DOLAN, AUSTRALIAN TRANSPORT SAFETY BUREAU: The new information is based on continuing analysis of radar data about the aircraft's movement between the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca before radar contact was lost. SCIUTTO: Officials explained the sharp move northward follows further analysis showing the plane may not have flown as far south as previously thought.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's processing the new results, which indicate that MH370 flew at a higher speed than previously thought, which in turn means it used more fuel and could not travel as far.

SCIUTTO: For days, searchers have been focusing here, raising expectations of a breakthrough with successive satellite photos showing what appeared to not just individual pieces of debris, but possible debris fields.

Now satellites and planes have a new target zone, in calmer waters and closer to the Australian coast.

CNN's Kyung Lah traveled aboard a U.S. P-8 Poseidon aircraft, and within minutes of arriving on sight, searchers spotted what could be debris.

KYUNG LAH, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: This plane did spot some debris and there was a bit of excitement. The plane tipped to the right. They got very, very close to the ocean, some white debris, some orange rope, a blue bag. But it wasn't significant enough to say that it was connected to the plane at all.

SCIUTTO: At least four other planes taking part also spotted possible wreckage. A crew from New Zealand took this picture as it returned to base.

Still conscious of the repeated false alarms, officials downplayed the significance of these early sightings.

JOHN YOUNG, AUSTRALIA MARITIME SAFETY AUTHORITY: I would not wish to classify any of the satellite imagery as debris, nor would I want to classify any of the few individual sightings that we made as debris. That's not justifiable from what we have seen.

SCIUTTO: Questions continue to linger over whether the captain or first officer played a role in the plane's disappearance. Still, Malaysia Airlines officials said today they conduct regular psychological tests of their air crews.

AHMAD JAUHARI YAHYA, CEO, MALAYSIA AIRLINES: That's something that we check yearly and every six monthly, depending how old they old, on their medical renewal, and it's normally done through an interview with the aviation doctors.

SCIUTTO: Expressing growing frustration with a continuing lack of answers, hundreds of family members walked out of a meeting with airline officials in Beijing in protest.

SARAH BAJC, PARTNER OF MISSING PASSENGER: We haven't seen any evidence of transparency or full competence so far.

(END VIDEOTAPE) SCIUTTO: So a new search area, sightings from multiple planes, a close-up photo of possible debris, should we be hopeful or skeptical?

I want to bring in our expert panel. We have Miles O'Brien, CNN aviation analyst and a science correspondent for "PBS NewsHour," and Peter Goelz, CNN aviation analyst, as well former managing director of the NTSB.

I'm going to channel probably some of our viewers' frustration here, as well many observers and God knows the families involved, frustration at the idea that you had the search area they were convinced of, 700 miles to the south. You threw a lot of resources at it. And now today they move it north.

Peter, you and I were talking before and you explained to me how this change came about. A new team from the NTSB looked at the data; is that right?

PETER GOELZ, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: Oh, yes, an expanded team.

Whenever you have got a tough issue, and they were not getting response to their first analysis, you bring in fresh eyes to say, what have we missed? Have we missed anything? Can we take it to a different level?

And in this case, they really are breaking new ground. There's not a lot of data to build on. They are working off of very complex math that is well beyond my skills. And it's like if you start at the decimal point, they are fooling around out at 12 digits there, looking at the numbers there. And when they adjusted it, it gave them the new site.

With time dwindling, they decided to go.

SCIUTTO: So, just to be clear, we're talking about a rounding area, several places to the right of the decimal point?

GOELZ: They were way to the right of the decimal point as they were doing their calculations.

SCIUTTO: And significant enough that when you plug it into whatever...


SCIUTTO: Adds up to 700 miles?

GOELZ: It added up to 700 miles.

SCIUTTO: That's incredible.

Miles, I want to ask your just impression of that. I find this interesting, this detective, mathematical, scientific, police operation that they're doing here, but you and I, just yesterday, we were talking about the excitement of these satellite photos way down began. It began to look like a pattern of debris. When you hear this new information, do you have confidence that they are confident?


As devastating as it is for all of us, imagine being the family members and thinking of this narrow window of time that is available to try to do some searching. This idea that the plane was going faster, that was out there a long time ago. And it seems to me the investigation had a difficult time organizing itself and bringing in this kind of expertise that we're talking about in a timely way.

You have a combination of national pride and national rivalries in the region that have conspired against the investigation moving in a timely way.

And couple that with the fact that you're in a terrible place to search with winter coming, it's just -- it's a rock meeting a hard place.

SCIUTTO: To be fair, they are dealing with imperfect information. They are using their best guess, granted, with some great assets, great satellites and search planes and so on.

You made the point that this is actually a smart thing to do to take -- you haven't had luck down south, so you take another look at the data, you bring in a fresh pair of eyes, right?

GOELZ: Exactly.

SCIUTTO: Is that smart in an investigation like this?

GOELZ: And it's not as though we have done this before.

This is the first time we have used the Doppler math, the first time we have used the Inmarsat pings. This has never been done before. Part of it is you learn as you go ahead. I know the guys that are working on this. They are very smart guys. And they are working 24 hours a day. And they are doing the very best that can be done on this.

SCIUTTO: Here's another discrepancy I want to run by you, Miles, because the Malaysian officials said today that this new search area could still be consistent with the search area we were talking about just yesterday, the satellite photos 700 miles to the south. Its currents might have brought stuff down there that is connected between those sites.

But other oceanographers we have talked to have said, no, no, that the currents don't work that way. Again, it's an unanswerable question, to some degree, right, but how can you explain that discrepancy?

O'BRIEN: I think the currents are the currents, and we should defer to the oceanographers. It's not like they speed up randomly.

I think once you understand what is happening with those currents, it's a pretty -- that's at least a constant. There's so many variables here when you think about it, altitude, speed, distance, how much fuel. How much did they burn in that first leg before they first turned around? All of those things make for a story problem in math with too many variables.

SCIUTTO: Right. Right. And they got to keep -- and they just change one variable, right?

If I can, I want to bring up this picture that's gotten a lot of play today of this close-up of an interesting object in the water right now. You both know a lot about airplanes. You look at that square there. It's not a lot to go on. Does that strike you as something connected to an airplane?

Peter, I will give you the first chance.

GOELZ: Miles and I were looking at it. We both said it does not ring a bell.

We both are saying, you know, planes tend to be more aerodynamic. We can't tell what size that is. Is it a mattress? It just -- it didn't excite me.

O'BRIEN: I don't think we have any idea the dimensions of it.

But, generally, think about an airplane when you get on it. There are not many things that are square or rectangular. They're swept back and they're curved. And that's just the way an airplane is built, so it's hard to think what that is.

SCIUTTO: OK, fair enough.

One more point as again we look at the data here, they have discovered that the plane was going faster early on in the flight, which is now adjusted their calculations as to where it ended up. Does that increase the likelihood of some sort of catastrophic event in the cockpit? Would there be conditions where the pilot, in light of that, such an event, would speed the plane up to get to safe harbor, to get to a safe airport? Is that anything of a clue?

O'BRIEN: It does fit with the scenario where speed and altitude was preprogrammed in for some reason.

In the midst of an emergency, did he select a speed and an altitude? And the plane would have held that. Maybe it was a speed that was very close to what we call the red line, the maximum speed of the aircraft, which you would want to do if you were trying to return to an airport quickly.

That does all make sense and it does fit in with some sort of mechanical failure. The question is, were those two additional turns that we saw based on this Inmarsat data, are those real or not? I'm not so sure anymore. There's so many questions that have been reopened. Maybe the case for something that was either a bomb causing decompression or a mechanical failure, maybe that case is stronger today. SCIUTTO: Peter, plane speeds up?


GOELZ: It could be. But it still doesn't explain why you turn off the transponder and the ACARS system. So I think it might advance it a little bit, but you can't tell yet.

SCIUTTO: One thing that becomes clear here, clearly, this is intelligence, it's an evolving intelligence operation and they are working with imperfect data and they are adjusting right as they go. That's really what have to say, isn't it? And to explain to our viewers who have to be frustrated with the constant false alarms.

GOELZ: And they have got the 30-day deadline of the pinger batteries perhaps expiring, if they haven't already. They feel pressure to really get one last search while the pingers are going.

If they find some wreckage, they are going to drop a device into the ocean and see if they can pick up something.


SCIUTTO: Last best chance.

Peter Goelz, Miles O'Brien, thanks for joining us.

Coming up next, defending the mental state of the pilots of Flight 370. Malaysia Airlines officials say they both underwent regular psychological evaluations. But did they miss something?

And, later, our own reporter was with one of those search teams as they spotted new objects floating in the Indian Ocean. She will tell us what they found right ahead.


SCIUTTO: Welcome back to THE LEAD and continuing our world lead.

Investigators have been grasping at straws trying to pinpoint where and why Flight 370 may have gone down. As part of that investigation, they are putting a lot of focus on the mental state of the pilots, to see if the plane could have deliberately been sabotaged. FBI teams have not found anything in the pilots' background to find red flags and today, Malaysia Airlines confirmed that all of its new pilots undergo a psychological evaluation.

CNN justice correspondent Pamela Brown joins me now to tell me more about what they do.

What have officials said about what this psychological screening process is like?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: We've heard from the CEO of Malaysia Airlines, Jim, and basically, he wouldn't elaborate specifically about Flight 370's pilot and co-pilot, but he did talk about the psych evaluation policy and if that policy was followed, it would suggest that Flight 370's cockpit crew were not only evaluated but that their tests didn't indicate anything unusual.


AHMAD JAUHARI YAHYA, CEO, MALAYSIA AIRLINES: It's something that we check yearly and six monthly depending on how old they are on their medical renewal and it's normally done through an interview with the aviation doctors.


BROWN: And we also learned that this testing is ongoing over the course of the pilot's career. What is still not clear is when the Flight 370 pilots were last evaluated. But, Jim, worth reiterating here, my sources telling me and others here at CNN that there has been nothing found in the pilots' mental health history and in their background in the search of their homes to indicate that they were planning the plane's disappearance in many ways.

SCIUTTO: Right, a lot of talk but nothing hard yet. How about when you compare standards for testing in Asia to what American pilots go through?

BROWN: Well, the FAA has a very specific policy. Basically, it says that only pilots are tested for mental health and pilots have to get psychological screening as part of their medical exam every year or six months. But some pilots say medical screeners don't always ask about their psychological issues and it's often up to the pilots to report those and report any medications they are taking.

SCIUTTO: Interesting. Self-reporting.


SCIUTTO: OK, that's an interesting trust --

BROWN: Yes, policy, exactly.

SCIUTTO: Thanks very much, Pamela Brown, our justice correspondent.

Beyond psychological testing, are there other screening systems in place to make sure that pilots are stable enough to fly an airplane?

We have retired Northwest Airlines pilot David Funk, joining us now to talk more about this.

So, David, one of the first questions comes to mind -- because this is interesting actually that the standards for psychological screenings are actually greater in Asia than they are in the U.S. and I understand part of that is because Asia has had more incidents of pilot suicide, in effect, with the airplane. Is that right?

DAVID FUNK, RETIRED NORTHWEST AIRLINES PILOT: That is correct. That there have been more suicides in that part of the world, utilizing the aircraft as the method of death. But, you know, I'm not sure that they are more stringent, they are just different. In the United States, most pilots go to the doctor of their choice, the aviation doctor of their choice. In Asia and in many parts of Europe and Africa, you go to a company designated doctor and the company provides those medical services.

So, it's just a different way to do business. I'm not sure that theirs works any extra than ours. When you look at the United States, I can't find a single suicide by airplane case involving an airliner that's really in the records going back last 10, 15 years. So, I would argue that our system works pretty effectively.

SCIUTTO: So, when you look at the screenings that are used here, though, what kind of questions do they ask and the obvious question is, how easy are those tests to fool, right? I mean, you can answer any way that you want, I might imagine.

FUNK: I suppose.

You know, when you look at the totality of the person in front of you as a doctor, I'm sure the doctors evaluate not just what they see in the forms or when you're going through a pre-employment physical process, which can be very -- it was very difficult at Northwest Airlines when I was hired in 1987. The medical lasted a full day. Some carriers today, Delta being one of them, that entire interview process is three or four days long to determine whether you're suitable or not.

They're going to -- they're going to catch any flags in that process. They would have then. Does everything match up with what this pilot is telling us about who he is with the person that's actually presented to us at this time? So, I'd argue our system works actually pretty well and then the self-policing of the industry, you know if you're flying with the guy that's suddenly, he's always been happy and very effective, and all of sudden, he's down in the dumps. It's kind of our job as fellow employees to figure out what's wrong and if he needs to take a little break, we give him the time he needs to deal with the problem.

SCIUTTO: So, you mentioned one potential red flag. That's why the change in the behavior and change in personal circumstances. What other red flags would come up during the psyche evaluation that they would look for?

FUNK: Well, you know, in the psych eval, during the pre-employment interview, is separate than what you would get every six months when you see your aviation doctor, we have to self-report our medications and whenever we go see a health provider. You'd think, well, that's no big deal. They just would lie on the form. The problem is, if you lie on the form, it's five years in prison and a $250,000 fine and the FAA has prosecuted successfully pilots who have lied about their medical status.

So, you know, the downside is so great that people tend to be honest in their reporting. And let's face it -- I've been seeing the same aviation doctor myself for over 20 years. He knows my entire medical history. If something pops up, my doc is going to catch it pretty quickly, particularly since honest pilots tend to work for major airlines, flying big airplanes, or because of the self-selection nature of the business, you just don't survive and get to that level of your career. You know, not every news person winds up on CNN and you get there because you're good, not because you're average.

SCIUTTO: Well, thank you for saying that, David Funk. It was always good to have you on. But, clearly, a difficult process and one here that the Malaysians say that they are going to be re-evaluating going forward.

David Funk, long-time Northwest pilot, thanks very much for joining us.

When we do come back, coping with grief when there's no finality. What's the physical toll on the victims' families when they refuse to give up hope? Dr. Sanjay Gupta joins me next.

Plus, saving millions by clicking just one button. One teenager says he has an idea for Uncle Sam that could save the federal government $400 million.


SCIUTTO: Welcome back to THE LEAD. And more now on our world lead.

With every day that passes, with every new lead that goes nowhere, the families aboard Flight 370 find themselves reliving the horror of possibly never seeing their loved ones again. It's been 22 days of watching, waiting, and worrying. They'll never truly know the fate of their family and friends. And so few answers and mounting questions about what happened, it's no wonder that many of these families find their emotions seesawing between shock, grief, and even rage.

Today, we saw some of that frustration boil over as family members of Chinese passengers walked out of a news conference being held by Malaysian officials in Beijing.

CNN chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta joins us now live with more.

Thanks so much, Sanjay, because I think this is one of the parts of the story that's really captivated viewers -- the pain that these families are going through. And you see them there, we've seen them sometimes brought out on stretchers, collapsing, weeping. What is -- what is the physical impact of such intense grief and stress?

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: You know, Jim, people are going to react very differently, obviously, so it's tough to draw with a broad brush everyone's perspective. But there's the practical -- people probably are not eating well, they're not sleeping well, they can collapse from fatigue, obviously, as you see there.

There's more than that, though. You know, the cortisol levels in your body, the stress hormones, if you will, on a regular basis they go up and down. In a situation like this, these cortisol levels really don't come down as much. So, you have increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, but you're also on edge and that may manifest by looking at usually harmless threats and perceiving them as more dangerous. These can be some of the manifestations.

Also, I should point out, Jim, you know, this is -- this is a period immediately after this missing plane went missing what they call a heroic period where despite everything that you see there, these families feel like the entire world is focused on this. They are paying attention. They are helping our families look for our lived ones and that can buoy up spirits to some extent. But as some of the reality sets, the heroic period starts to come to an end, the media attention starts to dwindle away, the fall from that, Jim, can be even greater.

SCIUTTO: I'm sure, particularly the uncertainty here, because there's no hard answers about what happened to the plane, let alone what brought it down. What do experts say in terms of, you know, the balance between hope and reality? I know when they talk about people who survive after accidents, you know, in the ocean or on a life raft or something, people are kind of in between, they're not too hopeful or too pessimistic.

GUPTA: Right.

SCIUTTO: Does the same thing apply to the relatives to victims in cases like this?

GUPTA: I think in some regard. I've talked to a lot of experts about this over the past few days. I mean, one thing I think in the short term, hospital and optimism probably has more beneficial qualities than not. I think, first of all, you may take better care of yourself. Your body may function better. And you just have a better outlook.

The question becomes, are you delaying, you know, grief that may come later on and when that grief does come, it may even be greater than if you hadn't had that sort of lag period in between. You know, there's a long period, as you know, Jim, where we just didn't know anything at all. Could the people have survived in some way miraculously? And there was all of that. That's probably not necessarily a bad thing but the question, it's not sustainable. It can't go on for too long.