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Expert Says Debris Will Wash Ashore Over Many Years; New Sightings in the Hunt for Flight 370; Satellites and the Search

Aired March 28, 2014 - 12:30   ET


MICHAEL KAY, LIEUTENANT COLONEL, ROYAL AIR FORCE (RETIRED): But the information that that will be providing will be poured over by China and sort of Russia.

So they have to be very careful and very sensitive to what information they're releasing. So those geopolitical intelligence/security aspects will play a part in this investigation.

ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: All right, stand by, all three of you, if you will, because now that we have talked about the debris and we have seen some of those currents, look behind me. It is like a spider current back there.

What happens with debris when it hits that? We're going to talk to a guy who knows all too well about the flow of floating wreckage and debris. He makes it his mission to study debris in the oceans, where they end up, and how we can match them up with their rightful owner.

That's coming up.


BANFIELD: Today marks three weeks exactly since a giant plane simply vanished, something none of us can get our heads around still, and still no concrete evidence of where it is.

But, and this is a big but, the people running the search are pretty energized right now about a whole new grouping of things that were spotted floating in the Indian Ocean today in the new spot.

Here's the latest what have we know. This new material is in an entirely different place than they were searching yesterday, and that place is nearly 700 miles further to the northeast. The search crews spend more than a week looking through the old spot, but they have moved, and here's why they moved. It was basically a big number- crunching of satellite and radar data, new formula, and all of a sudden new results.

Apparently, five different planes today had some pretty good results. They reported seeing "something in the water," and that's a quote, "something in the water," and someone on one of those search planes just popped a camera out the window to take this picture that you're now seeing.

This is not a satellite picture. This is a camera shot out of a plane at what was spotted today.

So now, back all the planes go, and they do a big information, data dump, and then the analysts go over all of the pictures and the data, and then hope to have some kind of confirmation and really hope to have hands-on some of that debris in the coming hours.

Another good bit of information, the visibility and the weather in general should be much, much better in the new search area, and that means that the planes should be able to stay in the air for longer and search longer.

They were searching about two hours in the old spot, but now that they're closer. Their commute is not so long. They can search around five hours on location. So before we get ahead of ourselves, remember that every other sighting of something in the water where everybody gets excited, and sadly, nobody gets hand on anything and never to be seen again.

Well, sometimes that stuff actually does appear a long time after it's seen, and while we wait for confirmation of what was seen today, I want to talk to Curt Ebbesmeyer.

He has a Ph.D. in oceanography, and he wrote an actual book on this. It's called "How Things Float in the Ocean." It's a fascinating field of science that most of us rarely even think about until something like this makes us think about it a lot.

Curt, if it is, in fact, confirmed that the plane went down in one of the areas off Australia, how far away and for how many years could it take before some of the debris of Flight 370 washes up on shore and what shore might it be?

CURT EBBESMEYER, OCEANOGRAPHER, OCEAN DEBRIS SPECIALIST: Well, judging from the new satellite, the new search area, it looks like the debris would probably be along the west coast of Australia in about three months.

Debris generally moves about 10 miles a day. The debris field, I would expect to be 10 or 20 miles, and that debris field is mixed in with lots of other debris fields from container spills and, you know, all kinds of stuff.

The ocean is very patchy, and she gathers all the debris that's given to her into dust bunnies. And, so, these dust bunnies are out there and there's probably hundreds. So it's easy to have debris of various kinds in different patches, but there is going to be a patch from this crash.

BANFIELD: No matter what, there will be a debris -- and listen, I've been reading on some of your earlier writings, and I just found this fascinating, that after the TWA flight crash -- 800 crash, there was a -- an engagement ring still in the box covered in bubble wrap, and I suppose the proposal was supposed to be after the flight.

But they found it. They found that ring, and they returned it to the fiancee or fiancee-to-be, correct?

EBBESMEYER: That is correct, in Paris.

And you bring up a really good point. A lot of the debris is going to be small. You imagine just a ring case that's the size of -- fits in the palm of your hand. They were able to figure out the name of the passenger, and why he had it, and where he was going, and it was in his briefcase, somehow got out, and it was floating on the water.

And the only way you're ever going to find something like that is to be in a sailboat out really close to the water with a net and bringing some of that debris home, because you'd have to take the ring and look at the inscription inside.

The same thing happened off San Diego. There was a ring found on a fishing boat that was bringing debris on board, and the guy was hosing down the deck, washing whatever overboard, and the ring happened to be in the scupper.

So -- and he pulled the ring out and there was the man's name inside the Masonic ring and they traced the person down to one of the Masonic organizations up here in Seattle.

BANFIELD: It's so incredible.

I wanted to ask you something about the specifics of what might be in this debris. Also from your earlier writings, it dawned on me people have telephones with SIM cards. They have cameras. They have all sorts of electronics that might help either identify where they are or who the owner is.

And then pets, pets might actually have -- if there were any pets on board, they might actually have a chip implanted that could actually help searchers. And when you outline that, do you mean help searchers find this material where it is right now, or reunite this material if it's ever found with its rightful owner?

EBBESMEYER: I do both. I urge people to be very respectful. If you find some remains on a beach, whether it be a dog or some animal or human remains, that's a 911 call. The authorities need to come out and remove it and put it through forensic examination.

But pets may have things like that. Those cards, SIM cards, cell phones, I know of fish in Holland, a cod, a 60-pound cod, ate a cell phone and a fisherman found it, opened up the fish, took out the cell phone, cleaned it off and called the owner.

So, there's all kinds of debris out there that will not show up in satellites or any kind of photographic over-flight data, that can only be found by people really on the water or on the beach.

BANFIELD: It's amazing information. Curt Ebbesmeyer, your reading, your books are fascinating reading for anybody who's been following this mystery, and I hope you'll come back and join us again. And I hope we can talk about something even more substantial, like a piece of this plane.

Curt, thank you.

EBBESMEYER: Thank you, Ashleigh.

BANFIELD: It's good to talk with you.

Coming up, those pilots who are flying over that ocean and searching, did you know they're just sometimes a few hundred feet off of the water? That is extraordinarily dangerous, especially when the monotony sets in.

We're going to talk to a few other people about this. A pilot himself is going to tell you what it's like to be in that circumstance. It's all coming up, next.


BANFIELD: In what could be a sign, the search for the flight -- the missing Flight 370 is finally on the right track. Planes that were dispatched to a new search zone in the Indian Ocean, well, they made some hits. They spotted several objects in the area, the new area.

Take a look at the photograph that CNN received today. This is just one photograph of one of the objects spotted, a large, white square, kind of bluish, as the wording from the actual searchers who took these -- this picture described it.

The crews took various photographs of multiple different objects, various colors, images going to be analyzed overnight.

And joining me to talk about the significance of these latest sightings is Lieutenant Colonel Michael Kay, who's with us again. He's a former adviser to the U.K. Ministry of Defense. He's also a pilot himself, and he trained in radar specialties, as well.

Former commercial airline pilot Kit Darby is here with me live. And marine debris specialist Nick Mallos is here as well.

Captain Darby, I want you to tell me, first of all, for those pilots who went out to this new zone, there's a lot that the layperson doesn't know about, about what their job is like. It's not just flying. You're flying low and dangerous and there's a lot of monotony to it that you have to train to overcome.

KIT DARBY, RETIRED COMMERCIAL AIRLINE PILOT: Yes, it's a dangerous combination. I mean if you're down low and you get bored, the ground - the water in this case, is just a few feet away. So we're going very fast. The ground, which -- in this case the water and the sky, are a similar color, difficult to distinguish the horizon. Typically pilots will fly with a little nose-up trim in, in case they are distracted, that the airplane will climb rather than descend, because descending could be disastrous.

BANFIELD: Have you got people supporting you? Sort of - I hate to say prodding you, like I do when someone's falling asleep at the wheel that, you know, has been driving for a long time, but there's a lot of similarities.

DARBY: There are similarities. It depends on the plane. These are large planes with a large crew. When I was doing it, it was myself or maybe one other person. But pilots do the strangest things. I mean primarily use pain to keep yourself alert. So a lot of times you'll sit uncomfortably. I used to put a pencil between my fingers and squeeze it, because it would cause pain. Move my seat, move my position, anything to break the monotony because monotony just doesn't work in this situation.

BANFIELD: It's incredible.

Now, there's something else that has emerged. And I've got to be honest with you, with this wall to wall coverage of the missing plane, I have learned more about aviation, radar and satellite technology and oceanography than I have ever in my life. And this was fascinating that searchers are not just out looking. There is a science to the way they search. What are they doing? What do they do with their eyes?

DARBY: Well, you've got to keep your eyes moving. You know, we're not very good at picking up stationary objects. So if it's stationary, it's hidden in a way in our field of vision. We need to move our eyes. We need to get different angles on it.

BANFIELD: Like on a crisscross pattern, I'm told.

DARBY: Yes, when we -

BANFIELD: That your eyes have to move in a (INAUDIBLE) pattern.

DARBY: We have to move our vision, because if the object is stationary in the water, we're not going to see it. If I move, like, you know, like a cat, it turns immediately to you. But if you lay motionless, it's obscured.

BANFIELD: So I've got two pilots that I can talk to about this, which is great since there are so many pilots at work and doing some very hard work.

And, Colonel Kay, when you were on missions, if you spot something, walk me through what you do at the yoke. Do you actually turn? I mean, take me through what happens next when someone says, "I saw it. I saw something."

KAY: Well, I think there's two key aspects to what we're talking about in terms of a -- in terms of a search operation. The first one is led by the pilots, and that's basically getting the aircraft from home base out to the search area. And as we've already discussed, you know, the previous search area was five-hour transit and then it was a two to three hour loiter. This new area is slightly closer to Perth, so it's going to give the guys slightly - guys and girls slightly longer on loiter time. But that's the first aspect.

The second aspect, once they get out there, effectively the mission is then handed over to the TC, or the tactical controller down the back. So the pilots will be responsible for the safety of the aircraft, the flying of the aircraft at various altitudes, but those altitudes and where the aircraft is pinned and asked to go will all be directed through the tactical controller. And that will be the person down the back who's responsible for all of the radar technicians, the radar observers, the people looking out the windows. So it will be guided by the TC.

In answer to your question, when we actually get over something and we can see something, again, the safety of the people on board is absolutely paramount. So the key is not to get target fixated. And what I mean by that is, is that when you're the pilot looking out the window and you've been on this search for five days, and you see something that you might be able to corroborate and what you've been looking for, it - you know, all the - all the adrenaline starts to run and people get quite excited and that's where the professional aspect comes in because the first thing you've got to do is fly that aircraft.

Not everyone can have their eyes out the window looking at that object because you then might disorientate yourself. When the weather comes in and the visibility reduces, you can get what's called the goldfish bowl effect, and that's when the horizon effectively disappears and the air matches with the sea. And so it's absolutely key that the safety of the airplane is paramount and you have the right people looking out to get the right evidence.

BANFIELD: All right, Colonel Kay and Captain Kit Darby, thank you. And our apologies to Nick Mallos. We lost his signal, so we couldn't touch base with him. But we will get him back for sure. Thank you to the both of you.

Satellite images have sent searchers around in circles, I think to say the very least. It's a simple question. Why can't you just zoom in, pan to the left, pan to the right and find out what those pieces are. It turns out there's a very good explanation for that, and it's not just national security. There are different kinds of satellites doing very different things. And we'll explain.


BANFIELD: We've got some new sightings of possible debris and a brand- new search area for Flight 370. So the question is, why don't we just use satellites to zoom in and determine whether they're a piece of plane or a piece of garbage. We certainly have a lot of satellites. Take a look at your screen. This really tells the story. This shows every single satellite spinning around your globe right now, 1,600 of them. So many that it's hard to believe they don't even crash into one another, let alone be able to take a picture of a place on this globe. Seems to be completely covered.

But with all of that amazing technology in orbit, no one has been able to get a good, clear picture of any of this so-called debris in the southern Indian Ocean. Turns out we can do it, it can be done, it's just not as easy as you think. And Chad Myers joins me now to talk about how the satellites work. I spent a solid half hour with you after the program yesterday and you cleared it up beautifully. There's two kinds of satellites that we can talk about.


BANFIELD: Polar orbiters and geo-synchronous satellites.

MYERS: Correct.

BANFIELD: Why are they different and tell me how it applies?

MYERS: This is not 101. This is 202. This is going to be the advanced course on satellites. This took me six years to figure this out. I have three minutes to explain it to you.


MYERS: A geo-synchronous earth orbiting satellite like Inmarsat is 22,000 miles above a certain point on the globe, and it stays at that exact point when the earth rotates. It's always over the same spot. A polar orbiter rotates like this. It keeps rotating in the same plane, around and around and around and the earth spins under it, so it takes multiple pictures as we go around and around and around.

The difference is distance. These are significantly different in distance, where you have the polar orbiter way up in the sky, 22,000 miles, but the one that we got a lot of these pictures from, only 520 miles. So if it's polar orbiting, it's close to the ocean, it's 500 miles from the ocean, but it's going around like this and the ocean's rotating around it. This thing here, 22,000 miles up in space.

This big thing up here is great for taking pictures of weather. But you don't have as many pixels, because when you start to zoom in, things start to break up. Doesn't matter how good your camera is. If you're far out there, you're going to actually see these things break up. This is what a weather model looks like, a weather computer here taking a picture of this - this - in east Indian Ocean.

But every little pixel is pretty big compared to what you're going to get if you're talking about the earth orbiting satellite compared to this. These are the swaths that you will get from a polar orbiter. One there, one there, one there, one there. And as the earth rotates around, you get different pictures.

BANFIELD: And it just snaps a picture. You can't drive this thing. It's just going to snap it.

MYERS: You cannot. In fact, oh, really --

BANFIELD: You can't ask the polar orbiter to zero in and find out if that piece we saw today -


BANFIELD: Get up close and show me if it's a piece of the airline.

MYERS: No, you cannot. What the (INAUDIBLE) earth orbiter is actually taking a photo or an image, that's a line. And it's moving the line down. Line, line, line, line, line. We patch them all together. We stitch them all together. It looks like a real picture.

So here's the rub. You know, you've got a great earth orbiting satellite. You have geo-synchronous earth orbiting satellites. The great ones are centered over - that are spy satellites, are centered over one spot and you get great pictures. Well, they're not centered over here. We don't really care what's happening in the east Indian Ocean. We don't have spy satellites down there.

BANFIELD: You know what you mentioned, this -

MYERS: You can't -

BANFIELD: This is what got me. You told me yesterday, you can't just drive this one over here -

MYERS: That's correct.

BANFIELD: Because you don't have enough gas to get it back.

I wish I had more time. Let's do more of this on Monday because I really do like the -


BANFIELD: It's beautifully explained.

MYERS: It's a five-minute piece and I had three minutes.

BANFIELD: And that's why it is so difficult to actually do this. It's why it's so difficult to get eyes on from the sky. They got to be ships. They got to be planes.

MYERS: You bet.

BANFIELD: Chad Myers, thank you.


BANFIELD: And thank you, everyone. My colleague, Wolf Blitzer, is going to start right after a quick break.