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The Search for Flight 370; Violence in Society; Will Snowden Reports Be Pulitzer Prize Worthy?; Sebelius Out

Aired April 12, 2014 - 09:00   ET


MICHAEL SMERCONISH, CNN HOST: Good morning. I'm Michael Smerconish. One week ago at this hour, I stood here, somewhat incredulous, and told you that a Chinese patrol ship had just picked up a pulse signal in the South Indian Ocean.

That was last week and still nothing has been found. No debris. No oil slick and not the least of all, zero sightings of the missing plane. And yet overnight, we heard this word, confident. It's not a sentiment that has been associated much with this search, but that is apparently changing.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There have now been numerous transmissions from the black box or from what we are confident is the black box that have been picked up by the various devices which Australia is deploying.


SMERCONISH: They hope that the signals are coming from the flight data recorder and/or the cockpit voice recorder also known as the black boxes. But those signals that the prime minister was talking about, they are designed to only emit for 30 days. And today is day 36 of the search.

And overnight, even the prime minister warned that searching for the boxes beneath nearly three miles of water is a daunting task. Overnight, at least 10 planes and 14 ships scoured the smallest search zone to date, but that search is still about the size of Massachusetts and Connecticut combined. We're talking about 16,000 miles.

This morning, we have big name guests exclusive to this program so that we can tackle this issue head on. Andy Bowen of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is with us today. Woods Hole found the wreckage of Air France Flight 447. And we have the unique expertise of marine geologist Christina Symons. She was part of James Cameron's deep sea challenge expedition in 2012. I've got a lot of questions about that pinger, the device that may or may not be emitting signals to help pinpoint the black boxes. And who better to talk to than the gentleman whose company manufactures the pingers that were on flight 370, (INAUDIBLE) is with us today. We got a lot to tackle. So let's get started.

The search area is massive. But even more intimidating, the depth at which crews might have to search. 13,000 feet down. This should give you some perspective. The Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building, One World Trade Center, even Mt. Washington don't even come close to the length that divers would have to go.

And this morning, we have two exclusive guests who know a lot about these kinds of depths, Andy Bowen, director of national deep sea submergence facility at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Christina Symons, marine geologist and member of James Cameron's deep sea challenge. Welcome to both of you.

Before we get to the depths, there is a particular map that I have been watching on CNN for the last several days. In fact, Nora, could you put that up on the screen now? It shows the triangulation of where pings have been detected and Christina, I guess, my first question is this if the total distance between the furthest of those two points is somewhere between 15 and 17 miles, then why is the search area the size of Massachusetts and Connecticut combined?

CHRISTINA SYMONS, MARINE GEOLOGIST: Yes, Michael, I think that that is an be attributed to the error. They are hearing those sounds at the point that are indicated on the map that define that polygon but there has always a bit of error as to where the sound is actually coming from. If you are standing still and you hear something from the sea floor, is it in front of you or behind you, adjacent to you.

This is why they need multiple ships to hear the sounds from different locations. And so I suspect that the margins of error defined an area of 60,000 square miles.

SMERCONISH: Andy, my knowledge of the way that sound transmits under water is limited to those days as a kid where we used to jumped in the pool and hold our nose and then try to talk to one another. Sound is an oddity under water, right? I mean that's a large part of this.

ANDY BOWEN, WOODS HOLE OCEANOGRAPHIC INSTITUTION: It really is, Michael. I think, you know, the analogy that Christina just used, in terms of, you know, if you heard a gunshot or a clap or some loud sound and you are in the mountains, for example, it is really difficult to localize the source of that sound. That is essentially the kind of terrain that we are talking about, dealing with here.

It's on the edge of something called the Wallaby Plateau. The depths change dramatically from perhaps a 1,000 meters to all the way down to 6,000 meters. And so localizing the source of these pingers and reducing the uncertainty is really the trick that everyone is trying to pull off at the moment so the search area can be decreased and made something more manageable in terms of the tools that are available.

SMERCONISH: In other words, Andy, the objective now is to let the pingers play out, do our best to chart where they might be and then at a point where they are exhausted because of their battery life, send in the kind of equipment that allow you to find Air France flight 447?

BOWEN: That's exactly right. I mean what the search team is doing now is taking the information they gathered from the towed pinger locators and the various hits that are shown on your map here and they're going to be really working hard as they did with the satellite pings that helped to, you know, determine where to search to begin with. So it is essentially a game of zeroing in with ever increasing resolution, if you will, until eventually the wreckage will be found.

SMERCONISH: Christina, I made reference to the role that you played with James Cameron. That was at depths far in excess of what we are talking about in the South Indian Ocean. What is it like down there? Are there signs of life? Can you see anything at all? I mean, give us a quick education.

SYMONS: Sure. I'd be happy. It is deep. It is nearly twice where they are searching for the black boxes now. Almost seven miles, that is seven Grand Canyons in depth. It is dark. You can only see as far as the lights you brought with you which at best is about 100 feet in front of you. There is life. In fact, it's teaming with microbial life. Shrimp like antropods and the beauty of it is those animals are somehow living at these extreme pressures and cold temperatures. How are they doing that? What can we learn about that? There is pharmaceutical application. There are, we can learn more about the topography, the plate tectonics, the structure of the sea floor. We can anticipate maybe how a tsunami would behave, where it would go if triggered by an earthquake. There is so much to learn from the deep ocean and we know so little.

SMERCONISH: Andy Bowen, explain to me in terms that I can understand how pressure is a factor at this depth.

BOWEN: Yes, pressure is really - there are two aspects that make deploying technology in these kinds of environments difficult. Pressure is probably the predominant one. So we are talking about at these depths, it will be 10,000 pounds per square inch, perhaps as high as that. So that is equivalent to a couple of big SUVs sitting on your big toe. You know, these vehicles have many, many square inches. So that adds up literally to millions of pounds trying to squeeze your robot into a smaller space. So it has got to be strong enough to resist these things.

Another thing that is really important and I don't think people really appreciate is just how difficult it is in terms of communication. Essentially, these tools have to operate with the equivalent of Morse code communication. So unlike airborne drones which had the benefit of satellite communications and GPS that makes their missions quite simple in comparison. In this case, we are looking at essentially, it's doing the job just with Morse code. So the vehicles have to have a high degree of autonomy onboard intelligence to searching the sea floor.

SMERCONISH: And finally, Christina, it is not as if you can reach in the glove box and pull out a map of where you're about to explore.

SYMONS: Yes, unfortunately, that's the case. You know, the ocean is home to the largest mountain, the deepest valleys, longest mountain chain. And we've mapped less than five percent of that. And so even in this area, the search area, when they are actually ready to send some remotely operated vehicles, they will need to do a more thorough (INAUDIBLE) survey just so they have a better sense of what is down there on the sea floor. SMERCONISH: Thanks so much to both of you. We're appreciative of your expertise this morning. Andy Bowen and Christina Symons.

A round about route for Flight 370 makes it look like the plane was trying to avoid detection. So how does that influence the investigation?


SMERCONISH: Here is the image of the morning. Searchers on a ship overlooking the bow for anything related to flight 370 while towed pingers search for sound underwater. There is still plenty of action topside.

The ongoing investigation into what happened to flight 370 - that's our unfinished story this morning.

In Malaysia, the focus is on the pilot and the route that the plane took. We heard this week that the plane dipped down to an altitude of about 4,000 feet or 5,000 feet in apparent attempt to avoid detection. Officials also say the plane took a specific route around Indonesia, skirting that country's air space.

Air Force Lt. Col. Ken Christiansen knows all about these kinds of investigations. He has flown search and rescue missions with air force special ops and he has flown science research air craft for NASA and joins me now. Col. Christiansen, does the last reportage as to how and where this plane was being flown, suggest that it was being manually flown as opposed to auto pilot?

LT. COL. KEN CHRISTIANSEN, AIR FORCE PILOT: I think people in the cockpit were manipulating the airplane. You can steer the airplane through the auto pilot or you can steer the airplane manually. Like you just said. So clearly -

SMERCONISH: A little of both, maybe.

CHRISTIANSEN: A little of both. Clearly they were flying around the land masses and trying to stay over the water. I think it is still unclear why they took that route. Did they have a problem with the aircraft or they are intentionally trying to evade radar.

SMERCONISH: Well, and I was going to say and I'm glad that you brought that up. Because I'm trying to give every benefit of the doubt to the pilots. Is this in of itself suggestive of foul play? Could there be a mechanical reason why the route that we have just shown to our audience on that map would have been taken?

CHRISTIANSEN: I think going down in an altitude and turning around and heading back towards land, that would talk to a problem with the aircraft. Rapid depressurization, in-flight fire. For rapid depressurization, you want to get down to 10,000 feet. So they were at 25,000, they needed to lose 25,000 feet of altitude so the passengers can breathe just with ambient air at that altitude.

And perhaps you want to turn the airplane around and take it to the nearest airport that can accommodate that size of plane and land as expeditiously as possible.

SMERCONISH: And I've learned from coverage of this story, you know, that there are priorities that a pilot in distress need follow but at some point, you would expect a mayday call to have been sounded, no?

CHRISTIANSEN: That's an excellent point. You would want a mayday to sound. So there are a couple of things. You can put, you have an emergency in your transponder, if your radio is not working, that's the secondary way to communicate with air traffic control. If that is not working, then there is no communication.

But this is what doesn't make sense. They turned around. If they did in fact descend or was that data that is not accurate, they should have been talking if there was an aircraft emergency. That did not happen.

SMERCONISH: Another basic question if you don't mind. Can a pilot skirt radar by either altering his altitude or his distance from a land mass? It occurs to me that we're able to chart exactly where we think this plane went but I guess presumably that's from satellite information and not from radar information.

CHRISTIANSEN: Right. It sounds like they were out of radar range and that's why that wasn't happening. It is clear that the transponder was turned off or was disabled for some reason. That is the secondary target. The primary target is just radar energy actually hitting the airplane and then bouncing back to the antenna. That is a primary target.

That is what they were not getting. If you go down in altitude because of curvature to the earth and you go out to sea, then you are going to be, you have to be a certain distance away from the antenna and a certain altitude they will not detect you. You will be below radar range.

SMERCONISH: Colonel, one final question if I might. Of what significance, if any, sir, is the fact that apparently the final voice heard was that of the pilot and not the co-pilot. Does that tell you anything about the dynamics within the cockpit?

CHRISTIANSEN: It sounded to me like business as usual. Very, very routine. If the pilot, if the captain is talking on the radio, on large aircraft, large complex airplane or commercial airplane, the captain is talking on the radio, that means the first officer is the one flying the aircraft. And then the captain is catching all of the radio signals.

SMERCONISH: Thanks. That's insightful. Colonel Christiansen, thank you. We appreciate your expertise.


SMERCONISH: Headlines redefined. The kissing congressman on the ropes, now apologizing for his actions. But that's just part of the story.

And the man who made the pinger aboard Flight MH 370 joins me. Does he believe the black box discovery is at hand?


SMERCONISH: Time now for headlines redefined. Headlines that got the story half right. First up, this is from the "Washita Citizen" out of Louisiana. McAllister caught in extramarital encounter issues apology. This is Vance McAllister. The now call him the kissing congressman. He's the guy who was caught on video in an embrace with a staffer, in his congressional field office. Both of them are married, the trouble is not to one another.

Well this week also, a Quinnipiac survey was released and it tested voter attitudes about members of Congress who are caught misbehaving. In other words, they looked at how we regard infidelity, abuse of power and hypocrisy. And the way they did it was they presented hypothetical facts about a congressman who doesn't exist.

Here's what they found. Worse than infidelity, poor personal hypocrisy is official, official hypocrisy meaning abuse of power. It occurred to me that Vance McAllister has got each of these things going. And so here's the headline I would put on the story. My headline, "McAllister. Three strikes. You're out."

Number two comes from the "New York Times" yesterday. And the headline said as follows "GM Places Two Engineers on Leave in Inquiry." It is true, General Motors suspended two engineers this week in connection with their investigation into that ignition default that ignition, I should say defect, which has been linked to 13 deaths. One of these individuals apparently approved a part change without cataloging a new serial number. And the significance is it made it that much more difficult to uncover the defect.

The other of these engineers, when asked in his deposition if General Motors made a business decision not to fix the ignition issue, answered yes. You know, to fix the problem it would have cost 90 cents per car. And now in the first quarter of this year, General Motors is about to get stung with $1.3 billion in losses to cover these costs.

So here's the headline I'd put on this story, my headline "Penny Wise and Pound Foolish."

Headline number three comes from Mediate and it says the following. "Limbaugh Blasts Colbert Pick. CBS has just declared war on the heartland of America." By now, you certainly know that Stephen Colbert is going to replace David Letterman when Letterman retires from the "Late Show" a year from now. And Rush is saying this is a war being called against the heartland of America.

I think there is more to the story. I think it is no coincidence that back in 2010, Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart had a massive rally right on the mall in Washington. Their rally followed a Glenn Beck rally that was called Restoring Honor. And then Al Sharpton rally which was called Reclaiming the Dream. You know what Colbert and Stewart called their event? They called it the Rally to Restore Sanity. And the point that they made during the course of the rally was to single out those polarizing voices in the media including Rush Limbaugh. And voices on the left, they said, you know, it is time for us to stop ceding the debate to the fringes. The Rally to Restore Sanity which causes me to say that the headline on this story should have been "Colbert to Restore Sanity at 11:30."

And finally, I have a three-fer for you. The "New York Post," She's out Sick. From the "USA Today" web site. First take, Sebelius exits battered and blamed. And from the "Wall Street Journal, Sebelius to exit amid turmoil from the healthcare rollout. And of course, you know, that after five years of service in the Obama administration, HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius has decided that she is going to retire from that post.

So does she deserve blame for the rollout? Does she deserve credit for the fact that there are more than seven million enrollees under the Affordable Care Act? She certainly weathered a storm last fall during that disastrous rollout but she hang on to see the program bear fruit. I think the truth is we just still can't tell. I mean we don't know who the seven million are. We don't know the relative mix between the sick and the healthy. We certainly don't know whether long term it's going to live up to its name. It is the Affordable Care Act and will those premiums ultimately be affordable?

So here is the headline I would put on this story. My headline "Sebelius Legacy TBD. To be determined."

How hard is the ocean search for flight 370? I'll ask a man who makes black box pingers and a man who finds them.


SMERCONISH: The search area has narrowed as planes and ships scour the Indian Ocean for any sign of flight 370. Crews have heard several pings over the past several week. But there has still been no sign of the plane. And part of the problem is the ocean itself with trenches and tricky currents that make it even more difficult to pinpoint any thing, let alone black boxes.

Joining me now is Anish Patel, president of Dukane Seacom, the maker of the actual pinger on Malaysia Flight 370 black box and also joining us is Fred Hague, vice president of engineering for (INAUDIBLE) Scientific. They make underwater sensors.