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New Satellite Images Show More Debris; Malaysian Police Link Plane's Course Change to Captain

Aired March 27, 2014 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Jim, thanks very much.

Happening now, the mystery of Flight 370. New satellite images one after another, they're coming in. First from Thailand, then Japan, and they show hundreds of floating objects. But can searchers find and retrieve them in very difficult conditions?

New electronic clues. How signals from the airliner received via satellite, including a mysterious partial signal, could help investigators learn what went wrong and narrow the entire search area.

And could the batteries powering those pingers on the all- important black boxes already be dead? If they were stored improperly, the search and the investigation could become a whole lot tougher.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: The breaking news right now, the aerial search is about to resume as dramatic new satellite images give a boost to the search for Flight 370. Here are the latest developments.

Aircraft now getting ready for a new day of searching after flights were called back due to the severe turbulence and icing. Six ships have continued searching, despite the storms and the poor visibility in the targeted areas.

In the most recent sighting, Japan now says one of its intelligence satellites has spotted ten objects floating in a six-mile radius near the search area. The largest piece measures about 13 feet by 26 feet. That follows the announcement of a big debris field reported by a Thai satellite, totally some 300 floating objects, ranging up to 50 feet long.

That debris was about 125 miles from where a French satellite spotted dozens of objects earlier in the week. Our analysts and our reporters, they are all standing by. They're here in Washington, as well as around the world with the kind of special coverage that only CNN can deliver. We begin with our justice correspondent, Pamela Brown, with the very latest -- Pam.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, officials are optimistic about these new satellite images because of the amount of debris shown, as well as the dimensions of them, and as you mentioned, the search to find this debris is back on.


BROWN (voice-over): Overnight, just as searchers announced weather had again grounded the search...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Zero visibility with severe turbulence and severe icing. The risk did not outweigh the potential rewards for finding them.

BROWN: Half a world aware, Thailand and Japan rekindled some hope, saying their satellites had each found new evidence of debris. Japan saying it found ten floating objects.

These images, released by Thailand space agency, show as many as 300 objects, ranging in size from 6 to 50 feet long. So many objects close together could suggest plane debris. As many as five countries have now released satellite pictures suggesting debris in roughly the same area off the coast of Australia. But still no pieces of the plane have been found, and the clock is ticking on that black-box pinger battery.

DAVID SOUCIE, AVIATION ANALYST: Those batteries, in my estimation, it may not have made seven days. It may have not made it today.

BROWN: Meantime, investigators in Malaysia still have few, if any leads as to what caused the plane to disappear. Sources say the FBI will soon turn over its analysis of the captain and first officer's computer hard drive to the Malaysian government.

So far, sources say the investigation has found nothing to support or rule out the idea that either pilot planned to take down the plane.

BRYAN CUNNINGHAM, CYBERSECURITY EXPERT: Anyone who is of that caliber is going to probably be able to find useful information and leads from the hard drives.

BROWN: Overnight, the 53-year-old Zaharie Shah's family broke its silence. Shah's 26-year-old son, telling the Malaysian newspaper, "New Straits Times" that he does not believe his father crashed the plane intentionally. Ahmad Seth Zaharie reportedly told the paper, "I've read everything online, but I've ignored all the speculation. I know my father better."

And the former CEO of Malaysian Airlines telling CNN's Jim Clancy he's known Shah for more than 30 years.

AZIZ ABDUL RAHMAN, FORMER CEO, MALAYSIA AIRLINES: He's an excellent pilot. And I think also an excellent captain. I -- I think they're going the wrong way pointing a finger at him.

JIM CLANCY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You also knew the co-pilot. What can you say about him?

RAHMAN: He's smart. He learned the Koran by heart. So he also learned the Koran by heart. He's a good Muslim. And I know that captain is also a good Muslim.


BROWN: And the FBI is expected to hand over its analysis of the hard drive to Malaysian officials soon. Evidence that's pulled from it could provide clues and leads for Malaysians to follow up on, and that could end up being important in this investigation. But as for now, as one former investigator I spoke with said, these pilots are victims until proven otherwise -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Pamela Brown, stand by. We're going to get back to you.

In the meantime, let's bring in our CNN aviation analyst, the former triple-7 pilot Mark Weiss, along with CNN aviation analyst Peter Goelz and former NTSB managing director; and CNN law enforcement analyst, former FBI assistant director Tom Fuentes.

Peter, what do you make of all of these reports? Five nations now providing satellite imagery of possible debris but no confirmation that any of it may be wreckage from the plane?

PETER GOELZ, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: Well, I think it's optimistic. This is good news. This is the kind of debris field you would have expected to find. And I know that U.S. investigators just recently turned over new analysis of the radar pings that have narrowed their search area even further. They were the first ones to identify this area in the south Indian Ocean. They've narrowed it further just within the last 24 hours. So hopefully, this is good news.

BLITZER: So let's say one of the planes, whether the U.S. or another aircraft, flying over today, it's already the next day. It's already Friday in that part of the world. They spot something. They get a boat nearby, a ship. They pick something up. What do they do with that? Walk us through the next step?

TOM FUENTES, LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: I think initially they're going to be looking at any sign of the debris that would indicate how it became debris as our burn marks or other residue on that might indicate that it was part of an explosion.

How was the -- how was the matter torn or separated from the other parts of the aircraft? That would be initial clues: how big are the pieces? What are the shapes of the pieces? So they will, the pieces themselves will reveal a great deal of information, but nothing like the plane itself, which they have to get their hands on.

BLITZER: If -- and you've flown 777, so you're familiar with these aircraft. It will be relatively easy to determine if a piece of medal came from a Boeing triple-7, as opposed to some junk out there that some ship captain decided to just toss overboard? MARK WEISS, FORMER PILOT: Oh, absolutely. And a lot of the parts have serial numbers attached to them. That will go back to Boeing. But the NTSB over vast experience is able to piece together these airplanes and just put them together as though they were part of a jigsaw puzzle.

BLITZER: We've been getting these reports now for at least, what, a week, ten days, maybe even longer. Are you surprised it's taking long -- this long to find one piece, one piece of the wreckage?

WEISS: Honestly, no. This is such a vast area, and having been involved in a couple of open ocean searches, it's really hard. And I think, you know, if they found a debris field with hundreds of pieces, they could be zeroing in on the right spot.

BLITZER: You've looked at the satellite imagery. Can you tell? I know you're not a trained satellite image reader or anything, but does it look like anything that could resemble wreckage from that triple-7?

WEISS: From other pictures of debris fields I've seen form other accidents, it certainly appears that this is a real possibility.

BLITZER: Do you agree with that?

GOELZ: I do. I think they might be on the right track.

BLITZER: That's pretty encouraging. What about you?

FUENTES: It's possible.

BLITZER: Everybody seems to think -- if you listen to the prime minister of Australia or the prime minister of Malaysia, they're all saying this is very encouraging. But folks are really anxious. They want to see something already. They want to see a piece of that wreckage. They want to get confirmation, because certainly the families would like to know for sure if, in fact, their loved ones are dead.

I don't know if any of you have expertise in this area, but I'll start with you, Peter. We've seen all these images coming in from Thailand and Japan and China, but what about the United States? Where's the U.S. satellite imagery, the presumably the United States has the best satellite in the world, the most precise? Where is that?

GOELZ: I think nobody really wants to show their full capabilities. This is a national security issue. But I do know that the United States investigators, the NTSB and the FAA are confident that they are in this area for the right reasons, and they've been confident of that for the last ten days. That's why U.S. forces, you know, assets were diverted there.

BLITZER: Would drones make a difference? A lot of people are asking.

GOELZ: I think if you have the right kind of cameras on the drones it could work.

BLITZER: Do you think so?

WEISS: Very possibly. They would be a good opportunity.

BLITZER: The drones, they could stay up above a lot longer than a pilot and a crew. They've got to fly ten hours back and forth from Perth over there. So it's a lot easier maybe to just send a drone over there.

FUENTES: That's true, Wolf. And they've been used in domestic law enforcement operations, trying to find lost children and search large areas at a long time, because of the capacity to stay in the air almost indefinitely for 20 hours in some cases before they have to land.

Now, the question is, maybe the weather there is so horrible that the drones would be tossed around and crashed and wouldn't be able to fly in it. That may be the possibility of why they're not there.

BLITZER: All right, guys. We're just getting started. There's news coming in. It's daybreak. Now, out there in Perth, Australia, planes getting ready to take off to resume after a day's delay because of horrible weather.

Also, first on CNN, I'll interview the reporter behind a rather controversial article citing a Malaysian police source is linking the plane's disappearance directly to the plane's captain. And why the batteries powering the black box pingers may already be dead and what that could mean for the investigation.


BLITZER: First on CNN, let's get an inside look at that controversial report in "USA Today" in which a senior Malaysian police source links the plane's change of course and the disappearance directly to the plane's captain.


BLITZER: And joining us now from Kuala Lumpur is Mahi Ramakrishnan. She's the reporter for the newspaper "USA Today" that reported this news.

Mahi, thanks very much for joining us. Give us the new information that you've come up with, based on your sources in Kuala Lumpur. What are you learning about the pilot and his alleged role in the disappearance of this flight?

MAHI RAMAKRISHNAN, REPORTER, "USA TODAY": Well, my source, who has been clued in from the first day of this investigation, who has been a part of this investigation from the very first day, told -- told us that the pilot has -- is being investigated for his alleged role. And they found out that he is -- he deliberately steered the plane, and he was the only one who actually could have done it. They said that they looked at the passenger manifest, and they have cleared the co-pilot. And he categorically said that it is the pilot who is responsible in diverting the plane. And he also said that they were looking at motives, and for now they have ruled out financial consideration. And they believe that it -- that he could have just flipped. And they do not know why he has done it. They say it's an ongoing investigation. And -- and that he's -- that's it.

BLITZER: Do they have any hard evidence linking him to this decision to go ahead and fly this plane over the Indian Ocean and crash landed in the Indian Ocean? Do they -- is it just a working assumption, a theory on their part, or do they have direct evidence linking him to it?

RAMAKRISHNAN: Well, for now, you see, I have worked with this (UNINTELLIGIBLE) source for years now, but -- and I know that he -- he's credible and that he's always on top of the game.

But what he told me is that, you know, they know for a fact that it is the pilot who diverted the plane. But he says that it is a very sensitive issue which is being investigated now. And he is not privileged to divulge every detail of information to me at this point in time.

But as you know, this is a story which is developing, and we are at it. And we hope to get more information as the day goes by.

BLITZER: And did he tell you how they know for a fact that this pilot supposedly did it? Did he give you any background, any additional information other than this is their assumption?

RAMAKRISHNAN: Well, for now he -- they said that they believe that it is -- that they need to do a little bit more investigation with the wife. They believe that the wife will hold the key that can actually give them a clearer picture as to why the pilot could have done it.

For now, all he told me was that the pilot flipped, and there is a reason behind it and that the wife will be able to shed some light.

Now, he also said that it is very possible that the wife may not actually have known that, you know, he is going to do something like that. But they also said that she is not very forthcoming with information. But they do believe that if she's more forthcoming with information, then they will be able to put through some of the facts that they have to -- to get a clearer picture. But at this point in time, he was not happy, and he was not willing to give me all the -- all the hard data.

BLITZER: As far as you know, Mahi, did this source of yours have any political agenda in linking the pilot to the disappearance of this plane, because of the pilot's political views, close to the opposition in Malaysia?

RAMAKRISHNAN: I did ask him about that and, interestingly, he said, no, absolutely not. He said that, you know, he doesn't know where that information came from. And, you know, whether or not he is aligned to Malaysia's opposition leader, Mr. Anwar Ibrahim, whether he is a supporter or not, he says that is not part of the investigation and that the investigators are not even looking at that. It was something which was floated by the media, but they said, no, you know, it has got nothing to do with the pilot flying -- deliberately diverting the plane.

BLITZER: And Mahi, have you been able to corroborate this with another source or is this strictly based on this one law-enforcement source that you have, your reporting?

RAMAKRISHNAN: This is a well-placed source. He has been clued in from day one. He has been in the loop from day one. He was there when the investigation started. So I have every reason to believe that he knows exactly what he's telling me, and you know, he's one guy that I've worked with for years now. And if he's not clear about any piece of information, he will not give it to me. That's how he works. So I have every reason to go with what he's saying.

But I would like to give you a little bit about how the Malaysian elite force works. They -- they have their own specific -- specification of work and investigation that needs to be carried out. And then one officer does not talk to the other, because there is this assumption that if they do, then whatever that they speak about may cloud the investigation. So at the end of the investigation, all of this information is put together to get a bigger picture. So I'm hoping for something bigger to emerge as the investigations go by.

But for now, what I heard from the source is that the plane was deliberately diverted by the pilot, that he will have -- there is definitely a motivation and that they are investigating to figure out what the motivation can be. What has been categorically ruled out is his affiliation to the opposition politician, Mr. Anwar Ibrahim, and also financial consideration.

BLITZER: Mahi Ramakrishnan. Mahi, thanks so much for joining us.


BLITZER: Now let's discuss what we just heard with our aviation analyst, Miles O'Brien; our CNN justice correspondent, Pamela Brown; along with our law-enforcement analyst, the former FBI assistant director, Tom Fuentes.

You understand Kuala Lumpur. You understand the police force there. You have your own sources. They're -- and they're disputing what this woman -- this woman reporter in Kuala Lumpur is hearing from her senior police source.

FUENTES: Right. And it sounds like the unit that she's naming is called special branch within the Royal Malaysian Police Force.

But again, my sources are saying that they have -- they have no reason, nothing, evidence that shows that the pilot -- now, if a police officer that she's talking to or some small group of officers has discovered something that has caused them to think he flipped, as she said, you know, that's not the theory that the rest of the people at the police department or the executives there believe. But, you know, I don't know exactly who she's talking to or what they're saying or what it's based on.

BLITZER: Right. And from all the conversations, Pamela, that you've had with FBI and other sources here in Washington, the information that CNN is getting is very different. It's not necessarily rejecting what she's saying, but it's not confirming it by a long shot.

BROWN: Right. I mean, they're exploring every possibility at this stage. They're not accusing the pilots for letting them off the hook either. We're still very early on in this investigation. But talking to my sources so far, there hasn't been any sort of smoking gun found after a preliminary review of that hard drive.

Now, that hard drive, what was found from it, could lead to other clues. Malaysian officials could follow up on it and that could lead to important information in that investigation, but nothing is jumping out at them at this stage.

However, I do want to mention Malaysian officials are taking a lead on this investigation, and so my sources are based -- you know, are in the U.S. And so I don't know how much information is being shared between the Malaysian officials and the U.S. officials.

BLITZER: She did say, based on the information she has, Miles, and you've covered a lot of these kinds of stories, that the pilot's wife may hold the key to understanding if, in fact, as she says, he flipped and, for whatever reason, unknown. And she says there's no smoking gun. There's no evidence of financial problems or political hatred, she says they're trying to get more information right now from the wife.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: Well, I'm sure, you know, the emotional state of the pilot, the domestic concerns: was the marriage splitting up; was there an affair? There's all these things that could factor into all this.

But to say that an investigator knows for a fact something that happened on that airplane, no one on earth knows for a fact what went on on that airplane.

So it's clearly -- listen, it's one of the things we have -- it's very high on the list of possibilities, but to say it's a fact is, I think -- does a detriment to all of us. And I hope that, you know, inside the investigation that is true, that they are looking at all of the possibilities, because you can reverse-engineer an investigation to prove what you want.

BLITZER: You want to add to that?

FUENTES: Yes, I wanted to add to that, is that you know, to the cockpit conversation that leads up to, "OK, good night," there seems to be no stress. It's the co-pilot talking to the tower, but nothing has happened up until that point. So at what point after would the flip have occurred that anybody on the ground would know about it if, as of 20 or 30 minutes into the flight there's been no indication...

BLITZER: If this investigation were here in the United States, how quickly would they have started interviewing the wife?

FUENTES: Well they -- immediately.

BLITZER: Right away? Even though she may be grieving or whatever? It would have started -- because it seems like they've waited in Malaysia a pretty long time, at least a week or so, to even start talking to family members.

FUENTES: I'm not sure about that. I think much of that investigation was ongoing immediately, even with the family, even with the family of the pilots, because they had to look at the pilots right away. And it's just a fact of life that the pilots, they're the ones that have their hands on the controls. Everybody's life is in their hands first, and that's the first place they look. Also, the crew, the passengers, the cargo.

BLITZER: Miles, we don't know if this source of hers does have more information that he's not willing to share. He may.

O'BRIEN: He may. He may. But again, it's just -- it's a wild guess right now. And for them to paint it in terms in a factual way, I mean, he's a high-ranking law-enforcement official. And I certainly don't doubt he's a good source of hers, but he was weighing the aviation capability of the first officer, and that's way out of his lane. He doesn't know.

BLITZER: Very quickly, both of you.

BROWN: I do think that there's a part of the investigation that keeps coming back to the pilots, because there's nothing else to explain the plane's disappearance. And you do the process of elimination. Of course you're going to look at this.

BLITZER: And two minutes after that "All right, good night," the plane makes that left turn.

FUENTES: Right. And they're very hierarchical in that agency and in that country. This would have gone right to the prime minister. If they had direct evidence that this what exactly happened, they wouldn't still have their prime minister and everyone out there saying, "No, we don't -- we don't have evidence."

BLITZER: Good discussion.

BROWN: And by the way, these two men could end up being victims, for all me know. So I think it's important to keep that in mind.

BLITZER: Obviously, all of this is still on the table.


BLITZER: Thanks very much.

Up next, could a race against time already be lost? We're taking a closer look at why the batteries powering the so-called black box pingers may already be dead and what that could mean for the investigation.

And new electronic clues. How signals from the airliner received via satellite, including a mysterious partial signal, could help investigators focus the search and learn what went wrong.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Nearly three weeks since Flight 370 disappeared and now there's new concern about the battery life in the missing flight data recorders and whether it could be running out faster than expected.

CNN's Athena Jones is working this part of the story for us. She's joining us with details -- Athena.

ATHENA JONES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we're talking about waters a mile and a half to three miles deep and terrain at the bottom of the Indian Ocean that looks a lot like an underwater mountain range. So finding these devices, if the batteries have run out, could take a very long time.


JONES (voice-over): Thirty days. That's how long the batteries on the flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder are expected to last. They power the underwater locator beacons, or pingers, that help search teams find these crucial devices. And after 21 days, those batteries could soon run out if they haven't already.

That's what has CNN's safety analyst David Soucie concerned. He talked to a mechanic whose audit of Malaysian Airlines found problems with the way that they store these devices.

DAVID SOUCIE, CNN SAFETY ANALYST: Having them stored improperly against the manufacturer's recommendations is extremely hard on them and will actually reduce the battery life to close to half as much as it is intended to, so 15 days or so.

JONES: Dukane Seacom, the company that makes the pingers for Malaysian Airlines, said high temperature could affect battery life. The manual says they should be stored in a cool, dry environment.

We don't know how the recorders on Flight 370 were stored. We do know that it will be much harder to find the black boxes without the pingers. It took two years to find the recorders from Air France Flight 447 after it crashed off the coast of Brazil in 2009. Search teams towed pinger locators near the debris field just days after the crash and heard nothing, suggesting that pingers had stopped working or the signal was somehow blocked by rugged underwater terrain or other obstacles. SOUCIE: Even plant life, seaweed, plant life, coral, any of those things can detract from the signal and even temperature changes in the water. If you have a thermal layer, it can hide that ping and it can hide any kind of detection that you might have.

JONES: Oceanographer David Gallo helped find the recorders in the Air France crash with the help of sonar, high-resolution cameras and submersible devices like deep-sea drones.

DAVID GALLO, CO-LED SEARCH FOR AIR FRANCE FLIGHT 447: We took 85,000 still images of the wreck site, handed those over to a company, Phoenix International, and they took it from there and found the black boxes.

JONES: If the boxes are found, investigators can still retrieve the vital information inside.

ANISH PATEL, PRESIDENT, DUKANE SEACOM INC.: The battery running out will not preclude the authorities from being able to extract that data. It is embedded into the system.


JONES: So that's the good news, they can still get access to that data. But we're 21 days out here and we still don't have a confirmed debris field.

In the case of that Air France flight, the first floating airplane parts were found just five days after the accident. Those flight recorders were recovered 23 months after the accident. So that gives you a sense of just how long it can take to find these devices underwater -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It can be so, so frustrating. All right, Athena, thank you.

So we've seen satellite images of literally hundreds of objects that may -- that may represent the debris from the airliner but search planes and ships so far have unable to find them.

Brian Todd has been looking into this part of the story with an explanation.

Why it is so hard -- Brian.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, it's one thing to try to find that needle in the haystack that's often been mentioned in this case, it's another one that needle keeps moving. All these images are objects spotted by satellite in recent days and now one oceanographer we spoke with has an animation model that could help search teams track all this debris.


TODD (voice-over): There are now hundreds of objects spotted by satellites in one condensed area, all giving new hope to search teams. But in the rough swirl of the Southern Indian Ocean, finding them has been almost impossible. It's oceanographers like Van Gurley who played the critical role in finding Air France Flight 447 in the Atlantic who could hold the key to finding those mysterious objects.

CAPT. VAN GURLEY (RET.), FORMER NAVY OCEANOGRAPHER: They drift with the winds and they drift with the ocean currents. And all things that are creating -- making this a very dynamic situation.

TODD: Gurley's team at Metron, a scientific data analysis firm, has new animation models projecting where objects spotted recently by satellites may have drifted. They use weather, wind, and ocean current projections from NOAA. They determine what kind of objects could be floating.

GURLEY: Based on the types of things you would expect either for a boating accident, someone lost at sea or an aircraft accident.

TODD: Like seats, luggage, other parts of a plane. Gurley's team projected where those 122 objects spotted by a French satellite on Sunday could have drifted by midday Thursday.

The circle is where it was spotted on the 23rd and in this particular field it's about 60 miles on this axis from the southwest to the northeast but the pattern doesn't really go to the north and does go to the south again about 60 miles.

TODD: Sixty miles in each direction. What about the field of 300 some objects spotted by a Thai satellite on Monday in the same vicinity?

GURLEY: In this projected it's moved about 60 miles to the north, 65 miles to the south but you can see this entire field has moved east.

TODD: A key question, if Gurley's team can project these objects forward in time, could they track them backward to the morning of March 8th when the plane's last signals were sent, maybe see where the plane may have hit the ocean?

GURLEY: It's actually much more difficult because of the amount of time. We're now at day 20 of the problem.

TODD: The possible good news comes in what that black line represents in real time.

GURLEY: That there are -- Australian ship Success is actually operating near the area of where our simulation says the debris may be based on the 23rd of March imagery.


TODD: Now these models are not just for debris. Van Gurley's company Metron has similar models that actually help the Coast Guard find people who are lost at sea. They take a report of where someone has been lost and project currents and drift ahead to where people may be drifting in the water and where the Coast Guard can start a search -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian Todd, good explanation as usual, thank you. Thanks very much.

Joining us now, the oceanographer Erik Van Sabille of the Climate Change Research Center at the University of New South Wales in Australia. Also joining us Colleen Keller. She's a senior analyst at defense contractor from Metron Inc. which helped with the search for Air France Flight 447 in the Atlantic.

Colleen, what do you make of these latest clusters, these large numbers of items, whatever they are, seen in these satellite images? Do you think it could be the plane?

COLLEEN KELLER, METRON INC.: You know, Wolf, this is such a remote part of the ocean that seeing large groups of objects like this, what could consider to be a drifting pattern of aircraft parts, I think it's very encouraging to see these objects close together.

The simulations that we were just discussing there that my colleague Van Gurley is doing predicted that the debris would stay fairly close together, clumped together as it drifted around. So this is consistent with the models and I'm very encouraged by the recent information.

BLITZER: Well, let me bring Erik in, because you know the Indian Ocean well, Erik. If this plane crashed, let's say after 19 days, and there's debris from the plane, wreckage from the plane, you know the waters, you know the currents, you know the weather. Would they all be generally in the same area presumably or would they be spread out over 19 days over a wide range of the Indian Ocean?

ERIK VAN SEBILLE, OCEANOGRAPHER, UNIVERSITY OF NEW SOUTH WALES: Well, I think what you would see is that there are clumps of debris just as what we're seeing now. So I also think this is an encouraging sign. You would see that there's parts, there's debris fields that move away but within these debris fields that might be a few miles in diameter, you would see much higher concentrations of debris, yes.

BLITZER: So if they identify this debris as being from the plane, wreckage, Colleen, presumably it could be hundreds of miles away from the seabed where the actual plane -- if the plane is on the bottom of the water is actually located?

KELLER: Well, we're predicting -- I think we said that the currents are taking the debris about a mile and hour or 24 miles a day. So looking at the amount of days, we're talking several hundred miles of travel. So if you back the debris field up to its potential point of impact, that's where we should be looking. And yes, the beacons are going to be several miles down on the floor.

When we deploy the towed pinger locator, the things that will detect the black box beacons, we put them down as close to the seafloor as we can so that they're -- they get the best shot at hearing the signal.

BLITZER: Assuming that signal is still beeping something because we're concerned about the batteries right now.

We'll have more on that later coming up here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

But, Erik, you've described the currents in the Indian Ocean, in your words, a mini hurricane. These are like mini hurricanes, you say. Explain what you mean.

VAN SEBILLE: Well, what I mean is that there are vortices and they move around. And just like hurricanes, if you see them on satellite images, they have these giant eyes and they move around. So are these -- so are the eddies, what we call them in the ocean. And they're not nearly as violent and they're not nearly as damaging as hurricanes themselves but they have the same physics, the same physical properties. It's the same underlying mathematics of these hurricanes and the smaller eddies.

BLITZER: And with the fall and winter approaching in that part of the world, the weather is only going to get worse.

Erik Van Sebille, Colleen Keller, we'll talk to you, resume our conversation tomorrow.

When we come back, we have new details about Flight 370's satellite communications which may help determine what happened in the plane's final moments. That's next.


BLITZER: We're learning more now about what was likely Flight 370's timeline and it's based on new information about its satellite communications.

Our national correspondent Suzanne Malveaux is working this part of the story. She's got new details -- Suzanne.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, well, Wolf, we do have some new details about this because we're talking about the communications between the plane and a British commercial satellite. It could give us clues as to what happened on board as well as the final moments of the flight.

Now this analysis is based on a theory that understanding exactly when that plane lost contact is going to tell us where the plane went down and dramatically narrow the search area.


MALVEAUX (voice-over): From the moment Malaysia Flight 370 took off, it was communicating with the satellite orbiting more than 22,000 miles above earth. Sending out pings or electronic handshakes to say, I'm here and OK.

TIM FARRAR, SATELLITE TECHNOLOGY CONSULTANT: The ping is really like your cell phone checking that it's connected with the cell phone network. MALVEAUX: The first three recorded pings came between 12:30 and 1:00 a.m. local time. As the plane takes off from Kuala Lumpur and ascent. All normal stuff.

FARRAR: The first three pings are messages which are carrying the data about the performance of the engines on the plane.

MALVEAUX: At 1:19 a.m. the co-pilot sends his final message to air traffic control. "All right. Good night." Then the transponder which identifies the plane to civilian radar stops communicating.

Between 1:21 and 1:28 a.m., radar shows the plane makes a sharp left turn then dips as low as 12,000 feet. At 2:22 a.m. as the plane appears to be making another turn. The satellite then picks up three more electronic pings, one right after the other in the span of just a few minutes.

FARRAR: It looks like they were initiated by the plane because the plane had lost contact with the satellite network. After that quick turn, maybe the plane banked sharply.

MALVEAUX: Whatever happens is seemingly resolved as Malaysia 370 sends hourly pings or handshakes. At 3:40, 4:40, 5:40, 6:40 and 8:11 a.m.

FARRAR: The hourly pings are really just the network checking that everything is going on. That sort of indicates that the plane is flying smoothly.

MALVEAUX: But then something very unusual happens. A partial ping just eight minutes later recorded at 8:19 a.m., the last electronic signal before the plane disappears.

FARRAR: The plane wasn't able to communicate back again and so the handshaking wasn't completed. The plane must have turned sharply or stalled, or dived, something to cause the terminal on the top of the plane to be pointed away from the satellite and then to try and re-establish contact.


MALVEAUX: So Tim Farrar, the aviation analyst I spoke with today, tells me that the significance of this is essentially two-fold. Whatever trouble the plane was having in that burst of pings around the left turn could be the same problem that was resurfacing during the flight's final moments, and seconds also as well, we know that if the precise time of the plane lost its ability to communicate, and went down, investigators can now dramatically narrow the search area to look for that plane's debris.

Wolf, so those are the important parts about recognizing those pings between the plane and the satellite.

BLITZER: They are looking for any clue that could help find some of that wreckage.

All right, Suzanne, thanks very much. Good explanation on that part.

And just ahead at the top of the hour, the search for Flight 370 is about to resume after a heavy dose of bad weather. Planes are getting ready to take off in Perth, Australia, for the latest effort to find any debris from the plane.

I'll also speak about what is going on with the U.S. naval commander who has a key role in this entire search effort.

Plus, Ukraine potentially on the brink of war right now. We have details on the escalating crisis, that's coming up.


BLITZER: We'll have much more on our special coverage of the missing Flight 370 in just a moment but there's some other important news we're following as well including a historic meeting today between President Obama and Pope Francis at the Vatican. The president's visit coming amid the escalating crisis in Ukraine as tens of thousands of Russian troops gather near the border.

Our senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta is traveling with the president, he's joining us from Rome right now with details -- Jim?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. President Obama has wrapped up a busy day here in Rome. The highlight being, as you mentioned, that historic visit with Pope Francis, but even that meeting was somewhat overshadowed by the crisis in Ukraine.


ACOSTA (voice-over): With estimates of 40,000 or more Russian troops gathering on the Ukrainian border, the president appeared to close the door shut on any military action.

(On camera): By taking the military option off the table, are you sending a signal to Vladimir Putin that other parts of Ukraine are his for the taking and why not send a multinational peacekeepers to the Ukrainian border as a deterrent?

(Voice-over): After complaining about the questions coming in at a news conference in Rome --

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: That's a lot of questions there, Jim.

ACOSTA: The president defended his sanctions-first approach.

OBAMA: I've been very clear in saying that we are going to do everything we can to support Ukraine and the Ukrainian people, but I think that it's also important for us not to promise and then not be able to deliver.

ACOSTA: All week the president has been careful to separate Ukraine from the NATO countries of eastern Europe he vowed to defend against any Russian aggression, a promise echoed by the Italian prime minister.

MATTEO RENZI, ITALIAN PRIME MINISTER: The question for me is more clear and the answer is easy -- yes.

ACOSTA: Before the Ukraine crisis, this was supposed to be the key moment of the president's trip. His first meeting ever with Pope Francis. After exchanging gifts --

OBAMA: I actually will probably read this in the Oval Office when I'm deeply frustrated.

ACOSTA: The president said he and the Pope steered clear of the controversy over the contraception coverage mandates in Obamacare but conceded the Vatican did raise concerns. The focus instead, Mr. Obama said, was on a sheer goal of tackling income inequality.

OBAMA: His Holiness has the capacity to open people's eyes and make sure they're seeing that this is an issue.

ACOSTA: The president finally found time to play tourist-in- chief at the Roman coliseum, a break from his battle to contain Putin still looming outside this ancient walls.

OBAMA: It's remarkable. Unbelievable.


ACOSTA: Now the president did also reveal today that more than six million Americans have signed up for health insurance under Obamacare. As you know, Wolf, that key deadline of March 31st, just a few days away.

BLITZER: Certainly, the end of the month. All right. Thanks very much, Jim Acosta, traveling with the president.

Coming up as new satellite images show hundreds of objects floating in the Indian Ocean, search planes there now getting ready to resume their hunt for Flight 370. We have new information about the U.S. role in the search. I'll speak live with U.S. Navy commander aboard a ship in the region.