TOPICS > World

New lead, new challenges: How weather, deep water and confusion may factor in search for Malaysian jet

March 20, 2014 at 6:22 PM EST
Satellite cameras recorded two objects about 1,400 miles off the coast of Perth, Australia, in the Southern Indian Ocean, raising the possibility that they may be part of the missing Malaysian Airlines jet. But even with a more targeted area to focus on, the challenges of locating the aircraft are daunting. Gwen Ifill learns more from Andy Pasztor of The Wall Street Journal.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: The satellite images of possible debris in the Indian Ocean captured international attention today, as the hunt for the missing Malaysian airliner continued. But even with a more targeted area to focus on, the challenges are daunting.

Andy Pasztor, aerospace reporter for The Wall Street Journal, joins us again.

Andy, what are the challenges, the special challenges facing this search?

ANDY PASZTOR, The Wall Street Journal: The first challenge is the weather. It’s really, really lousy, so the search planes and ships will have a very hard time identifying and locating the suspected piece of debris.

It’s not clear that it is from the plane. Everyone hopes — everyone who’s part of the search clearly hopes it is, but that’s not clear yet. But, even if it is, the next big step is a much bigger challenge. And that is to try and figure out where the plane would have gone down in the water if there’s part of the debris here.

And that’s science. Yes, there are lots of ways to look at the wind and the currents and the waves, but it’s also a little bit of an art, and it’s extremely complicated and can be very controversial to figure out where to look for the wreckage and the debris field — debris field is what they call it — underneath the water.

GWEN IFILL: Well, and this is particularly deep water. I mean, this is a very, very remote area of the Indian Ocean, which hampers the search even more.

ANDY PASZTOR: That’s absolutely right, and the depth is a problem.

And if you look back at previous crashes of aircraft into water, what you learn is that they often break into many small pieces, relatively small pieces, which are hard to find. And the currents can move them 100 or 200 miles from the point of impact where the plane went into the water.

But, more importantly, for this investigation, I think we should be looking at how the decisions will be made. When the Air France jetliner went into the Atlantic Ocean in 2009, there was a huge fight between the airline, the manufacturer of the airplane and French investigators about where to look for the wreckage. It took them two years.

They finally found it, but it was extremely controversial. And I think, considering the multinational makeup of this search, we’re, unfortunately, likely to see some arguments about where to look, how to look, and how to continue if — if we have some debris.

GWEN IFILL: It actually feels as if we have been seeing that already. We have seen jurisdictional disputes, questions about whether Malaysia was stepping up. The announcement today was made by the Australian prime minister. China has been involved, a dozen countries.

And now there’s a Norwegian ship in the region. That is — is that what’s adding to the delay? It’s now been 12 days.

ANDY PASZTOR: Confusion and delay, definitely. There’s a friction within the Malaysian government between the civilian and military sides, there has been, on how much information to release.

People who have looked at this would say that the Malaysians were slow in releasing information that the plane has flown for an additional 6.5 hours after it disappeared off radar. The Malaysian government says they were corroborating the information and wanted to make sure that everything was correct.

But, in fact, some folks, including the satellite provider of the information, got so concerned that they went to the British government, as one of our stories indicates, and basically said to the British government, this information has to become public. We’re counting you know to do it.

I think the situation is better in Malaysia. I think they’re more willing to accept help. They realize the scope and size of this investigation and the search and how much scrutiny they’re under.

But, still, you’re going to see those kinds of points of friction between countries inevitably.

GWEN IFILL: Are there also problems in the quality or challenges in the quality of the satellite technology itself?

ANDY PASZTOR: Well, the image — the signals that we’re talking about — we’re not talking about images at this point of the debris where we’re talking about the satellite signals that show where the plane may have gone.

The images themselves, I think, are better than we have seen. I think that the satellite company that provides the images, DigitalGlobe, a private company which sells imagery to the U.S. government, they’re actually able to do much more precise images that look much more clear than they do often from the ones that we have seen publicly.

So I think that’s a plus. But, to me, it’s clear that nobody is completely convinced that this is part of Malaysian Flight 370, the piece that’s floating in the Indian Ocean now.

GWEN IFILL: To what degree is the United States government involved in this search, as compared to other countries in the region?

ANDY PASZTOR: I think we’re deeply involved.

In the beginning, it was our air safety folks from the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board who definitely contributed and helped decipher where this plane may have gone. At this point, it’s becoming — it’s turning into more of a criminal probe, and the FBI and other U.S. national security agencies, I think, are very deeply involved.

But the Malaysians, of course, want to say that this is their investigation. And that’s part of the pressure and part of the dynamic that, I think, will continue throughout. It’s a Malaysian investigation, but the whole world is watching them, and all these other countries are basically breathing down their necks to make sure that everything is done right as those countries think it should be.

And so this dynamic is going to continue. And it may get worse if there are big decisions that need to be made about where to search, who is going to pay for the search, those kind of questions.

GWEN IFILL: Andy, has anybody suggested to you or to your colleagues in your reporting that, in fact, this plane or debris from this plane may never be found?

ANDY PASZTOR: I think that that’s certainly a possibility.

Some people would say it’s a strong possibility. Many experts — and experts who know about searches — say the area is to vast and the pieces may be so small and the depth of the water may be so significant, that, in fact, we will never find — we may never find the wreckage.

And, of course, the other problem is, even if we do find the wreckage, figuring out why this was done is a whole ‘nother question about what the black boxes will show.

GWEN IFILL: All right, we will get to the bottom of this latest piece of information possibly within the past — the next 24 hours.

Andy Pasztor of The Wall Street Journal, thank you.

ANDY PASZTOR: Thank you.