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Malaysia plane saga: Your questions answered

This graphic shows where possible objects relating to Malaysia Airlines flight 370 were found in relation to each other.
Credit: CNN

Kyung Lah


OVER THE INDIAN OCEAN (CNN) -- The P8 Poseidon dips to the marked spot on the right, tipping closer towards the newly set search zone in the southern Indian Ocean.

The entire right window of the spotter's seat is filled with azure blue, zooming by at 302 mph. We're 500 feet above the ocean, but to my untrained eye, it looks so close it's as if I'm on a high diving board skimming a swirling sea.

"We saw a couple of things on our way in," explains U.S. Navy Lt. Josh Mize, the tactical coordinator of Rescue 74, the call sign for Friday's mission to seek out debris from missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

The P8 is a Boeing 737 souped up with classified U.S. government electronics and intelligence, powered by jets that move it more nimbly than any consumer plane on the civilian market. I'd love to show you a picture of it, but the State Department forbids any pictures by civilians, ordering me to leave all electronic equipment on the ground.

Petty Officer 1st class Robert Pillars called for the "mark on top," the signal for the P8 crew to immediately mark the coordinates on the map. Pillars spotted white objects floating in the distance.

I'm one of three reporters on this embed to the new search area. Just hours before, the Australian government said credible evidence supported moving the search 680 miles northeast of the prior search zone. I'm clutching the military green life vest on this tilting jet, wondering if this might just be the debris of Flight 370.

We make a second pass over the mark.

The 360-degree rotation camera positioned just behind the front landing gear spins around, capturing something in the water.

Lt. Clayton Hunt, the patrol plane commander, calls in three items to the regional communications center: the white objects spotted by Pillars, an orange rope and a blue-green bag. The P8 requests that a boat head to the objects and check on them. But the items don't appear important enough to drop a tracking buoy.

Four other planes will report similar debris to the Australians from the new search area.

The P8 continues on, in the hunt to find debris from the missing plane.

"Mowing the ocean"

The two-hour, 20-minute flight to the new search zone is casual and lighthearted, as the Navy crew adjusts to journalists peppering them with questions. The P8, described by Boeing as the world's most advanced anti-submarine, anti-surface warfare aircraft, flies along a bright fuchsia line on the radar screen.

The flight plan estimates a 3,000-mile trip. Once in the search zone, the fuchsia line forms a rectangle, with the plane crossing a horizontal path of about 200 miles, heading north 13 miles, then back across the 200 miles. It repeats the pattern twice. The plane will fly low to surface, at 500 feet.

Lt. Kyle Atakturk, the P8's patrol plane pilot, calls it "mowing the ocean."

At the search area, the chatter stops. The crew's voices lower to a whisper over their closed communications on headsets.

This is the ninth trip to the Indian Ocean for the Kadena-deployed naval crew. On half of those trips, says Lt. Clayton Hunt, the team has spotted something.

Today's weather is in stark contrast to yesterday because "visibility's been awesome, one of the best two days we've had," says Hunt, the commander. The current is so calm that the plane's shadow follows on the water's surface, perfect and zooming below. If something's out there, Hunt says, "Oh yeah, we'd see it."

But finding something and finding the plane's debris are two very different discoveries.

"Every mission we see dolphins and seaweed," says Petty Officer Pillars, shaking his head. "Every time, I get like that. See it it in the distance, then get excited. And then find out its seaweed. We want to find something."

Pillars' near-boyish enthusiasm about the mission is infectious, in stark contrast to the seriousness of his eyes as they track a pattern across his spotter's window. You can tell Pillars wants to sit at the window as long as he can, rotating out only when his judgment tells him he needs to rest his eyes.

Farther down what the crew calls "the rail," because of the side-by-side radar monitors and chairs, sits Mize, the tactical coordinator. He's in charge of the operation outside the cockpit.

"Our mission is to find it," says Mize, his Southern drawl curling around his serious words. "Do I feel it? Yeah. I want to give them answers."

By "them" he means the families of the Malaysia Airlines passengers. The P8 crew, all pilots and crew aboard a plane, feel a kinship with the lives lost in the sky and the families left wondering.

"I think if I was in their shoes, I'd want proof," says Lt. Nick Horton who, along with Atakturk and Hunt, is one of three patrol plane pilots on this mission. "Not knowing is the hard thing, right?"


The P8 continues quietly. The crew chat into their headphones, inaudible above the noise of the jet. Beyond the one sighting early into the search, there's been only vast, calm sea.

About 1,500 miles into the trip, halfway through the search, the crew prepares to drop a "sonobuoy." The P8 is equipped with these devices, which it ejects into the ocean to establish drift rate by transmitting a radio frequency signal to the aircraft. The last search zone was so dynamic that it had no pattern and moved 150 yards in three minutes.

With a muted "whoop" sound, the sonobuoy is ejected. I can see a faint white parachute from the plane's video camera for a second and then it's gone into the endless blue of the ocean.

The light fading on the day, Pillars is in his final shift at his spotter's window.

The infrared camera comes on; the blue sea is green and black on the grainy screen.

The pilots announce the P8 is climbing to 37,000 feet, lifting out of the search zone and returning to Perth Airport.

The team has had one spotting -- at best, a possible lead.

It returns to the airport, greeted by another P8 that now joins the mission, more air power to try to bring the pieces of this puzzle home.

CNN Staff

(CNN) -- It's been nearly three weeks since Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 vanished. Malaysian authorities say the plane went down in the southern Indian Ocean. Search efforts are concentrated in an area far off Australia's west coast.

What's the latest?

There's been a huge shift in where searchers are looking for Flight 370, and planes sent to the new zone have found lots of objects. But what those objects are isn't known yet.

Wait, I thought everyone was confident the old search zone was the right place to look. What happened?

More math, apparently.

Based on radar and satellite data, investigators have concluded the plane was traveling faster than initially thought in the early part of its flight. Because of that, it burned through more fuel than first believed.

So, like a car driven by a leadfoot through city streets, the plane had less fuel for its long, desolate flight over the Indian Ocean. That means, authorities have concluded, that it could not have traveled as far south as they once thought.

They now say the data shows the plane probably went down in an area about 680 miles (1,100 kilometers) northeast of the previous search zone.

But what about all those floating objects spotted by satellites?

Forget about them, the Australians say.

"In regards to the old areas, we have not seen any debris," said John Young, general manager of emergency response for the Australian Maritime Safety Authority. "And I would not wish to classify any of the satellite imagery as debris, nor would I want to classify any of the few visual sightings that we made as debris. That's just not justifiable from what we have seen."

But couldn't currents have carried the debris there?

No way, according to University of Western Australia oceanographer Charitha Pattiaratchi.

Pattiaratchi modeled currents in the search zone and said objects floating in the water moved east, not south or west, and tended to stay trapped in eddies "barely leaving the search area."

"There is absolutely no connection, in terms of the debris between the two locations which are 1000 km apart," Pattiaratchi said in an e-mail.

He said currents are much milder in the new search zone, meaning that if the plane did go down in this new search zone, debris should be located in a smaller area because there is much less drift there.

Another oceanongrapher, Curt Ebbesmeyer, said objects would likely drift about 10 miles a day, and smaller objects that continue to float could reach the west coast of Australia in about three months.

Where is the new search area?

It's 680 miles (1,100 kilometers) to the northeast of where search operations had been focused. That puts it 1,150 miles (1,850 kilometers) off the west coast of Australia. That's about 400 miles (644 kilometers) closer to land than the previous area.

So what does this mean for efforts to find the plane?

Australian officials say the new search area is closer to land and in a gentler region of ocean, making for longer, safer and more consistent searches.

But it's still a huge area at 123,000 square miles (319,000 square kilometers) and will take some time to search.

"We're kind of starting from square one with a whole new search and a whole new set of premises," CNN aviation analyst Jeff Wise said Friday.

How many countries are involved in search efforts?

Malaysia is coordinating the search, which involves crews from six countries. Australia is leading the effort, based out of Perth, with China, New Zealand, the United States, South Korea and Japan contributing aircraft. China has also sent ships to help the search effort.

How are the families of those on board?

Family members are anguished as they wait for answers. One-third of the plane's passengers were Chinese, and Malaysian authorities' announcement Monday that families should give up hope that their loved ones were alive angered many Chinese.

"My heart can't handle it. I don't want to hurt my children," Cheng Li Ping told CNN as she waited in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, for evidence about what happened to her husband.

CNN's Ashley Fantz, Jethro Mullen and Michael Pearson contributed to this report.

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