NEW YORK (AP) — Thanks for the concern, but CNN's Martin Savidge says he's not looking to escape from the Canadian flight simulator where he has spent much of the past two weeks testing theories on what happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.
Savidge and his "co-pilot," Mitchell Casado, are the most visible symbols of CNN's blanket coverage of the story of the missing airplane. They have logged so much airtime reporting from the fake cockpit that the hashtag #freemartinsavidge appears on Twitter.
"I hope he is getting up to stretch his legs," one person tweeted. Another bored viewer is obsessed with flight instructor Casado's fashion sense, posting several pictures of him in different plaid shirts.
Despite spending a series of 12- to 18-hour days in the cockpit, the Atlanta-based Savidge said he's still excited about his open-ended assignment. "In a horrible tragedy, I'm at least blessed with a good place to report from, to try and bring some clarity," he said.
CNN initially sought to rent a real 777 airplane for its coverage, but found it impossible. Individual airlines were also reluctant to make their simulators available. So CNN arranged time with the company uFly, from Mississauga, Ontario, near the Toronto airport, which has a simulator that is the same model of the plane lost in Asia.
Savidge, who had been vacationing in Australia when the plane went missing on March 8, was sent to Canada for one day on March 14 and returned home for the weekend. The response to his reports was so positive, CNN sent him back on March 17, and he's been there since. Other media organizations have sought to use the simulator but CNN blocks them by keeping it booked (the company won't say how much this is costing).
Instead of creating graphics, Savidge said it's valuable to show what instruments like the transponder that are talked about in news reports actually look like and where they are located in relation to a pilot.
Mostly, they use the machine to simulate what might happen under certain scenarios. This week, he asked Casado off-air to show what might happen to a 777 if it ran out of fuel. It proved horrific: lights flashed, alarms sounded, the nose pointed skyward while gravity pulled the plane down. It fell backward toward the ocean.
"Even though it's simulated, it's quite awful to see ... we made a pact that we would never, ever show something on the air like that," Savidge said.
CNN has been criticized — mocked, even — for spending hour upon hour talking about the plane. The latest came Friday on MSNBC's "Morning Joe." ''Let's build a cockpit!" said that show's Mika Brzezinski, before turning to MSNBC's favorite story: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's bridge scandal.
CNN's motivations are obvious. Since its extensive coverage began, CNN viewership is up 84 percent over what it had been before the plane went missing, the Nielsen company said. During that same period, Fox News Channel's audience has increased 2 percent, while MSNBC is down 11 percent.
"The amount of coverage seems to be in relation to the amount of interest and the amount of interest seems to be incredibly high probably because all of us have some theory as to what might have happened," said Savidge, who's now recognized on the street as "that cockpit guy." His own theories have fluctuated. Savidge once believed it was an accident but now thinks Flight 370 was taken down intentionally.
On Twitter, one viewer wondered if Savidge has spent more time in a plane than George Clooney's character in "Up in the Air." Savidge said he thought he would never spend as much time in a 777 as his 19-hour trip back from Australia, and now figures he's logged enough hours in the simulator that he's effectively repeated that trip several times over.
Often, when the cameras are off, Savidge takes some informal flying lessons from Casado. The simulator's computer can show the approaches to some 24,000 airports; Savidge said they've tried 83, including one in the Himalayas reputed to be the world's toughest.
Don't expect him in a real captain's seat quite yet, though.
"I think I can go into a cockpit and figure out what buttons not to push at this point," he said. "At least I would do no harm. I definitely wouldn't want to try something like landing, but maybe I could keep you at altitude for a while."
David Bauder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter@dbauder. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/david-bauder