In an age when people assume that any bit of information is just a click away, the thought that a jetliner could simply disappear over the ocean for more than two days is staggering. But Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 is hardly the first reminder of how big the seas are, and of how agonizing it can be to try to find something lost in them.
It took two years to find the main wreckage of an Air France jet that plunged into the Atlantic Ocean in 2009. Closer to the area between Malaysia and Vietnam where Saturday’s flight vanished, it took a week for debris from an Indonesian jet to be spotted in 2007. Today, the mostly intact fuselage still sits on the bottom of the ocean.
“The world is a big place,” said Michael Smart, professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Queensland in Australia. “If it happens to come down in the middle of the ocean and it’s not near a shipping lane or something, who knows how long it could take them to find?”
Amid the confusion, officials involved in the search say the Malaysian jet may have made a U-turn, adding one more level of uncertainty to the effort to find it. They even suggest that the plane could be hundreds of miles from where it was last detected.
Aviation experts say the plane will be found — eventually. Since the start of the jet age in 1958, only a handful of jets have gone missing and not been found.
“I’m absolutely confident that we will find this airplane,” Capt. John M. Cox, who spent 25 years flying for US Airways and is now CEO of Safety Operating Systems, said Monday. The modern pace of communications, where GPS features in our cars and phones tell us our location at any given moment, has set unreal expectations. “This is not the first time we have had to wait a few days to find the wreckage.”
Based on what he’s heard, Cox believes it’s increasingly clear that the plane somehow veered from its normal flight path. He said that after the plane disappeared from radar, it must have been “intact and flew for some period of time. Beyond that, it’s all speculation.” If it had exploded midair along its normal flight path, “we would have found it by now.”
Some aviation experts are already calling for airlines to update their cockpit technology to provide a constant stream of data via satellite back to the ground. Information about key system operations is already recorded on the flight data and voice recorders — the so-called black boxes — but as this crash shows is not immediately available. Such satellite uplinks would be costly and the benefit is debated.
Just about every major jet to disappear in the modern era has eventually been found. The rare exceptions didn’t involve passengers.