KUALA LUMPUR/WASHINGTON – 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.
Amid the confusion, officials involved in the search said the jet may have made a U-turn, adding one more level of uncertainty to the effort to find it. They even suggested that the plane could be hundreds of kilometers from where it was last detected.
On Wednesday, concern for the missing airliner swung to mounting outrage and suspicion as critics took aim at Malaysian officials for a “chaotic lack of coordination” in their response.
The country’s highly active social media have crackled with expressions of concern and hope for the safety of the missing passengers and crew. But the mood has begun to turn after the latest confusing report regarding the search added to mounting frustration.
Malaysia’s air force chief, Gen. Rodzali Daud, on Wednesday denied an earlier report that quoted him as saying the jet had been detected by military radar far from its planned flight path. He said he was misquoted, but it followed a string of developments casting doubts on authorities’ grasp of the situation.
In a blog post, industry magazine Flightglobal’s operations and safety editor David Learmount said there was an “all-pervasive sense of a chaotic lack of coordination” in Malaysia’s search efforts.
Aviation experts say the plane will be found — eventually. Since the start of the jet age in 1958, only a handful of jets have disappeared and not been found.
“I’m absolutely confident that we will find this airplane,” Capt. John M. Cox, who spent 25 years flying for U.S. Airways and is now CEO of Safety Operating Systems, said Monday. The modern pace of communications, where GPS features in our cars and smartphones 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.”
Whether the plane broke up in midair or crashed into the water, there would be some debris, but finding this can take days.
A week after an Adam Air flight carrying 102 people vanished over Indonesian waters on Jan. 1, 2007, an Indonesian Navy ship detected metal on the ocean floor. But it would take another two weeks for the U.S. Navy to pick up signals from the flight data and cockpit recorders, and seven months for the boxes to be recovered. The fuselage remains on the ocean floor, and Adam Air is now defunct.
But 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.”
Malaysian civil aviation chief Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, whose agency is leading a multinational effort to find the Boeing 777, said more than 1,000 people and at least 34 planes and 40 ships were searching a radius of 100 nautical miles (115 miles; 185 km) around the last known location of Flight MH370. No signal has been detected since early Saturday morning, when the plane was at its cruising altitude and showed no sign of trouble.
Azharuddin said the search includes northern parts of the Malacca Strait, on the opposite side of the Malay Peninsula and far west of the plane’s last known location. Azharuddin would not explain why crews were searching there, saying, “There are some things that I can tell you and some things that I can’t.”
Malaysian Maj. Gen. Datuk Affendi Buang, who is helping oversee the ongoing search, said the process will take time.
“The only thing I could say is it’s difficult. There are so many examples of aircraft lost in the sea — you know it can take days, sometimes months, sometimes years,” he said.
Some aviation experts are already calling for airlines to update their cockpit technology to provide a constant stream of data — via satellites — 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, they are not immediately available. Such satellite uplinks would be costly and the benefit is debated.
For nearly five years, government and industry officials have been exploring ways to make it easier to find airliners and their black boxes that end up in the ocean. But their efforts are too late to help in the case of flight MH370.
The efforts were spurred primarily by the search for Air France Flight 447, which disappeared over the Atlantic Ocean en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris on June 1, 2009, and was found nearly two years later.
Since then, U.S., European, and industry officials and technical organizations have discussed requiring underwater locator beacons on black boxes last at least 90 days instead of the current 30, making the boxes so that they will float, attaching underwater locator transmitters to the aircraft fuselage and putting floatable emergency locator transmitters on planes, according to a U.S. National Transportation Safety Board briefing Tuesday.
But those efforts are still a work in progress.
Just about every major jet to disappear in the modern era has eventually been found. The rare exceptions didn’t involve passengers.
In September 1990, a Boeing 727 owned by Faucett Airlines of Peru was ditched into the North Atlantic after running out of fuel on its way to Miami. The accident was attributed to poor pilot planning and the wreck was never recovered.
More mysterious was the disappearance of another 727 in Africa. It was being used to transport diesel fuel to diamond mines. The owners had numerous financial problems and one day, just before sunset, the plane took off without clearance and with its transponder turned off. It is believed to have crashed in the Atlantic Ocean. One theory, never proven, is that it was stolen so the owner could collect insurance.
“I can’t think of a water crash in the jet age that hasn’t been solved,” said Scott Hamilton, managing director of aviation consultancy Leeham Co.