How can a jet disappear? In the ocean, it's not that hard

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How can a jet disappear? In the ocean, it's not that hard
Flight officer Rayan Gharazeddine, on board a Royal Australian Air Force AP-3C Orion, scans for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in the southern Indian Ocean on March 22, 2014. The Orion under took a four-hour journey to search an area approximately 2,500 kms southwest of Perth, two hours on station searching at about 400 feet above the ocean, and then a four-hour return. China released on March 22 a new satellite image of a large floating object possibly linked to missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, boosting search efforts as anger with the pace of the operation boiled over among Chinese relatives in Beijing. AFP PHOTO / POOL / Rob Griffith (Photo credit should read ROB GRIFFITH/AFP/Getty Images)
Crew on board a Royal Australian Air Force AP-3C Orion scan ahead as they search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in the southern Indian Ocean on March 22, 2014. The Orion under took a four-hour journey to search an area approximately 2,500 kms southwest of Perth, two hours on station searching at about 400 feet above the ocean, and then a four-hour return. China released on March 22 a new satellite image of a large floating object possibly linked to missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, boosting search efforts as anger with the pace of the operation boiled over among Chinese relatives in Beijing. AFP PHOTO / POOL / Rob Griffith (Photo credit should read ROB GRIFFITH/AFP/Getty Images)
A Royal Australian Air Force AP-3C Orion flies past the HMAS Success as they search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 debris or wreckage in the southern Indian Ocean on March 22, 2014. The Orion under took a four-hour journey to search an area approximately 2,500 kms southwest of Perth, two hours on station searching at about 400 feet above the ocean, and then a four-hour return. China released on March 22 a new satellite image of a large floating object possibly linked to missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, boosting search efforts as anger with the pace of the operation boiled over among Chinese relatives in Beijing. AFP PHOTO / POOL / Rob Griffith (Photo credit should read ROB GRIFFITH/AFP/Getty Images)
SOUTHERN INDIAN OCEAN - MARCH 22: Flight Lieutenant Jason Nichols on board a Royal Australian Air Force AP-3C Orion, takes notes as they search for missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 debris or wreckage on March 22, 2014 in Southern Indian Ocean, off the west coast of Australia. The Orion under took a four hour journey to the search an area approximately 2500km south west of Perth, two hours on station searching at about 400 foot above the ocean with then a four hour return. The search to identify whether two large objects spotted via satellite in the Indian Ocean are related to missing flight MH370 continued today, for the third day, with no results. The airliner went missing nearly two weeks ago carrying 239 passengers and crew on route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. (Photo by Rob Griffith-Pool/Getty Images)
PERTH, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 21: A Royal Australian Air Force P3 Orion is seen on the tarmac after returning to Pearce air base following a search mission for possible MH370 debris on March 21, 2014 in Perth, Australia. Australian authorities yesterday received satellite imagery that shows two large objects in the Indian Ocean that may be debris from missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370. The airliner went missing nearly two weeks ago carrying 239 passengers and crew on route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)
A photo taken on March 21, 2014, shows a crew member on a Royal Australian Air Force AP-3C Orion aircraft participating in the Australian Maritime Safety Authority-led search for Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 in the Southern Indian Ocean. Spotter planes spent a second fruitless day scouring a remote stretch of the Indian Ocean for wreckage from a Malaysian jet. Australian and US military aircraft usually used for anti-submarine operations criss-crossed the isolated search area 2,500 kilometres (1,500 miles) southwest of Perth, looking for two floating objects that had shown up on grainy satellite photos taken several days before. AFP PHOTO - POOL / BOHDAN WARCHOMIJ (Photo credit should read BOHDAN WARCHOMIJ/AFP/Getty Images)
PERTH, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 21: Royal Australian Air Force pilot Capt. Russell Adams addresses the media after returning from a search mission in a P3 Orion at Pearce air base on March 21, 2014 in Perth, Australia. Australian authorities yesterday received satellite imagery that shows two large objects in the Indian Ocean that may be debris from missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370. The airliner went missing nearly two weeks ago carrying 239 passengers and crew on route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)
Chinese relatives of passengers from the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 wait for news at the Metro Park Lido Hotel in Beijing on March 20, 2014. Surveillance aircraft scoured a remote and stormy section of the Indian Ocean on March 20 for a pair of floating objects that Australia and Malaysia guardedly called a 'credible' lead in the 12-day-old hunt for a missing passenger jet. AFP PHOTO/Mark RALSTON (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
INDIAN OCEAN - This handout Satellite image made available by the AMSA (Australian Maritime Safety Authority) shows a map of the areas searched between March 18 and March 20, 2014 for missing Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370. Two objects possibly connected to the search for the passenger liner, missing for nearly two weeks after disappearing on a flight from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Beijing, have been spotted in the southern Indian Ocean, according to published reports quoting Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott. (Photo by AMSA via Getty Images)
CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 20: Australian Maritime Safety Authority Emergency Response Division General Manager John Young speaks to the media about satellite imagery of objects possibly related to the search for Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 March 20, 2014 in Canberra, Australia. Two objects possibly connected to the search for the passenger liner, missing for nearly two weeks after disappearing on a flight from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Beijing, have been spotted in the southern Indian Ocean. (Photo by Stefan Postles/Getty Images)
A navigational radar on Indonesia's National Search and Rescue boat shows details during a search in the Andaman sea area around northern tip of Indonesia's Sumatra island for the missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 on March 17, 2014. The last words spoken from the cockpit of the Malaysian passenger jet that went missing 10 days ago were believed to have been spoken by the co-pilot, the airline's top executive said Monday. AFP PHOTO / CHAIDEER MAHYUDDIN (Photo credit should read CHAIDEER MAHYUDDIN/AFP/Getty Images)
A personnel of Indonesia's National Search and Rescue checks the map during a search in the Andaman sea area around northern tip of Indonesia's Sumatra island for the missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 on March 17, 2014. The last words spoken from the cockpit of the Malaysian passenger jet that went missing 10 days ago were believed to have been spoken by the co-pilot, the airline's top executive said Monday. AFP PHOTO / CHAIDEER MAHYUDDIN (Photo credit should read CHAIDEER MAHYUDDIN/AFP/Getty Images)
A personnel of Indonesia's National Search and Rescue looks over horizon during a search in the Andaman sea area around northern tip of Indonesia's Sumatra island for the missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 on March 17, 2014. The last words spoken from the cockpit of the Malaysian passenger jet that went missing 10 days ago were believed to have been spoken by the co-pilot, the airline's top executive said Monday. AFP PHOTO / CHAIDEER MAHYUDDIN (Photo credit should read CHAIDEER MAHYUDDIN/AFP/Getty Images)
Colonel Do Duc Minh (2st L), Vietnam Air Force's 370 Division's Chief of Staff, points at a map as he speaks to reporters about search flights aimed at finding the missing Malaysia Airlines plane at Tan Son Nhat airport in Ho Chi Minh city on March 15, 2014. Do Duc Minh said Vietnam continues their search flights while widening the search areas close to air spaces under control of Thailand and Singapore. AFP PHOTO/HOANG DINH NAM (Photo credit should read HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images)
A ground worker carries out maintenance works on a Vietnam Air Force's Russian-made AN-26 aircraft that was used along with other types of aircrafts at finding the missing Malaysia Airlines plane at Tan Son Nhat airport in Ho Chi Minh city on March 15, 2014. A Malaysian jet that vanished a week ago appears to have changed course and continued flying for hours, a senior Malaysian military official said, citing radar data indicating a 'skilled, competent' pilot was at the controls. AFP PHOTO/HOANG DINH NAM (Photo credit should read HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images)
KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA MARCH 15: Mystery over the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines passenger Flight MH370 from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Beijing, China continues on March 15, 2014. The flight MH370 departed Kuala Lumpur at 12:41 a.m. (local time) on March 8 and lost contact with air traffic control near the Island of Pulau Perak, in less than an hour after take-off, at approximately 2:40 a.m. A joint search and rescue effort covering an area of the Strait of Malacca, the South China Sea and Andaman Sea is being conducted by more than 12 countries. ( Photo by AA Graphic/Anadolu Agency/ Getty Images)
KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - MARCH 14: Members of the public, MAS staff, and politicians pray during a special prayer as the search for missing Malaysian airline MH370 expands to the Indian Ocean March 14, 2014 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The missing aircraft carrying 227 passengers and 12 crew disappeared six days ago baffling the international rescue and search team who have found no remains or clues in the waters surrounding South East Asia. All passengers and crew are currently under investigation for possible sabotage although no evidence of such activity has been found. (Photo by Rahman Roslan/Getty Images)
Indonesian Air Force officials at Medan city military base plot the Indonesian military search operation for the missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 on March 12, 2014 in the area of Malacca Strait, a sea passageway between Indonesia (seen left of the map) and Malaysia (seen right on the map). Malaysia faced a storm of criticism on March 12 over contradictions and information gaps in the hunt for a missing airliner with 239 people on board, as the search zone dramatically veered far from the intended flight path. AFP PHOTO / ATAR (Photo credit should read ATAR/AFP/Getty Images)
A member of the Indonesian Air Force at Medan city military base inspects the Indonesian military search operation for the missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 on March 12, 2014 in the area of Malacca Strait, a sea passageway between Indonesia (seen left of the map) and Malaysia (seen top left of the map). Malaysia faced a storm of criticism on March 12 over contradictions and information gaps in the hunt for a missing airliner with 239 people on board, as the search zone dramatically veered far from the intended flight path. AFP PHOTO / ATAR (Photo credit should read ATAR/AFP/Getty Images)
Beachgoers walk past a sand sculpture made by Indian sand artist Sudersan Pattnaik with a message of prayers for the missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 - which vanished from radar early on March 8 with ongoing search operations mounted by multiple nations taking place in the South China Sea, the Malacca Strait, and the Andaman Sea - at Puri beach, some 65 kilometers away from Bhubaneswar, on March 14, 2014. Malaysia denied March 12 that the hunt for a missing jet was in disarray, after the search veered far from the planned route and China said that conflicting information about its course was 'pretty chaotic'. AFP PHOTO/ ASIT KUMAR (Photo credit should read ASIT KUMAR/AFP/Getty Images)
A relative of a passenger on board missing Malaysia Airlines (MAS) flight MH370 cries as she arrives at the Everly hotel in Putrajaya on March 12, 2014. Malaysia's air force chief said authorities have not ruled out the possibility a missing airliner inexplicably changed course before losing contact, but denied reports the jet had been detected far from its planned flight path. AFP PHOTO / MANAN VATSYAYANA (Photo credit should read MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP/Getty Images)
An Indonesian National Search and Rescue Agency personnel scans the seas aboard a boat on patrol in the Malacca Strait off Aceh province located in the area of northern Sumatra island on March 12, 2014 during the continued search for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370. The search for a missing Malaysian jet swung northwest towards the Andaman Sea on March 12, far from its intended flight path, exposing Malaysia to mounting criticism that its response was in disarray. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - MARCH 11: This composite of images #477770287 & #477770285 shows cctv imagery released by police of an Iranian suspect, Pouria Nour Mohammad Mehrdad, who was travelling on Flight MH370 with a stolen Austrian passport, (L) and an unindentified suspect who was travelling on Flight MH370 with a stolen Italian passport (R), on March 11, 2014 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Officials have expanded the search area for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 to include more of the Gulf of Thailand between Malayisa and Vietnam and land along the Malay Pensinusula. The flight carrying 239 passengers from Kuala Lumpur to Thailand was reported missing on the morning of March 8 after the crew failed to check in as scheduled. Relatives of the missing passengers have been advised to prepare for the worst as authorities focus on two passengers on board travelling with stolen passports. (Photo by How Foo Yeen/Getty Images)
KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - MARCH 10: Major General Datuk Affendi Buang briefs the media over latest updates on missing Malaysia Airline MH370 on March 10, 2014 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Potential sightings of possible airliner debris and a possible oil slick in the sea off Vietnam have not been officially verified or confirmed as investigative teams continue to search for the whereabouts of missing Malaysia Airlines flight MG370 and its 293 passengers, travelling from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. The airliner was reported missing on the morning of March 8 after the crew failed to check in as scheduled. Relatives of the missing passengers have been advised to prepare for the worst as authorities focus on two passengers on board travelling with stolen passports. (Photo by How Foo Yeen/Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - MARCH 08: Medical staff (C) arrive at a hotel meeting room care of families of missing persons at Lidu Hotel on March 8, 2014 in Beijing, China. Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing and carrying 239 onboard was reported missing after the crew failed to check in as scheduled while flying over the sea between Malaysia and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, according to published reports. (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)
Malaysian Airlines senior officials Dr Hugh Dunleavy (L) and a member of the airline's crisis management team, Ignatius Ong (R), face the Chinese media after arriving in China to deal with the missing Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200 plane, in Beijing on March 8, 2014. Malaysia Airlines said a flight carrying 239 people from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing went missing early on March 8, and the airline was notifying next of kin in a sign it expected the worst. AFP PHOTO / MARK RALSTON (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - MARCH 08: (CHINA OUT, SOUTH KOREA) Joshua Law Kok Hwa (C), Malaysia Airlines' regional senior vice president of China, speaks at a conference regarding the missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 at the Metropark Lido Hotel on March 8, 2014, in Beijing, China. Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing and carrying 239 onboard was reported missing after the crew failed to check in as scheduled while flying over the sea between Malaysia and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, according to published reports. (Photo by The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)
AT SEA, KELANTAN COAST, MALAYSIA - MARCH 09: In this handout provided by the Malaysian Maritime Agency, a patrol vessel of Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency searches during the search and rescue mission for Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 on March 9, 2014 off the Kelantan coast, Malaysia. Potential sightings of possible airliner debris and a possible oil slick in the sea off Vietnam have not been officially verified or confirmed as investigative teams continue to search for the whereabouts of missing Malaysia Airlines flight MG370 and its 293 passengers, travelling from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. The airliner was reported missing on the morning of March 8 after the crew failed to check in as scheduled. Relatives of the missing passengers have been advised to prepare for the worst as authorities focus on two passengers on board travelling with stolen passports. (Photo by Malaysian Maritime Agency via Getty Images)
Buddhist monks offer special prayers for passengers aboard the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang on March 9, 2014. Malaysia said a missing airliner carrying 239 people may have inexplicably turned back as authorities launched a terror probe into the plane's sudden disappearance, investigating suspect passengers who boarded with stolen passports. AFP PHOTO/ STR (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) -- 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 kilometers 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 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."

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 kilometers) 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."

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 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.

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.

The Malaysia Airlines jet had been headed from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. The 239 people aboard were mostly from China. In Beijing, passengers' relatives have complained that the airline has not been forthcoming with information, and that they've had to rely on news reports.

Some of those reports, however, have led to dead ends. Those false alarms appeared to leave searchers with little to go on.

The flight "was very high up in the air early in the morning, when it was still dark," Azharuddin said. "We have no witnesses on the ground and nobody on the plane can be contacted. The area is over the sea, so it's not as easy as that. There are a lot of constraints."

Whether the plane broke up in midair or crashed into the water, there would be some debris.

If the plane broke up "for some aerodynamic reason, like the wing fell off or there was a depressurization, there'd be big chunks of wing and fuselage all over the place. So it'd be very unlikely that it would just be destroyed and turned to dust," said Smart, the aerospace engineering professor.

He added that much of the wreckage may be at the bottom of the sea, which is 50 to 60 meters (165 to 195 feet) deep in the area where the plane was last detected.

The size of the debris field will be one of the first indicators of what happened, aviation experts say. A large, widespread field would signal the plane likely broke apart at a high elevation, perhaps because of a bomb or a massive airframe failure. A smaller field would indicate the plane probably fell intact, breaking up upon impact with the water.

Discovering the debris 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.

The Malaysian Airlines jet could be less of a challenge than the Adam Air crash in one respect: It was last tracked over much shallower water.

But for now, the mystery is overwhelming.

"It's hard to imagine what could have caused it with these modern planes," Smart said.

---

Gelineau reported from Sydney. Mayerowitz reported from New York. Chris Brummitt in Kuala Lumpur and Niniek Karmini in Jakarta contributed to this report.

© 2014 THE ASSOCIATED PRESS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. THIS MATERIAL MAY NOT BE PUBLISHED, BROADCAST, REWRITTEN OR REDISTRIBUTED. Learn more about our PRIVACY POLICY and TERMS OF USE.

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