When Searching for Crashed Planes at Sea, Binoculars Are the Most Useful Tool

Technologies often fail to produce results, so when it comes to searching for planes lost at sea, the old-fashioned way works best

Photo: US Navy

Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared five days ago, but despite an international search effort, neither the plane nor any of the 239 people aboard have been located. In today's technologically advanced world, how is it possible that something as large as a Boeing 777-200 could go missing in the first place, and then continue to evade detection?

As Wired explains, the main reason is simply that the ocean is very, very large in comparison to even the biggest plane. The case of the missing Malaysia Airlines jet is further complicated because authorities have no idea where that plane went down. Normally, Wired writes, this is what happens when a distress call comes in: 

When the call comes in–either a distress call from an aircraft or a ship, or an alert from another agency–authorities direct any available ships, helicopters and aircraft toward the vessel’s last known position. The number of vessels deployed will depend upon the situation–an aircraft carrier wouldn’t respond to a sailboat sinking a mile offshore, for example, but would be dispatched if it were the vessel closest to a distressed ship on the high sea.

If the vessel in distress cannot be promptly located, search and rescue craft begin a search pattern. The Coast Guard has five general patterns, and which one is deployed depends upon the accuracy of any information about where the distress call was made and whether, and where, datum–possible debris sightings–are reported.

In this case, however, no such call came in, so the search area encompasses a much larger terrirory.

For any plane crash, more time that passes, the more currents and drift will scatter and disperse debris. News broke late yesterday that a Chinese satellite might have spotted remnants of the plane in the Straight of Malacca. But those images were taken on Sunday, March 9—the day after the crash—and were only released on Wednesday.

When technologies fail, as they so often do, finding a lost plane at sea comes down to a simply handing out binoculars to search-and-rescue personnel and then flying over the ocean or driving around in ships, trying to spot some sign of debris. But as Wired points out, given that the plane could be anywhere in a more than 500,000 square mile area, the chances of those efforts producing quick results are also very slim. 

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