Why finding a plane in a big ocean is almost impossible

A pilot on board a Vietnamese Air Force Russian-made AN-27 searches Vietnam’s southern sea for missing Malaysia Airlines’ flight MH370 on March 14, 2014. Photo: Hoang Dinh/AFP/Getty Images.

One of the takeaways from this week’s disappearance of the Malaysia Airlines jetliner is this reality: it’s not a small world after all.

Rob Cockerham at the website Science Club has calculated how hard it is to find something the size of a jetliner in the expanse of the Indian Ocean. He writes today that he thought it would be like finding a needle at Disneyland. What he found is it’s a lot harder.

“Finding a jet in the Indian Ocean is equivalent to finding a two-foot toy plane in Texas,” he writes.

But that actually sounds doable. So he did more calculations.

“Imagine trying to find a sesame seed in Yosemite,” he says.

Or a grain of salt in San Francisco.

The width of a human hair in Manhattan.

A red blood cell at Burning Man.

Assuming it’s there at all, of course.

  • Dave

    Imagine trying to find a sesame seed in Yosemite. A seed that likely was detected on satellite before it went missing. A seed that may have transmitted engine data before it went down. Imagine trying to find it the help of many countries and their military hardware.

    • Two words: Steve Fossett

      Chances are this plane will eventually be found … by someone who was looking for or doing something else at the time of stumbling across it.

      If it’s there at all.

  • John

    Bob – Rob’s website is Cockeyed.com, not Science Club. Science Club is a section on his site. (Rob’s good people – original internet content creator first class for many years now – he’ll be tickled that you featured him on the NewsCut blog).

    Also – when I told him (which I assume led him to reading your article), he passed on that he had to make some corrections because the kind of people who read boingboing pointed out some math errors he had made – I think they may also need correcting above.

    • Guest

      Also – when I told him (which I assume led him to reading your article), he passed on that he had to make some corrections because the kind of people who read boingboing pointed out some math errors he had made – I think they may also need correcting above.

  • kevinfromminneapolis

    Consider the improbably lucky things that must happen in consecutive order here to get the answers we all want, assuming it was hijacked and impacted the ocean:

    Someone has to be looking in the right place –> And spot something –> That has not sank in 10 days –> then compare that location to weather patterns and ocean currents to determine where just this one piece may have impacted –> and have that be the correct location it impacted –> and have that be the sole point of impact, which shattered the plane into a million pieces –> most of which have all now sank to the bottom of the ocean –> and are located down there –> including the FDR and CVR –> which if found –> are still undamaged –> and were functional during the flight –> and can be recovered.

    I don’t like those odds. They might find parts or bigger parts, but after this long I don’t expect to get a full answer of what happened.