Why It's So Hard to Find Objects From Missing Malaysia Plane

Remote location and weather conditions make finding plane debris challenging.

ByColleen Curry
March 24, 2014, 2:23 PM

March 24, 2014 — -- Reports trickled in all weekend from search aircraft flying over the Indian Ocean and satellite images that spotted objects floating on the sea where missing Malaysia Airlines flight 370 is believed to have disappeared.

But as of Monday afternoon, search crews have still not been able to get to the debris and determine whether the objects are part of the missing plane.

This morning, Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak announced that a new analysis of satellite data showed the plane likely went down into the Indian Ocean more than 1,500 miles off the coast of Perth, Australia.

The news came on the heels of reports out of Australia this morning that a circular gray object and a rectangular orange object had been spotted by planes floating on the water. Over the weekend, crews identified what looked like wooden pallets, which MH370 was carrying on board, but were not able to identify whether the pallets were one and the same.

Last week, satellite photos depicted objects more than 70 feet long in the rough waters of the Indian Ocean.

Charles Alcock, editor in chief of Aviation International News, said that the remote location of the objects and the difficult weather conditions of the south Indian Sea would make it difficult for search teams to get to them.

"That's a long way from anywhere. They already have to make quite a journey to do the searching and imagine what vessels they'd have to be in. They're not in small maneuverable vehicles that they can get out of and get into the debris and look," Alcock said.

The search teams have been flying over wide swaths of ocean in military aircraft, including P-3 Orion and P-8 Poseidon planes. Ships, including navy supply ships, warships, and an icebreaker, have all been combing the ocean.

It is an enormous expanse of ocean in which to find such a small object.

"We've had situations before in that area where around-the-world racing yachts have gone missing, and they've had a devil of a time finding those poor people and a pretty hard time recovering them," Alcock said. "It's just not an easy thing to do."

Once an object is located, retrieving it could also be a problem.

"One problem is getting from the vessels down to water level. It would be tougher than it might seem," Alcock said. "It's a place far from land and a long, long sea voyage. The condition are far from ideal.

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Alcock pointed to the Air France Flight 447 that crashed two years ago. Search teams found no sign of the plane on top of the water, and only found the wreckage on the ocean's floor.

Another complication in the search for flight MH370 is the time that has eclipsed since the plane disappeared on March 8. If the plane crashed in the rough seas of the south Indian Ocean, it's possible that most parts of the jet would have sunk to the bottom of the ocean by now, he said.

"The most likely structures that could be floating in the ocean at this point... would obviously be lighter materials, things that would readily float and wouldn't get waterlogged," he said. "Many parts are now made of carbon fire, parts of the wing and parts of the tail."

"Structures like that might very well float," he said.

About the reports this morning that a gray or green object and an orange object were spotted from the air, Alcock said that many planes are painted green as a base coat and the only structural component of an airplane that is orange is the black box.

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