When Australia called off the surface search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 on April 28, Prime Minister Tony Abbot explained that “It is highly unlikely at this stage that we will find any aircraft debris on the ocean surface. By this stage, 52 days into the search, most material would have become waterlogged and sunk.”
But would the debris really have sunk? Modern aircraft are made of metal, composites, and plastic, materials that do not get waterlogged. If, as the Australian Transport Safety Board (ATSB) believes is most likely, MH370 ran out of fuel and then crashed, it would have been moving at hundreds of miles per hour when it hit the sea. Much of the resulting debris would have settled down through the water column, but innumerable pieces would have remained afloat. After Air France Flight 447 went down in the middle of the Atlantic in 2009, searchers found some 3,000 pieces of debris scattered across the surface.
With the passage of time, the absence of MH370 debris becomes increasingly puzzling. Recently Emirates Airlines CEO Tim Clarke expressed frustration over the ATSB analysis of the plane’s fate, saying: ”Our experience tells us that in water incidents, where the aircraft has gone down, there is always something.” This is true. As far as I know, there have been no cases where a commercial airliner has crashed into the sea and no parts were recovered, even if the crash occured in an unknown location far out in the middle of the ocean, as MH370’s presumably did.
Consider the fate of the Boeing 377 Stratocruiser “Clipper Romance of the Skies,” which disappeared on the first leg of a planned round-the-world flight somewhere between San Francisco and Hawaii in 1957. An aircraft carrier was dispatched and found floating debris six days later, halfway between its origin and destination and 90 miles from its planned track, some 1,000 miles from the nearest land.
The area where MH370 is now believed most likely to have gone down is a bit further out to sea, some 1,500 miles southwest of Perth. But far more assets were been deployed in the search, including satellite, ships, and land-based aircraft. Indeed, the area was one of the first to be searched for surface wreckage back in March.
Still, it’s easy to imagine that even pieces of debris might have been overlooked in the vastness of the sea, especially given the uncertainty surrounding the plane’s crash site. That’s why many have long thought that the first hard proof of the plane’s fate might well take the form of flotsam washing up on a beach somewhere.