But Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 is not the first reminder of how big the seas are, and of how agonising 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. Close 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. “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?”
In September 1990, a Boeing 727 owned by Faucett Airlines of Peru 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. One unproven theory is that it was stolen so the owner could collect insurance.
But experts says Flight MH370 will be found: “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.