In the last few days, as ships and planes are deployed to search for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, radar and satellites have become powerful tools aiding the international teams scouring the seas.
While the use of the latest technology is invaluable in search and rescue missions, technology still has limited reach in some swathes of the planet, reports The Wall Street Journal (WSJ).
"The fact is that, in many parts of the world… radar coverage is not complete," the report quoted David McMillan, chairman of the Flight Safety Foundation and former head of Eurocontrol, Europe's air-traffic coordinator, as saying. "It's clearly an area for further improvement."
In the same region in 2007, it took search and rescue crews 10 days to find the first few pieces of an Indonesian Boeing 737 that crashed in the sea near Sulawesi.
Searchers needed 36 hours to locate the first wreckage of Air France Flight 447, which crashed over the Atlantic five years ago with 228 people aboard.
"If a plane goes down in the ocean, it's very difficult to find it," Richard B. Stone, a former president of the International Society of Air Safety Investigators, told WSJ.
The Aviation Safety Network, a database tracking accidents, lists 80 planes as 'missing' since 1948. No trace of the planes or their occupants was ever found, according to ASN President Harro Ranter.
It has been a long while since an aircraft disappeared for as long as flight MH370.
"The fact that it's so rare is the reason everyone is paying attention to it," Bob van der Linden, chairman of the aeronautics department at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, told WSJ.
Disappearances used to be more common. Amelia Earhart was notable as one of the first female aviators to set distance records in the 1930s. But she remains in the public consciousness today more because she disappeared in her Lockheed Electra near New Guinea while attempting to circumnavigate the globe.
Today, the WSJ report said, radar can generally track aircraft large and small. But even in an age of global satellite navigation and the perception of world-wide surveillance, there are still significant areas untouched by radar or regular observation.
However, the report said empty spots are shrinking. In the 1970s, the 'Bermuda Triangle' loomed in people's imagination after several military planes disappeared in the Atlantic Ocean region between Florida, Puerto Rico and Bermuda, and other planes and ships were said to have vanished there. Supernatural explanations were eventually debunked.
"The accident rate in the Bermuda Triangle is no better or worse than anywhere else, but it sounds intriguing," the Smithsonian's van der Linden told WSJ.
Rational explanations haven't limited people's imaginations. The hugely successful TV series "Lost" focused on passengers of a jetliner that crashed on a mysterious island not found on maps.
The WSJ report said disappearances are often simply accidents in remote locations, based on an analysis of planes that eventually showed up. Air France Flight 447, for instance, vanished for more than a day before searchers found floating pieces of the Airbus A330.
Millionaire adventurer Steve Fossett disappeared in September 2007 while flying a single-engine propeller plane near Yosemite National Park in California. It took more than a year to find the wreckage.
Other accidents are often too difficult to investigate, or the small number of people killed is deemed too low to merit a costly search. "It is very expensive to do," said Stone, the accident investigator, to WSJ.
There is no doubt modern technology increases the chance the Malaysia Airlines flight being found as seen in the case of the Air France crash. The question is when.
"There's going to be a trace somewhere. It will be found," van der Linden told WSJ. "It may be a surprise about where it's found, but we don't know what happened on the airplane." – March 12, 2014.