With all the searching on the surface of the Indian Ocean for evidence of Flt. 370, I'm wondering if there's any conceivable scenario in which the Boeing 777 could have sunk without producing any floating wreckage.

Is it possible for a 777 or similar model to hit water without leaving a trace of remains on the surface?


3 Answers 3


Yes, but only under highly unlikely circumstances. An airplane contains all sorts of materials that float, from fuel to seat cushions to the plastic cups in the galley. In order to sink without leaving any floating wreckage, all of that material would need to be trapped within the airplane while it fills with water.

In order for this to happen, the airplane needs to land intact on the water. As any number of ditchings indicate, this isn't going to happen -- even US Airways 1549 had the rear of the fuselage tear open on landing. More often, the engines or wings will tear off, leaving oil and fuel slicks.

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    $\begingroup$ all of which debris will sooner or later (and most likely sooner) become waterlogged and sink. Depending on environmental conditions that may only take minutes. And that includes the oil slicks which, especially in warm water, can dissipate very rapidly. $\endgroup$
    – jwenting
    Commented Mar 21, 2014 at 10:08
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    $\begingroup$ @jwenting not all debris: for example a seat cushion / flotation device or an (even partially) inflated lifejacket will float for a long time. $\endgroup$
    – yankeekilo
    Commented Mar 21, 2014 at 15:30
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    $\begingroup$ "In order for this to happen, the airplane needs to land intact on the water." Which would likely leave survivors able to use the slides as rafts, among other things. $\endgroup$
    – Adam Davis
    Commented Mar 25, 2014 at 17:48
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    $\begingroup$ US Airways 1549 landed on calm water. There is no way to land a large jet intact on any significant waves and there are always waves in the middle of an ocean. $\endgroup$
    – Jan Hudec
    Commented Apr 4, 2014 at 22:51
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    $\begingroup$ Not slow-rolling, slow + rolling: as opposed to choppy, fast and high. I'm not saying a jet can or should land on waves, just that the sea can sometimes be very calm indeed. You said that a jet can't land on "significant" waves and that there are "always" waves in the ocean, but there are not always "significant" waves $\endgroup$
    – Jon Story
    Commented Dec 15, 2014 at 13:45

Yes, it's certainly possible. But it all depends on a lot of factors.

  • Speed of impact. Obviously, the lower the speed of impact the fewer pieces will break away.
  • time. Even if things break away and float, after a while they'll sink as they become water logged. And that may only take minutes.
  • environmental conditions. Water temperature affects the speed at which chemical spills dissipate. So do wind and currents. Wind and currents, through wave action, can also break up into tiny fragments and cause to sink any floating debris.

So even if something were left on the surface after the impact, after a few hours most of it would be gone. After days, unless the aircraft crashed near a shore and pieces wash up, most likely there's nothing left to see unless very large pieces broke off and managed to stay afloat (which would require very calm surface conditions indeed).

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    $\begingroup$ Not everything that becomes waterlogged sinks. Consider something like a foam seat cushion: if the material the foam is made from is less dense than water, it will continue to float even if the air bubbles become full of water. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 21, 2014 at 22:25
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidRicherby until its deteriorated by wave action, salt corrosion, and sunlight to the point where it breaks up. $\endgroup$
    – jwenting
    Commented Mar 27, 2014 at 11:23
  • $\begingroup$ Sure but that takes much more than a few hours. Many synthetic materials take years to biodegrade, even in relatively hostile environments. Plastics, for example, don't care if you cover them in salt. If the plane broke up when it hit the water, parts of it will remain afloat for a very long time; the problem is that the parts will disperse over a huge area. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 27, 2014 at 12:10

It may possible like the US Airways Flight 1549 ditched in the Hudson River

This was in a river with smooth water. I'm not sure if there's ever been a passenger jet successfully land intact on the sea.

If the Malaysian flight successfully ditched like Flight 1549, then I'm not sure if the plane could float for hours. It would sink for sure if the doors were opened.

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    $\begingroup$ I'm no expert but Airbus and Boeing have fairly different philosophies when it comes to automation. The Hudson River Landing was due to a combination of piloting skill and an autopilot system that was engaged right till impact and kept the plane in a controlled descent within a safe flight envelope. Boeing gives far more control to the pilots and the autopilot plays a smaller role, which may make the same scenario much less likely with a Boeing. Water landings are not a big part of pilot training as there just isn't enough data to simulate the scenario sufficiently, to the best of my knowledge $\endgroup$
    – asheeshr
    Commented Mar 24, 2014 at 2:48
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    $\begingroup$ @AsheeshR Whether it is a Boeing or an Airbus, both could have the autopilot engaged in much the same manner for the flight that you refer to. In fact, even a Cessna with no autopilot, or an Airbus/Boeing with the autopilot disengaged (or even failed) can be flown by the pilot in a similar manner. It is the pilot's responsibility to keep the aircraft within a safe flight envelope, regardless of what the automation does! $\endgroup$
    – Lnafziger
    Commented Mar 24, 2014 at 3:01
  • $\begingroup$ @Tasos Airliners have to be certified to float. See Why would an airplane be approved for ditching? $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 24, 2014 at 11:13
  • $\begingroup$ @AsheeshR: it doesn't matter about the chances so much, rather the possibility of doing so -- it isn't impossible, nor are the chances extremely remote in calm conditions (storms are another story). $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 24, 2014 at 11:35
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    $\begingroup$ @AsheeshR Your comment prompted a question: How, exactly, did US1549 land on the Hudson? $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 25, 2014 at 14:13

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