(originally published 2016-09-03T23:01:59Z)
I've seen an image online recently that looks like this:
It's kinda funny, especially when you consider a bunch of submarines flying around. It made me wonder, though, whether there are more airplanes in the oceans than in the sky. Airplanes have been crossing oceans since 1919 and once they crash, they aren't brought back up. I suspect that after almost 100 years of transoceanic aviation, humanity has sunk more airplanes that we currently have in the air. Let's find out!
According the FlightRadar.com, there were 12,075 airplanes in the air at the time of this writing. FlightRadar tracks planes using a variety of methods including conventional radar and ADS-B, so I think their numbers are pretty accurate. This number varies throughout the day, but 12,500 seems to be about as high as it gets.
Finding the number of planes in the ocean is trickier. There's no way I can think of to get an exact number, but figuring out an upper or lower bound might be good enough.
The ocean in which I would expect to find the most planes is the Pacific, due to its size and its role in World War II. According to the Wikipedia page on WWII equipment losses, the United States lost 14,533 aircraft in the Pacific theater while Japan lost 20,000 in WWII operations. Given the sparsity of land in the Pacific Ocean, I think it's safe to assume that at least half of the aircraft lost fell into the ocean. If we say that just 50% of these planes sank, that's 17,267 airplanes already.
It's hard to tell how many other planes crashed in the ocean in other places or in other wars. Records tend not to indicate the exact conditions or location of plane crashes. The UK did lose eight aircraft carriers in its history, though, which in total count for about 200 planes. Commercial airline crashes are insignificant in number and no other war in history involved the loss of as many planes as WWII. 17,500, then, is a good lower bound for the number of planes in the ocean.
It looks like that are indeed more airplanes in the ocean than in the sky! The peak number of airplanes in the sky these days is not more than 13,000, while the number of airplanes in the ocean is at least 17,000. Pretty remarkable. It's also interesting that since there weren't nearly as many submarines sunk in history as airplanes, there are also more airplanes in the ocean than submarines. So next time you see that "more airplanes in the ocean than submarines in the sky image" feel free to respond with one of these: