Investigators leading the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, missing for more than a year, are trying to determine whether debris that washed up on Reunion island off Madagascar belongs to the missing aircraft.
French officials have forwarded photographs of what looks like part of an aircraft wing, Joe Hattley, a spokesman for the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, said by telephone Thursday. Based on photos, the wreckage appears to have come from a Boeing 777, the same model as the missing aircraft, although it isn’t yet clear if it’s from the plane, a person familiar with the investigation said.
“It may be able to tell us something, depending on the type of damage,” Hattley said. “It’s possible that something that went into the ocean off the Western Australian coast has now drifted to the Western Indian Ocean. It’s been 16 months.”
No trace of the plane has been discovered in the world’s longest search for a commercial jet since it disappeared en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing in March 2014 with 239 people on board. Ships using deep-sea sonar have scanned tens of thousands of square kilometers of the Indian Ocean seabed southwest of Perth, Australia.
Photos of Wreckage
“I wouldn’t bust open the champagne yet, but it’s the first validation that we’re in the right ocean,” Geoffrey Dell, a professor specializing in accident investigation at Australia’s Central Queensland University, said by phone from Adelaide. “If I was in command I’d be doing every test I’m capable of doing, because you’re in a vacuum of information, and if it can shed any light it’s worthwhile.”
Malaysia Airlines said it was working with relevant authorities to confirm the matter. The part is currently in the custody of police on Reunion, an overseas province of France, according to the ATSB.
“At the moment, it would be too premature for the airline to speculate the origin of the flaperon,” Malaysia Airlines said by e-mail.
The way in which the wing surface has been deformed could give an indication of whether the plane broke up in mid-flight or on impact with the water, according to Dell. Scanning damage with an electron microscope could give more information about the nature of the disaster.
Malaysian Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai said at the United Nations in New York his country was sending a team to Reunion to verify the wreckage.
While the vanished Malaysian aircraft is a possible source of the debris, the wing flap could have belonged to a Yemenia Airlines Airbus A310 that crashed off the Comoros Islands in 2009, John Cox, a former airline captain and chief executive officer of Washington-based Safety Operating Systems, a consultant, said in a phone interview.
If the component has a clearly identifiable part number, investigators should quickly be able to determine if the piece came from a Boeing or Airbus Group SE aircraft, Cox said.
Without the part number, investigators should still be able to trace the origin by looking at distinctive features such as rivet patterns, he said. Examining the metal alloy used could also help identify it, according to Dell.
“If it came off a 777, it’s MH370,” Cox said. “If it’s from an A310, it’s the Yemenia flight.”
The aluminum part is hollow and if air is trapped, it would’ve been buoyant, floating at or just below the surface where ocean currents have the greatest affect, Cox said.
The piece is relatively large, which suggests it was the product of a low-speed crash, which leave large debris fields, Cox said. Safety experts have thought the Malaysian jet was destroyed in a high-speed crash after months of deep-water searches yielded no debris.
In the absence of debris from the plane, amateur sleuths have speculated that it landed in central Asia or failed to double back across the Malaysian peninsula, as radar tracks indicated.
Information about how the piece came apart from the plane may also help the ATSB. Investigators have been examining their assumptions about the angle at which the plane fell into the sea after a search of 50,000 square kilometers of seafloor failed to turn up any debris.
The search has focused on areas close to where the plane’s fuel is thought to have run out on the assumption that it crashed at a fairly steep angle. If it descended at a more shallow pitch, it may have traveled further out than investigators are currently searching.
“We really need to find the aircraft itself.” the ATSB’s Hattley said.
Boeing said in a statement it remains committed to supporting the MH370 investigation and the search for the aircraft. The company continues to share its technical expertise and analysis, it said.
Malaysia’s civil aviation department in January declared Flight 370 an accident and said all on board were presumed dead. That declaration was intended to help families obtain assistance including compensation.
Photographs of the piece were first widely-circulated on the blog of Xavier Tytelman, the Paris-based founder of Peur Avion, a fear-of-flying consultancy. He posted the images after discussing the images with other aviation specialists in closed online forums.
“I expected to be wrong and to prove it was something else but we only found one match: the flap of a Boeing 777,” he said by phone from Paris. “Now, even if we don’t find anything else, even if we don’t have the black box, at least we have the proof that the plane is under the water.”