Investigators hunting for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 got their first real break after 16 fruitless months when debris that appears to be part of a Boeing Co. 777 wing washed up on France’s Reunion island off Madagascar.
Boeing engineers studying photos of the piece have determined that the part came from a 777, a person familiar with the investigation said. While that’s the same model as the missing aircraft, it isn’t clear whether the debris is from the plane that vanished with 239 people aboard in March 2014.
“Initial reports suggest that the debris is very likely to be from a Boeing 777, but we need to verify whether it is from flight MH370,” Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said Thursday. “At this stage it is too early to speculate,” he said. “We have had many false alarms before.”
French officials forwarded photographs to authorities in Australia, who have been leading the probe. The pictures show what seems part of a wing, said Joe Hattley, a spokesman for the Australian Transport Safety Bureau. Only five 777 jets have ever suffered irreparable damage, according to Aviation Safety.
The part is likely a flaperon from a 777, a movable panel on the rear of the wing that’s used to bank the wings and can also be moved to expand the wing’s size during takeoff and landing, according to a second person familiar with the development.
No trace of the plane has been discovered in the world’s longest search for a commercial jet. Ships using deep-sea sonar have scanned tens of thousands of square kilometers of the Indian Ocean seabed southwest of Perth, Australia. The Reunion island is about 3,800 kilometers (2,360 miles) northwest of the region of the search -- and both are nowhere near the 777’s intended Kuala Lumpur-to-Beijing route.
“It’s possible that something that went into the ocean off the Western Australian coast has now drifted to the Western Indian Ocean,” Hattley said. “It’s been 16 months.”
The French transport police in La Reunion are looking at the aircraft piece and have asked Boeing experts to conduct an analysis to determine whether the piece is from a 777, and if so, whether it’s from MH370, according to a spokesman for the French authority responsible for safety investigations.
Malaysia’s Najib said the debris will be shipped by French authorities to Toulouse to determine as quickly as possible if it’s from MH370. Malaysian officials from the transport ministry and civil aviation department, MH370 investigators and airline representatives are heading to the French city, where the nearest office of air-accident agency BEA is located, the prime minister said.
Of the five 777s that have suffered irreparable damage, two incidents were on the tarmac of airports in London and Cairo. An Asiana Airlines plane landed short of a runway at San Francisco airport in 2013 while Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was suspected of being shot down over Ukraine last year. And then there’s MH370.
“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,” Geoffrey Dell, a professor specializing in accident investigation at Australia’s Central Queensland University, said by phone from Adelaide.
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.
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.
“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.
While the vanished Malaysian aircraft is one 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, according to John Cox, a former airline captain and chief executive officer of Washington-based consultant Safety Operating Systems. No other 777 plane has ever crashed in that region.
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 in a telephone interview.
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 effect, 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.
“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.”