A part number on the wing component that washed ashore on a French island in the Indian Ocean confirms that it was from a Boeing Co. 777, the model of a Malaysia Air plane that vanished in March 2014, according to a U.S. official.
The wing section is being taken to France by investigators from that nation and will be examined under the supervision of Malaysian authorities, the official said. Photos of the part also helped Boeing identify it, said the official, who wasn’t authorized to speak about the investigation.
While investigators haven’t determined that the piece found on Reunion island came from missing Malaysia Air Flight 370, no other 777s are known to have crashed in the Indian Ocean.
The part was identified as a flaperon from a 777, a movable panel on the rear of the wing that’s used to bank the plane and can also be moved to expand the wing’s size during takeoff and landing, according to a second person familiar with the development.
The tattered remains of a suitcase also were found on a Reunion island beach near where the wing part was discovered, according to a report by the Journal de L’ile de La Reunion.
Flight 370 went missing on March 8, 2014, after communication equipment on the aircraft stopped functioning and it veered from its course from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing and flew into the Indian Ocean. Investigators have concluded that someone on board the plane intentionally disabled tracking devices.
Searchers have found no trace of the plane despite deep-sea sonar scans of tens of thousands of square kilometers. Reunion island, where the component was found, is about 3,800 kilometers (2,360 miles) northwest of the region of the search.
Based on pings between a satellite and the plane, searchers believe it flew until it ran out of fuel somewhere along an arc west of Australia in the Indian Ocean.
“It’s possible that something that went into the ocean off the Western Australian coast has now drifted to the Western Indian Ocean,” Joe Hattley, a spokesman for the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, said. “It’s been 16 months.”
A part number for the flaperon would enable investigators to quickly identify the aircraft type that the wreckage came from, but not whether the piece came from MH370, said John Purvis, who used to head Boeing’s accident investigations unit.
For a definitive link to the Malaysian plane, investigators would look for serial numbers on one of the pieces within the flap or inspection stamps, Purvis said in a phone interview. Boeing has a record of all sub-components with serial numbers installed on an aircraft as it is assembled, Purvis said.
“When an airplane crashes, one of the first things done is to freeze production records and manuals so that nothing is destroyed,” he said.
The wreckage on Reunion provides assurance that the lengthy search has been in the right ocean, Purvis said. “If one piece washes ashore, then there is more out there that will wash ashore,” he said.
While the piece may have been adrift for more than a year and battered on the shoreline, investigators will attempt to tease from it clues about what happened to the Malaysian jet.
By studying fracture lines and the surface of the part, investigators may be able to determine how it sheared off the 777 and whether the flaperon was extended at the time. Flaperons are used when pilots slow a plane for landing, so the position might provide a clue as to whether the Malaysian pilots were in control of the plane during its final moments, he said.
“There’s a lot of forensic evidence” lurking in the wreckage, said John Cox, a former airline captain and chief executive of Safety Operating Systems, an aviation consultant.
“The question is whether corrosion has compromised it,” he said.
Fragments of wreckage have given a remarkably accurate portrait of accidents, thanks to forensic evidence left behind by the violence of a crash.
More than a year before flight recorders were discovered on Air France Flight 447, which crashed in the Atlantic Ocean in 2009, French investigators were able to determine how it hit the water as a result of examining wreckage.