Jet Investigators’ Challenge: Linking Wave-Tossed Part to MH370

Boeing Co. is dispatching a team to France as investigators prepare to analyze the sea-battered wing flap suspected of coming from the Malaysian jetliner that vanished 16 months ago.

The part found on France’s Reunion island in the Indian Ocean will be examined by Wednesday in the same laboratory that scoured fragments of an Air France jet that crashed in the Atlantic in 2009. A suitcase discovered near the debris also will be studied, the Paris prosecutor’s office said Friday.

With the part, called a flaperon, established as belonging to a Boeing 777, the same model as Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, investigators are focused now on linking the wreckage to the doomed aircraft. Technical experts from Boeing are assisting in the multinational effort at the request of “civil aviation investigating authorities,” the planemaker said Friday.

“Our goal, along with the entire global aviation industry, continues to be not only to find the airplane, but also to determine what happened -- and why,” Doug Alder, a Boeing spokesman, said in an e-mail.

The involvement of investigators and officials from multiple countries underscores the complexity of the Malaysia Air mystery, which now spans Southeast Asia to Australia to Reunion to a government lab in Toulouse in southwest France.

‘Bit Difficult’

“It’s a bit difficult when something lands in the great white oceans, because you don’t own the ocean more than 12 miles off your coastline,” Brian O’Keefe, a former vice president of the International Civil Aviation Organization’s general assembly, said by phone from Canberra, Australia.

Flight 370 was en route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur in March 2014 with 239 people on board when it vanished without a trace. Investigators concluded by analyzing satellite signals that the jet turned back over the Indian Ocean and probably plunged into the sea off Australia’s western coast.

The wreckage that washed ashore in Reunion is the strongest clue yet in a search that is now the longest ever for a missing commercial jet. A part number on the flaperon enabled investigators to determine that it came from a 777.

If the lab analysis proves the piece is from Flight 370, it won’t pinpoint the plane’s resting place. But it could give fresh momentum to search efforts.

“The sighting of this wreckage is consistent with the aircraft being located in the search area,” Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss told a media conference in Canberra Friday. Investigators have been focusing on a remote stretch of ocean some 3,800 kilometers (2,360 miles) southeast of Reunion.

‘No Record’

While investigators haven’t definitively determined that the piece came from MH370, “it probably is from the plane,” O’Keefe said. “There’s no record of anybody else reporting a piece falling off an airplane in this area.”

With the part number for the flaperon, investigators can quickly identify the aircraft type and the side on which the part was installed, said John Purvis, who used to lead Boeing’s accident investigations unit.

But since the number is used for all Boeing 777s, it isn’t proof that the flap ruptured from MH370. For a definitive link to the Malaysian plane, investigators would look for other proof on sub-components, including inspection stamps and serial numbers on pieces within the flap assembly, Purvis said in a phone interview.

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