Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak confirmed that a jet part found on an island near Africa came from Malaysia Airlines’ Flight 370, the first physical link to the jetliner that vanished almost 17 months ago.
Investigators have “conclusively” linked the piece to the missing aircraft, Najib said early Thursday at a briefing in Kuala Lumpur, the departure point for the plane carrying 239 people en route to Beijing.
Tying the debris to the doomed Boeing Co. 777 validates authorities’ hypothesis that the plane crashed in a remote stretch of the Indian Ocean southwest of Australia. But the discovery of the piece thousands of kilometers away on France’s Reunion island doesn’t pinpoint where the aircraft took its fatal plunge in March 2014 -- and why it strayed so far from its intended route.
“This is indeed a major breakthrough for us in resolving the disappearance of MH370,” Malaysia Airlines said in a statement. “We expect and hope that there would be more objects to be found which would be able to help resolve this mystery.”
The inquiry into the longest search for a modern commercial jet is a multinational effort involving French judicial authorities and the Malaysian government, as well as aviation accident investigators from France, the U.S. and Australia. Specialists from Boeing are also participating.
French officials are proceeding on the “strong presumption” that the part -- a wing component known as a flaperon -- comes from the doomed plane, deputy Paris prosecutor Serge Mackowiak told reporters in Paris.
That assessment is based on technical information from Boeing and from Malaysian aviation officials, Mackowiak said. He said French investigators are just starting their examinations of the flaperon, which is being studied at the Defense Ministry lab that was part of the probe into a 2009 Air France crash in the Atlantic Ocean. A suitcase found on Reunion, across the Indian Ocean from MH370’s presumed resting place, is being evaluated separately.
Authorities are conducting microscopic analyses and chemical studies of the flaperon to ferret out clues to the nature of the disaster. Such studies will take weeks or months, and still may not shed much light on the reasons why the plane went into the sea, according to John Cox, a former airline pilot who is president of consultant Safety Operating Systems.
“I don’t think there’s going to be a great, aha, moment tomorrow that says we have figured it out,” Cox said in a telephone interview. “This is going to be an additional piece of evidence, but I don’t think in and of itself it’s going to be conclusive.”
In the absence of any wreckage, other theories had proliferated: Perhaps the jet landed in central Asia, or perhaps it didn’t really double back across the Malaysian peninsula as radar tracks indicated. The discovery in the Indian Ocean settles that question.
“Today, 515 days since the plane disappeared, it is with a heavy heart that I must tell you that an international team of experts have conclusively confirmed that the aircraft debris found on Reunion island is indeed from MH370,” Najib said at the briefing.
The link to MH370 gives fresh momentum to a hunt that already has scanned more than 55,000 square kilometers (21,325 square miles) of the seabed southwest of Australia. The search area is about 3,800 kilometers (2,400 miles) southeast of Reunion.
The flaperon’s journey across such a huge expanse of ocean isn’t unexpected, said David Griffin, an oceanographer for CSIRO, Australia’s government scientific institute. Griffin has modeled potential paths of drifting wreckage for the investigation.
“The distance is not a problem. Things can easily go that distance in this amount of time,” he said by phone July 30. “We’ve always thought Madagascar was a likely area. This is north of that, but we’re still within the realm we expected.”
The aluminum part is hollow and if air is trapped, it would have been buoyant, floating at or just below the surface where ocean currents have the greatest effect, according to Cox, who participated in dozens of accident investigations in the U.S. while working as an airline pilot.
The piece is relatively large, which suggests it was the product of a low-speed crash that would leave a large debris field, Cox said. Safety experts have thought the Malaysian jet was destroyed in a high-speed crash, because months of searching with ships using deep-sea sonar yielded no wreckage.
The decision to focus on the particular area of the Indian Ocean was based mostly on eight failed connections between the plane and an Inmarsat Plc satellite, and an examination of the plane’s fuel load to gauge when its engines probably cut out and sent it falling into the water.