Investigators looking for links tying the jet part found on France’s Reunion island to Malaysia Airlines’ doomed Flight 370 have homed in on a crucial clue: evidence that the piece had once been repaired.
Now they’re trying to match that fix on the so-called flaperon to the carrier’s maintenance records, said a person familiar with the probe who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly. The part also is stamped with a date consistent with the production of the Boeing Co. 777, the person said.
The evidence will be critical in determining once and for all whether the Indian Ocean flotsam came from the missing plane. Proving a connection to Flight 370 is an important symbolic first step in solving one of the greatest mysteries in aviation history, and raises hopes that other debris may surface almost 17 months after the jet vanished with 239 people on board.
The working assumption is still that the wing part came from MH370 because it’s a 777 component and there are no other missing jets of that type. But taken together, the strengths and gaps in the circumstantial findings show why early pronouncements varied so widely after investigators in France began examining the wreckage.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak on Thursday declared the piece “conclusively” tied to the jet while a French prosecutor said authorities were working only on a “strong presumption” that it came from MH370, which vanished en route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur in March 2014.
On Friday, Malaysian Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai downplayed any discrepancy between the comments from Najib and the Paris prosecutor. Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop also stopped short of Najib’s certitude Thursday, describing only a “high probability” the flaperon came from MH370.
In an interview in Kuala Lumpur, Liow said Najib’s statement runs “parallel” to the French prosecutor’s, “and it’s not contradicting.”
He also said any decision on expanding the search zone for the missing plane would be left up to experts from Australia’s Joint Agency Coordination Centre. Australia has led a search of nearly 60,000 square kilometers (23,000 square miles) of seabed off its southwest coast, some 3,800 kilometers (2,400 miles) from where the flaperon was found on Reunion.
In a statement posted late Thursday on the French Defense Ministry website, France said it would deploy planes, helicopters, boats and foot patrols to search for additional debris on Reunion and in surrounding waters.
Malaysia’s Liow said Thursday that more debris resembling airplane parts had been found on Reunion and would be sent to France for testing. The items included materials from seat cushions and window panes, he said.
The July 29 discovery of the flaperon on Reunion doesn’t pinpoint where MH370 took its fatal plunge -- or indicate why the plane strayed so far from its intended route.
Based on the aircraft’s errant course and the way communications equipment on board was disabled, investigators suspect the wide-body 777 was intentionally steered to one of the most remote regions on earth.
The inquiry is the longest search for a modern commercial jet, involving French judicial authorities and the Malaysian government, as well as aviation accident investigators from the U.S., Australia and France. Specialists from Chicago-based Boeing also are participating.
On Friday, several dozen relatives of the MH370 victims walked out of a meeting with Malaysia Airlines in Beijing when they weren’t allowed to bring media into the room. They also were unhappy that nobody from the Malaysian government had attended.
“I never knew that a company could take the place of a country,” said Jiang Hui, whose mother was on Flight 370.
The relatives then moved to the Malaysian embassy in downtown Beijing, where they sat in rows holding placards protesting the government’s handling of the tragedy. There was a brief scuffle as one elderly man tried to breach a police cordon blocking the road. Tears flowed as some female relatives knelt and begged for the return of their relatives.
In France, meanwhile, the examination continued seeking definitive evidence tying the flaperon to the vanished plane.
The person familiar with the investigation said a data plate on the flaperon was missing when investigators first examined it in France on Wednesday, making a firm identification more difficult. Separately, Malaysia’s Liow said a maintenance seal on the wing part matched Malaysia Airlines’ records.
The flaperon was manufactured by EADS CASA Espacio LS, a Madrid-based aircraft company that is now a division of Airbus Group SE, another person familiar with the probe said. Investigators are turning to the company for help in the examination of the piece.
E-mails seeking comment from Airbus weren’t immediately returned.
A bore scope was inserted into the flaperon Thursday to examine the interior in search of definitive markings, the person said. None were found. The scope provided video images without having to take the flaperon apart or damage it.