The length of time since the crash and the complex dynamics of ocean currents and fickle sea winds make it impossible to determine with precision where the object entered the water.
Though the airplane debris found on a remote French island in the Indian Ocean may yield the first tangible proof that a Malaysian jetliner that vanished in March 2014 crashed into the sea, experts said it may not be much help in solving the mystery of where to find the plane’s wreckage.
The length of time since the crash and the complex dynamics of ocean currents and fickle sea winds make it impossible to determine with any precision where the object found on Réunion Island on Wednesday entered the water, experts said.
Officials said Thursday that it would probably take several days to establish whether the object is what it appears to be — a flaperon from the wing of a Boeing 777 aircraft — and that it came from Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370. French officials said Thursday the object was being shipped to a laboratory near Toulouse for analysis.
Even if the object is authenticated, experts said, nothing about its discovery would either confirm or contradict the crash investigators’ belief, based on radar data and satellite signals, that Flight MH370 went down in an empty stretch of the Indian Ocean, southwest of Australia, an area search crews have been scouring fruitlessly.
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What the discovery would confirm, according to David Gallo, director of special projects at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, is: “They’re actually looking for a plane that went into the water.”
Flight MH370 crashed with 239 people aboard after disappearing from radar screens on a March 8, 2014, flight from the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, to Beijing.
The disappearance of the jet about an hour into the six-hour flight to Beijing sparked the most extensive search operation in aviation history, involving at least a dozen countries at the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars.
Australian officials in charge of the search for the jet pointed out that the debris washing up on Réunion would be consistent with investigators’ theory that the plane flew for several hours after losing contact with air traffic control and may have crashed only after running out of fuel.
“It’s too early to make that judgment, but clearly we are treating this as a major lead,” Warren Truss, Australia’s deputy prime minister and investigation leader, said Thursday at a news conference in Sydney.
News agencies in Australia quoted leaked reports from investigators, including one from Boeing, that photos of the flaperon showed it was marked with a visible identification number, all but confirming the piece was part of a 777 wing.
Five Boeing 777s have met with disaster since the jet went into service 20 years ago, and only the Flight MH370 plane is unaccounted for. Wreckage from the other four planes was recovered after they crashed in London in 2008, Cairo in 2011, San Francisco in 2013 and in the eastern Ukrainian village of Hrabove a year ago after it was shot down over the war-torn region.
Barry Klinger, an oceanographer at George Mason University, calculates that surface debris in the area of the ocean being searched could have drifted at speeds of 1,500 to 6,200 miles a year, making a landfall on Réunion, roughly 2,300 miles from the search area, well within the realm of possibility.
Similarly, Gallo said his calculations showed currents could have carried Flight MH370 wreckage to Réunion by now. “That fits,” he said in an interview.
Within that broad general trend, though, surface winds and local currents vary constantly, and a particular floating object can be driven in erratic and unpredictable ways from day to day. The longer the object is in the water, the more difficult it becomes to determine its point of origin with any precision.
“In truth, it’s not like a steady conveyor belt,” Gallo said. “You’ve got to take monsoons and typhoons into account. And the currents don’t usually flow like rivers, but more like eddies — swirling, sometimes fast and sometimes slow, and sometimes even reversing course.”
Since no trace of debris from Flight MH370 had been found before now, most investigators believed the plane hit the water more or less intact and then submerged relatively quickly. In that event, certain lighter parts of the plane with a large surface area, such as sections of the wings or tail, might be expected to break off and float, while the heavier structural components, including the fuselage, would sink to the ocean floor fairly close by.
The discovery of the plane part has changed the life of Réunion environmental worker Johnny Bègue. He said he stumbled across the part Wednesday, while collecting stones to grind spices.
“I knew immediately it was part of an aircraft, but I didn’t realize how important it was, that it could help to solve the mystery of what happened to the Malaysian jet,” said Bègue, 46.
He said he called several workmates and they carried the wing fragment out of the water so it would not be battered by the surf against the volcanic rocks that make up most of the beach.
Bègue also discovered a piece of a suitcase about 8 feet away, he said, though it’s unclear whether there is any link to the plane wing.
Authorities wouldn’t comment Thursday on whether Bègue was the first to report discovering the part. Colleague Teddy Riviere corroborated his account, and praised him for the discovery.