Investigators who examined photos of the aircraft part identified it as a piece from a Boeing 777 wing, and the only such plane missing is the Malaysia Airlines jetliner that disappeared in March 2014.
PARIS — A sea-crusted wing part that washed up on an island in the western Indian Ocean and may be the first trace of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 since it vanished nearly a year and a half ago, will be sent to the French city of Toulouse for investigation, Malaysia’s prime minister said Thursday
“We have had many false alarms before, but for the sake of the families who have lost loved ones, and suffered such heartbreaking uncertainty, I pray that we will find out the truth so that they may have closure and peace,” Najib Razak said on his personal blog.
Najib promised to make any new information public quickly.
A source with knowledge of the details confirmed Wednesday to The Seattle Times that Boeing experts who examined photos of the aircraft part identified it as being from a 777, and the only 777 missing is Flight MH370, which mysteriously vanished in March 2014 with 239 people aboard.
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Both The Seattle Times and AP sources said the part that has washed up on Réunion Island almost 16 months later is known as a “flaperon,” a control surface on the trailing edge of the wing that’s used to generate lift at slow speed, like a flap, and to rotate the aircraft when banking into a turn, like an aileron.
“It’s the first real evidence that there is a possibility that a part of the aircraft may have been found,” said Australian Transport Minister Warren Truss, whose country is leading the search for the plane in a remote patch of ocean far off Australia’s west coast. “It’s too early to make that judgment, but clearly we are treating this as a major lead.”
Flight 370 had been traveling from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, but investigators believe based on satellite data that the plane turned south into the Indian Ocean after vanishing from radar. It is presumed to have crashed there in very deep water, killing everyone aboard. If the wing part is from the Malaysian plane, it would bolster that theory and put to rest others that it traveled north, or landed somewhere after being hijacked.
The wing piece is about 2 meters (6 feet) long. Investigators have found a number on the part, but it is not a serial or registration number, Truss said. It could be a maintenance number, which may help investigators figure out what plane it belongs to, he said.
A French official close to an investigation of the debris confirmed Wednesday that French law enforcement is on Reunion to examine it. U.S. investigators are examining a photo of the debris.
Flaperons are located on the rear edge of both wings, about midway between the fuselage and the tips. When the plane is banking, the flaperon on one wing tilts up and the other tilts down, which makes the plane roll to the left or right as it turns.
Flight MH370 vanished March 8, 2014, while traveling from Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia to Beijing. The jet stopped communicating with ground controllers less than an hour after takeoff from Kuala Lumpur. It veered off its planned route, flying westward across the Malay Peninsula and then southward over the Indian Ocean.
“In accordance with international protocol governing aviation accident investigations, inquiries relating to an active investigation must be directed to the investigator in charge,” Boeing said in a statement.
“We continue to share our technical expertise and analysis,” Boeing added. “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.”
A number — BB670 – was reportedly spotted on the debris, which experts say could help investigators match it with a plane.
Five Boeing 777s have met with disaster, according to the Aviation Safety Network, an online database of flight incidents. Wreckage was recovered from four, with only MH370 missing and unaccounted for.
Stephen Wright, an aircraft expert at University of Leeds in northern England, said investigators may be able to tell whether the flaperon had been engaged when it detached from the plane. “You can tell at what point it was being operated when it was detached,” he said.
Such structural parts, called “rotables,” will have a part number and a serial number. Both those numbers should be on the parts, not just in one location, and it should be relatively straightforward to determine if this was part of Flight 370, he said.
Clicanoo.re, an online newspaper in Reunion, quoted an official “close to the inquiry” as saying that the piece of aircraft found on the beach was “full of shells, as if it had been in the water a long time.”
“It’s too soon to draw conclusions,” said the official. “For now, we have to establish what type of aircraft this debris could have come from. When we’ve done that, it will be possible to establish the airline.”
Clicanoo.re also reported on Thursday afternoon the damaged suitcase recovered in Saint-Andre, not far from where the plane debris was found. Pictures posted online showed a local man holding the badly mangled bag.
Johnny Begue, head of the Reunion association that cleans the beaches on the part of the island where the wing was found, said he thought the suitcase debris had washed up at the same time, but had been overlooked.
“Nobody took any notice of it. You could still see the suitcase lock still attached to a piece of rigid material. That seemed bizarre. It gave me the shivers,” Begue told local journalists.
The suitcase has not been linked to the plane, and its discovery may have been a coincidence. Forestier, the local journalist, said it was found by the same gardener who found the plane debris, and that it was examined by the same police officers.
It was well understood after the aircraft disappeared that if there was any floating debris from the plane, Indian Ocean currents would eventually bring it to the east coast of Africa, said aviation safety expert John Goglia, a former member of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board. But the debris is unlikely to provide much help in tracing the ocean currents back to the location of the main wreckage, he said.
“It’s going to be hard to say with any certainty where the source of this was,” he said. “It just confirms that the airplane is in the water and hasn’t been hijacked to some remote place and is waiting to be used for some other purpose. … We haven’t lost any 777s anywhere else.”
Reunion authorities have asked France’s aviation investigative agency, known as the BEA, to coordinate with international investigators, notably Malaysian and Australian authorities.
The discovery is unlikely to alter the seabed search, said Australian Transport Safety Bureau Chief Commissioner Martin Dolan, who is heading up the hunt. If the find proved to be part of the missing aircraft, it would be consistent with the theory that the plane crashed within the 120,000-square-kilometer (46,000-square-mile) search area, 1,800 kilometers (1,100 miles) southwest of Australia, he said.
“It doesn’t rule out our current search area if this were associated with MH370,” Dolan told The Associated Press. “It is entirely possible that something could have drifted from our current search area to that island.”
The last primary radar contact with Flight 370 placed its position over the Andaman Sea about 370 kilometers (230 miles) northwest of the Malaysian city of Penang. Reunion is about 5,600 kilometers (3,500 miles) southwest of Penang, and about 4,200 kilometers (2,600 miles) west of the current search area.
The plane likely went down so far away from Reunion that even if the wing part is confirmed to be from Flight 370, it won’t necessarily help refine the search.
“You cannot reverse path and know with any degree of reliability where the plane is,” Truss said. It crashed “too far away, and too long ago.” Still, he said that he hoped the finding would put to rest some of the “wild” speculation on the fate of the plane.
Robin Beaman, a marine geologist at Australia’s James Cook University, said there is precedence for large objects traveling vast distances across the Indian Ocean. Last year, a man lost his boat off the Western Australia coast after it overturned in rough seas. Eight months later, the boat turned up off the French island of Mayotte, west of Madagascar — 7,400 kilometers (4,600 miles) from where it disappeared.
Beaman believes experts could analyze ocean currents to try to determine where the plane entered the water, though given the time that has elapsed and the vast distance the debris may have traveled, it would be very difficult.
If the part belongs to Flight 370, it could provide valuable clues to investigators trying to figure out what caused the aircraft to vanish in the first place, said Jason Middleton, an aviation professor at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. The nature of the damage to the debris could help indicate whether the plane broke up in the air or when it hit the water, and how violently it did so, he said.
The barnacles attached to the part could also help marine biologists determine roughly how long it has been in the water, he said.
Over the past 16 months, hopes have repeatedly been raised and then dashed that the plane, or parts of the plane, had been found: Objects spotted on satellite imagery, items found floating in the sea and washed ashore in Western Australia, oil slicks — in the end, none of them were from Flight 370.
The most infamous false lead came in April 2014, when Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said officials were “very confident” that a series of underwater signals search crews had picked up were coming from Flight 370’s black boxes. The signals proved to be a dead end, with no trace of the devices or the wreckage found.
Robert Mann, an aviation expert in Port Washington, N.Y., said, “The key would be, what is the serial number etched to the part?”
That number would determine which plane it came from, Mann said.
If the debris is officially determined to be from the Malaysia flight, it will be the first major break in the effort to discover what happened to the plane.
A massive multinational search effort of the South Indian Ocean, the China Sea and the Gulf of Thailand has failed to find any trace of the aircraft.
Malaysia still has the lead on the overall investigation into the jet’s disappearance. However, Malaysia delegated the search of the southern Indian Ocean to Australia, the nearest country to the wide expanse of ocean being searched.
Erik van Sebille, an oceanographer specializing in ocean currents who did extensive computer simulations last year of where Flight MH370 wreckage might travel, said it was possible some pieces might now be reaching Réunion, more than 3,000 miles from the plane’s last known location.
Van Sebille noted that even if the object found on the shore came from Flight MH370, that did not mean that any other parts of the plane would be found nearby. “The way the ocean works is like a huge pinball machine,” and the plane’s wreckage “could be spread across an enormous area,” he said.
Issaquah-based aviation analyst Scott Hamilton of Leeham.net cautioned that even if the part that turned up is definitively identified as being from Flight MH370, investigators likely will have to find many more pieces before they can establish what happened to the jet.
“No quick resolution is going to be forthcoming if this part is from the missing airliner,” Hamilton said. “This mystery is far from over.”