The discovery of an aeroplane part on the island of La Reunion in the Indian Ocean is being investigated to see if it came from missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370. The plane disappeared between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing in March 2014 with 239 people on board- no trace has ever been found. What are the chances this find will solve one of the biggest aviation mysteries ever? The 2-meter long piece was found by volunteers cleaning a beach in St Andre, on the north-east of the island, on Wednesday. Initial pictures suggest it is a flaperon- a part of the wing that helps create lift for an aircraft. Several aviation experts have said it could have come from a large aircraft such as a Boeing 777- the same model as the MH370 plane. But all urge caution and Malaysian officials say they want “tangible and irrefutable evidence” before they tell the families of the victims. The fact that the part is quite large could bolster the theory that it had not been in the ocean for long. Ellis Taylor, an editor with aviation analysis and news company FlightGlobal, said it was hard to determine the age as it appears to be made of composite material such as carbon fibre and resin, which can be very hardy and resistant to erosion. Robin Beaman, a Marine geologist with Australia’s James Cork University, said the pictures showed substantial marine growth- gooseneck or stalked barnacles- on the debris. These are commonly found on floatsam in the Indian Ocean, and only on objects floating on the surface. Mr Beaman said it was quite obvious from the barnacle growth that the part had been drifting for “quite a long time.” But he said it was hard to say how long exactly- it could be years or months- and that it was also unclear how long the part had been onshore before it was found.
The Australian-led search has focused on 60,000 sq-km area south-west of Perth- Reunion is roughly 6,000 km west of there. Though it is a huge distance, it is highly possible that a piece of debris could have travelled that distance in a year, say experts. “The plane part’s position is consistent with where we think debris might have turned up,” says oceanographer David Griffin of Australia’s national science agency CSIRO. “Madagascar was probably the highest probability, and Reunion is not far from that in the scheme of things.” He has computer simulations of the debris part showing the pieces would have initially stayed at the latitude of the search site, before winds and currents- known as the Indian Ocean gyre- pushed them in a north-western arc. Mr Beaman noted that a boat lost off the Western Australian coast last year was found nearly intact eight months later, west of Madagascar. Several aeroplanes have crashed in the Indian Ocean or in the vicinity of Reunion in the past two decades. Two involved large aircraft which ended up in waters near the Comoros islands. One is Yemenia Airways IY626 which crashed in 2009, killing everyone on board except for a teenage girl. The aeroplane was an Airbus 310. The other is Ethiopian Airlines ET-961- the Boeing 767 was hijacked in 1996 and crashed after the engines switched off due to low fuel. Ellis Taylor from FlightGlobal said the identification process would likely take “a couple of days.” Aeroplane parts; including flaperon, usually come with details such as a serial number, it’s manufacturer, and safety certification. Investigators will need to check for the parts identification details and trace it to the manufacturer, which in turn would have to check it’s database to see which plane the part was used in.
BBC’s transport correspondent Richard Westcott says if it is part of the plane, although it would confirm the aircraft crashed and broke up, a piece of wing is unlikely to reveal much more about what actually happened on board. Greg Waldron, of FlightGlobal, said what’s really needed are the plane’s flight recorders- one piece alone won’t solve the mystery. David Griffin from CSIRO said it would not affect the existing search. “You can’t trace the flight path with enough certainty based on this,” he said. “All we can is that the plane part’s location is consistent with our flight calculations, and it won’t affect the sea floor search for MH370.” Marine salvage expert David Mearns agreed with this assessment. He said that even if the debris was from MH370, the “uncertainty is too great” to find the crash site given that the plane disappeared 16 months ago. “I have backtracked wreckage to locate shipwrecks but only over a drift period of one to three days,” he said.