Aircraft debris found on Reunion island in the Indian Ocean is being transported to the French city of Toulouse for analysis to find out whether it is from the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.
Initial investigations suggest that the two-metre-long piece of wreckage, which was found on Saint-André beach on Reunion’s east coast on Wednesday, is from a Boeing 777 and is a flaperon – a wing section that can be lowered or raised to manage an aircraft’s lift and roll.
The wreckage bears the part number 657BB, which is a Boeing 777 code.
The Malaysia Airlines flight that went missing on March 8, 2014, was a Boeing 777. It disappeared from radar contact while en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 227 passengers and 12 crew on board.
The debris, which was found by a local council worker, Johnny Begue, is being flown to Paris, then will be taken to the Direction générale de l’armement (General Directorate for Armament)¹ near Toulouse. Experts there will try to establish whether it is the first debris to be found in an, until now, fruitless search for MH370 that has been going on for nearly 17 months.
The chief commissioner of Australia’s transport safety bureau, Martin Dolan, told the BBC: “We are becoming increasingly confident that it’s associated with a 777 aircraft and it’s therefore very likely that it is associated with MH370.”
The remains of a suitcase along with an Indonesian detergent container and what appears to be a Chinese water bottle have also been found on the beach close to where the aircraft debris was discovered. The suitcase is also being sent to the French mainland for testing.
Johnny Begue with the suitcase found on Saint-André beach.
Local volunteers have been scouring Saint-André beach to see if any other debris has been washed up.
Malaysia’s prime minister Najib Razak said on Facebook on Thursday that a Malaysian team was on its way to Toulouse. The team includes senior representatives from the transport ministry, the Department of Civil Aviation, the MH370 investigation team, and Malaysia Airlines. He said a second Malaysian team was travelling to Reunion, which is a French overseas department.
Najib said after the disappearance of MH370 that there was a “high degree of certainty” that someone on board the aircraft deliberately disabled its Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS), which transmits information about an plane’s engine health, and had also switched off the transponder, which transmits such details as altitude, speed, and location.
The prime minister said MH370’s movements were “consistent with deliberate action by someone on the plane”. The plane did turn around after take-off, and flew on well after its apparent disappearance, he said.
In January, the director-general of Malaysia’s Department of Civil Aviation, Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, officially declared the disappearance of Flight MH370 to be an accident and said that all 239 passengers and crew on board were presumed to have died.
He said the underwater search in the southern Indian Ocean was continuing, but after 327 days, and based on available data, survivability in the defined area was “highly unlikely”.
Experts point out that, even if the wing debris discovered on Wednesday is found to be from MH370, it would be extremely difficult for investigators to work out where the main wreckage of the aircraft is located. Indian Ocean currents can carry debris for thousands of kilometres and drift modelling is known to be imprecise.
Martin Dolan said the discovery of debris would not help pinpoint where the plane went down. He told the Agence France Presse (AFP) news agency: “Over the last 16 or 17 months, any floating debris would have dispersed quite markedly across the Indian Ocean.”
Australia’s federal transport minister, Warren Truss, said that reverse modelling of ocean currents to determine where Flight MH370 went down was “almost impossible”.
He added, however, that the discovery of wreckage in Reunion was consistent with modelling that had already been done.
Reunion island is east of Madagascar and about 4,000 kilometres (2,500 miles) from the main MH370 search site in the southern Indian Ocean.
The underwater search for MH370 has been focused on a remote and treacherous expanse of ocean known as the “Roaring Forties”. The Australian-led operation is the biggest air and sea search ever carried out, but no debris has been found in the search area, and search teams have failed to locate the missing aircraft’s black boxes.
The search has involved 65 aircraft and 95 vessels. More than 50,000 square kilometres (19,000 square miles) of the mapped ocean floor have been examined in detail.
Jointly funded by Australia and Malaysia, the search operation has a budget of 120 million AUD (about 93 million US$). Australia committed 93 million AUD (about 73 million US$), of which about 60 million AUD (about 47 million US$) has been allocated to the underwater search.
The search zone was determined after analysis by experts at the British company Inmarsat of satellite pings – or handshakes – from MH370. Doubt has been cast on the calculations and even Inmarsat said it could not be 100 percent sure that its analysis is correct.
The Australian investigators remain convinced, however, that they are looking for MH370 in the right place.
Malaysia’s deputy transport minister, Abdul Aziz Kaprawi, told AFP: “I believe that we are moving closer to solving the mystery of MH370. This could be the convincing evidence that MH370 went down in the Indian Ocean.”
A 584-page interim report on the investigation into the disappearance of MH370, which was released in March this year, contains extremely detailed technical information, but gives no clue as to what might have happened to the plane.
The report on the findings of the international safety investigation team was released in March to comply with International Civil Aviation Organisation requirements.
It revealed that the battery on the beacon of the flight data recorder expired more than a year before the plane vanished.
Doubts and speculation
There are many people, including Malaysia’s former prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, who say that the fate of MH370 is being concealed.
Sarah Bajc, the girlfriend of passenger Philip Wood (pictured left with Bajc), has claimed from the beginning that there has been a conspiracy. She told the Malay Mail Online that the official story – that MH370 flew on for about six hours after it disappeared and went down about 2,000 kilometres off the western coast of Australia – had so many holes in it that it was impossible to believe.
“I hear all the theories,’ she was quoted as saying. “Some of them are absolutely crazy, but most of them are more believable to me than the official story.”
A tearful Bajc told CNN last night: “If ultimately this is a piece of the wing then that little thread of hope that I have been holding on to will have to break and reality will have to take over, but, up until now, I and most of the family members have continued to believe that, until we have a body, we can’t give up hoping that they’ll still come back.”
There has been speculation that MH370 was shot down by the United States military when it was en route to Diego Garcia, an atoll in the Indian Ocean that is owned by the British and is home to a major US military base.
This is a theory that has been put forward by the former director of the French airline Proteus, Marc Dugain. He has suggested that US military personnel may have shot down MH370 over the Indian Ocean to prevent it being used to attack the Diego Garcia base.
Dugain also speculated that the plane may have been forced to divert from its flight path because of remote hacking or an on-board fire.
He pointed to the testimony of residents of the Maldives who said they saw an airliner travelling towards Diego Garcia on March 8, but whose claims were dismissed.
According to France Inter radio, Dugain said he had been warned off delving too deeply into the fate of flight MH370 by a British intelligence officer who reportedly told him that he was taking risks.
1) The Direction générale de l’armement is the French government’s defence procurement agency.