Malaysia’s prime minister said the debris found on the French island of Reunion will be sent for investigation to the French city of Toulouse, the centre for European aviation.
“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.
Air safety investigators — one of them a Boeing investigator — have identified the component as a “flaperon” from the trailing edge of a Boeing 777 wing, a US official said. Flight 370, which disappeared on March 8, 2014, with 239 people on board, is the only 777 known to be missing.
“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 judgement, but clearly we are treating this as a major lead.”
Flight 370 had been travelling 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. If the wing part is from the Malaysian plane, it would bolster that theory and put to rest others that it travelled north, or landed somewhere after being hijacked.
The wing piece is about 2m 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.
A French official close to an investigation of the debris confirmed French law enforcement is on Reunion to examine it. A French television network was airing video from its Reunion affiliate of the debris. US 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.
The piece could help investigators figure out how the plane crashed, but whether it will help search crews pinpoint the rest of the wreckage is unclear, given the complexity of the currents in the southern Indian Ocean and the time that has elapsed since the plane disappeared.
A massive multinational search effort in the southern Indian Ocean, the China Sea and the Gulf of Thailand has turned up no trace of the plane.
The last primary radar contact with Flight 370 placed its position over the Andaman Sea about 370km northwest of the Malaysian city of Penang. Reunion is about 5,600km southwest of Penang, and about 4,200km west of the current search area.
It was 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 US 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.”
In a statement, the prefecture of Reunion emphasised that the source of the debris has not been identified, nor has it been definitely found to be from a Boeing 777. Reunion authorities have asked France’s aviation investigative agency, known as the BEA, to coordinate with international investigators, notably the 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-sq km search area, 1,800km 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.”Dolan said search resources would be better spent continuing the seabed search with sonar and video for wreckage rather than reviving a surface search for debris if the part proved to be from Flight 370.Robin Beaman, a marine geologist at Australia’s James Cook University, said there is precedence for large objects travelling 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 kilometres from where it disappeared.“I don’t think we should rule anything out, that’s for sure,” Beaman said.Beaman believes experts could analyse 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 travelled, it would be very difficult.