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French to test plane debris in bid to solve Flight 370 mystery

Published 30/07/2015

The crew of survey ship HMS Echo in the southern Indian Ocean help in the underwater search for the flight recorder from the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 (MoD/PA)
The crew of survey ship HMS Echo in the southern Indian Ocean help in the underwater search for the flight recorder from the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 (MoD/PA)

A wing part that washed up on a remote Indian Ocean island could help solve one of aviation's greatest mysteries, as investigators work to connect it to the Malaysia Airlines flight that vanished more than a year ago.

The surprise discovery of the debris on a rocky beach stirred hopes among families of the missing after a year and a half of grieving and frustration at a lack of answers, despite a wide, deep and expensive multinational search effort in the southern Indian Ocean, the China Sea and the Gulf of Thailand.

Even if it is confirmed to be a long-awaited first clue to the disappearance of Flight 370, there is no guarantee that investigators can still find the plane's recorders or other remains a year and a half later.

The coming hours and days will be crucial. French authorities moved the plane piece from the beach to the local airport on Reunion, and will send it next to the city of Toulouse, where it may arrive on Saturday morning, according to the Paris prosecutor's office.

Toulouse is the hub of Europe's aerospace industry, with the headquarters of Airbus and a network of hangars and plane facilities. The plane part will be analysed in special defence facilities used for airplane testing and analysis, according to the Defence Ministry.

Air safety investigators, including one from Boeing, have identified the component found on the French island of Reunion 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. The unsuccessful search for the plane has raised concerns worldwide about whether airliners should be required to transmit their locations continually via satellite, especially when flying long distances over the ocean.

"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," Mr Truss said.

If it turns out to be part of the Malaysian plane, that could bolster the theory that the plane deviated from its path between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing and turned south into the Indian Ocean. And it would put to rest speculation that it could have travelled north or landed somewhere after being hijacked.

The discovery has changed the life of Reunion environmental worker Johnny Begue. He said that he stumbled across the plane part on Wednesday morning, while collecting stones to grind spices.

"I knew immediately it was part of an aircraft, but I didn't realise how important it was, that it could help to solve the mystery of what happened to the Malaysian jet," Mr Begue, 46, told The Associated Press.

He said he called several of his workmates and they carried the wing fragment out of the water so that it would not be battered by the surf against the volcanic rocks that make up most of the beach.

Mr Begue also discovered a piece of a suitcase about 2.5 metres away, he said, though it is unclear whether there is any link to the plane wing.

The wing piece is about two metres long. Investigators have found a number on the part, but it is not a serial or registration number, Mr Truss said. It could be a maintenance number, which may help investigators figure out what plane it belongs to, he said.

Malaysian authorities also headed to Reunion and Toulouse.

"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," Prime Minister Najib Razak said.

French law enforcement authorities are on Reunion island to examine the piece, according to an official close to the investigation of the debris. A French law enforcement helicopter is scouring the waters around the island in hopes of spotting more debris, and US investigators are examining a photo of the debris.

The wing part was found on a desolate, rocky beach in the small town of Saint-Andre and was transferred to the civil aviation authority's offices in the island's main airport, a local police official said.

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.

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