Investigators in France are preparing to examine a barnacle-encrusted piece of a Boeing 777 found this week on a remote Indian Ocean island, hoping to resolve at least some of the mystery surrounding the long-vanished Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.
Aviation experts professed near certainty that the slab of airplane wing came from Flight 370, which disappeared 16 months ago, and are hoping that lab tests will provide clues to what happened to the plane and the 239 people on board.
The 6-foot-long piece of "flaperon" from a wing assembly was found on Reunion Island, a French territory, early Wednesday. It was being flown to an aerospace laboratory in Toulouse, France, for examination and analysis.
Flight 370 crashed after disappearing from radar screens on a March 8, 2014, flight from the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. If the part is determined to be from the Malaysian jet — a process that could take several more days because of the time-consuming logistics — it would be the first definitive evidence that Flight 370 crashed into the ocean, as investigators have surmised from the outset.
Australian officials in charge of the search for answers on the jet's disappearance were quick to point out Thursday that the debris washing up on the eastern coast of Reunion would be consistent with investigators' theory that the plane flew for several hours after losing contact with air-traffic control and may have crashed only after running out of fuel.
"It's too early to make that judgment, but clearly we are treating this as a major lead," said Warren Truss, Australia's deputy prime minister and investigation leader, at a news conference in Sydney. He called the debris find a "significant development."
The disappearance of MH370 about an hour into a six-hour flight to Beijing sparked the most extensive search operation in aviation history, involving at least a dozen countries at the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars. No confirmed traces of the plane have been found.
"Initial reports suggest that the debris is very likely to be from a Boeing 777, but we need to verify whether it is from Flight MH370," Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak told reporters Thursday. "At this stage it is too early to speculate."
News agencies in Australia, however, quoted leaked reports from investigators, including one from the Boeing Co. manufacturers, that photos of the flaperon showed it was marked with a visible identification number, all but confirming that the piece was part of a 777 wing.
Five Boeing 777s have met with disaster since the world's largest twin jet went into service 20 years ago, and only the Malaysia Flight 370 plane is unaccounted for. Wreckage from the other four doomed planes was recovered after they crashed in London in 2008, Cairo in 2011, San Francisco in 2013 and in the remote eastern Ukrainian village of Hrabove a year ago after it was shot down — probably inadvertently — over the war-torn region.
Malaysia Airlines dispatched investigative teams to Reunion and Toulouse, the hub of Europe's aviation industry and home to the Airbus manufacturer, to take part in the investigation of the wing piece.
If the part proves to have come from the only missing 777, it would be consistent with investigators' working theory that the plane crashed in a 46,000-square-mile area southwest of Australia, Australian Transport Safety Bureau Chief Commissioner Martin Dolan said.
The search area is more than 2,500 miles east of the Reunion beach where the flaperon was found, but "it is entirely possible that something could have drifted from our current search area to that island," Dolan said.
Charitha Pattiaratchi, an oceanography professor at the University of Western Australia, said in an interview that the wing piece washing up on Reunion was consistent with scientific modeling done last year, which predicted that if the plane did go down in the Indian Ocean west of Australia, debris would wash up 18 to 24 months later in the vicinity of the eastern African coast.
"We could expect more pieces to wash up around there in the next couple weeks" if the wing part is indeed from Flight 370, he said. "What this tells us is … that what we predicted is probably correct."
The wing piece was crated Friday for an overnight flight out of Reunion to Toulouse, where it might reach the forensic laboratory of France's BEA aviation investigative agency by early Saturday, a spokeswoman for the Paris prosecutor's office said. French officials are handling the inquiry because the wing component was discovered on French territory and French citizens are among the passengers missing and presumed dead.
Photographs taken of the debris before its transfer led aviation experts to conclude that a visible number, believed to be a maintenance record, pointed to it coming from a 777.
Commercial pilots and aviation security experts said examination of the flaperon was unlikely to better pinpoint where the aircraft went down but that more information might be gleaned about the disaster, such as whether the plane broke up in the air or crashed into the ocean.
Stephen Wright, an aircraft expert at the University of Leeds in northern England, said examination of the part might tell investigators whether the flaperon, which a pilot uses to bank in turning and descending, was engaged when it detached from the plane.
Such structural parts, called "rotables," are marked with serial numbers in multiple locations, Wright said, making it relatively simple to determine whether the wing component was part of the Malaysia jet.
Testing of the barnacles and other debris and sea life attached to the wing piece could also give investigators an idea of how long it was in the water before it washed up on shore.
Remnants of a soft-sided zippered suitcase were also found on the beach near the wing piece, but authorities were unsure whether that was related to the aircraft debris.
Makinen reported from Beijing and Williams from Los Angeles. Times staff writers Henry Chu in London and Jonathan Kaiman in Beijing, and special correspondent Kim Willsher in Paris, contributed to this report.
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